FT. MYERS, Fla. — Jonathan Papelbon behaves like a born closer. He scowls at batters, says whatever is on his mind, baptizes teammates in beer, chugs champagne, and, most of all, throws lots and lots of heat. He has earned his take-on-all-comers persona.
So it is easy to forget that Papelbon, not long ago, really, was a starter. In 2004 and 2005, Papelbon made 66 appearances for Red Sox minor league teams. Sixty were starts.
And starters don’t ascend to the sport’s elite, as Papelbon has, by throwing fastballs and mixing in splitters. In the minors, Papelbon frequently threw a slider, a pitch he abandoned once he took the Red Sox closer’s role by the throat.
Why all of this is pertinent: Papelbon is reincorporating his slider — a pitch he last used with any real frequency three years ago — this spring, trying to make himself more unpredictable while making his fastball even more effective. He threw a pair of sliders today, inducing a whiff and a called strike.
“Today, I felt like I wanted to go out there and threw my slider more,” Papelbon said. “For me, that’s going to be huge down the road. I just have to keep adding on to that. It’s a pitch I’m going to start to throw more as spring goes and start to throw more this season, for sure.
“For me, I feel like it’s time to give those hitters something else to look at. For me, adding another pitch is only going to make me better. It felt really good today. I’m really pleased about it.”
Papelbon experimented with adding a sort of hybrid pitch last year, a mix between a cutter and slider. (Papelbon labeled the pitch something that cannot be printed here; use your imagination. “I’m always trying to come up with new and exciting pitches,” Papelbon said wryly.) Between that particular pitch and the one he is using now, Papelbon has seen improvement.
“Today, I’m able to get a lot more depth on it, instead of getting it rotational and side-to-side,” he said. “I’m able to have it, more or less, go hand-in-hand with my split. [The split is] down and sinks to the right, where this pitch is going to be down and sinks to the left. I’m going to be able to X-out both sides of the plate, which for me is going to be huge.”
Last season, some folks wondered if Papelbon’s reliance on his fastball had made him too predictable. This, Papelbon stressed, is not a response to that charge. He wants to use the slider merely to make his fastball better. He explained all of this in his own, defiant way. He is, after all, a closer.
“It has nothing to do with me relying on too much of a pitch,” Papelbon said. “To me personally, I feel like if I’m good with my fastball, I can go out on any given day and throw nothing but fastballs and be successful. All it is, it’s going to put that one extra thing into the hitter’s mind, that I’ve got this pitch and I can still throw it. It’s just going to make my other pitches better.
“That’s what I am. I’m a fastball pitcher. Everybody in the league knows that. To me, a fastball is four different pitches. If you can locate your fastball, you’re going to be successful. Come playoff time, I heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, he’s got to go away from the fastball.’ Well, I never went away from it. And I was able to keep throwing up zeros in the postseason.
“I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel here. I’ve got to go with what’s working. I’m just trying to add something extra. I’m not going to go out and reinvent myself at all.”