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Papelbon can now be choosy with pitches

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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The fastballs kept coming, one after another. By the end of last season, as Jonathan Papelbon watched the season slip out of his hand, mid-90s heater by mid-90s heater, there was nothing the closer could do. He had little left besides his fastball, a fact that was painfully obvious to anyone watching him that day in the playoffs or in many others down the stretch.

He had abandoned the splitter. The slider was still making his manager and pitching coach cringe. He had no choice.

That’s no longer the case. Papelbon has become a pitcher with the ability to use all three pitches in key situations. He is no longer limited to a fastball, a pitch that batters could sit on and wallop. And, because of that, Papelbon has had success similar to that of the best points of his career.

“There’s been an increase of personal awareness, not just in terms of the stuff that he has on a given night, but a conscious effort to not be as predictable or exclusively using his fastball as he trended toward that way last year,’’ pitching coach John Farrell said.

That caused high pitch counts. It led to fewer appear ances, because Papelbon was expending too much of himself in each outing. Many times, it was as if Papelbon were content to allow a couple of men on base before he woke up and pitched to his capabilities. That led to an ERA (1.85) in line with his best years but a WHIP (1.147) that was his worst, by far, since his rookie season.

“Last year, guys didn’t score because it was a time where [there] was a second gear that he reached down to get some extra velocity,’’ Farrell said. “He’s learning as he goes.

“He’s been very successful, but yet he knows that there’s always room for improvement. That’s what we’re seeing in the use of his secondary stuff.

“He’s continuing to evolve. And ultimately we’re seeing a guy that the last four or five times out has been extremely efficient.’’

If Papelbon is able to throw his secondary pitches earlier, before he gets in trouble, that prevents him from having to reach back and find that “second-gear fastball,’’ as Farrell put it. That has left him throwing fewer pitches and putting less strain on himself, both mentally and physically.

Over his last three outings, Papelbon has needed just 36 pitches over three innings. Other than an appearance against Baltimore in which he threw 27 pitches, Papelbon has thrown no more than 13 pitches in any of his last six outings.

Part of that is due to his slider, a pitch that was in his repertoire as a starter in the minors and was mostly ignored in his early years as a closer. He didn’t need it. He had the dominating fastball and devastating splitter; the slider was unnecessary.

When the need came for the slider, it wasn’t good. It wasn’t reliable, and the Sox cautioned Papelbon to be measured in its use. In fact, Francona winced a little at the memory of the pitch.

“That’s continued to improve year over year,’’ Farrell said. “When he first worked on the pitch and brought it into games, we put some parameters around it.

“The one thing that you don’t ever want to do is to get beat with your third-best pitch. These adjustments don’t take place overnight, as we know, so through repetition, through confidence, through the execution of it and the development of it, he’s gotten very confident with all three of the pitches he’s currently throwing.’’

After last season’s foibles, Papelbon reevaluated the way he was attacking hitters and made changes, integrating his secondary pitches earlier and more often. While he threw the fastball 81.5 percent of the time in 2009, the highest percentage of his career, that’s down to 75.8 percent this season, according to fangraphs.com. That’s the lowest since 2006.

His splitter has made a significant jump, from 9.3 percent in 2009 to 15.2. The slider is being thrown 9 percent of the time, slightly less than last season (9.2), but with more intelligence behind it.

“He’s been so successful as primarily a fastball pitcher — and by no means is he not a fastball pitcher,’’ Farrell said. “He’s clearly a power pitcher with more attention and time devoted toward the development and the overall use of the slider.

“To me, the biggest change is that he’s throwing his split more for strikes earlier in the count, rather than it always being a put-away or wipeout type of pitch.’’

His secondary pitches improve the effectiveness of his fastball, and that has been evident in his 1.69 ERA (0.66 over his last 13 appearances). In those last 13, Papelbon has allowed just one earned run. But he’s been even better over his last six outings, in which he has not allowed an earned run, and has given up just two hits and one walk.

“All three of my pitches right now are where I need to log into my folder and save, and try to remember how I’m throwing them right now and when I’m throwing and be able to always go back to that and use that as my key point, if I ever get off track,’’ Papelbon said. “This is what I need to go back to. This is where I’m at right now.’’

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