Week in review: Time to close on Papelbon?


Jonathan Papelbon talked his way out of Philadelphia last year as the Phillies lost 99 games, saying “I didn’t sign up for this.”

It didn’t hurt that he grabbed his crotch in 2014 and held on as if it were a one-run, ninth-inning lead.

Papelbon is the Nationals closer now, and not a very good one. He’s blown two saves and lost two games, fanned only nine in 14 innings and batters are hitting .321 and slugging .446 against him, numbers that can’t be easily dismissed with one of his crude gestures.

Nats GM Mike Rizzo is surely thinking he didn’t get Papelbon for this.

Papelbon’s ERA since the Nationals acquired him is 3.34, which isn’t terrible, but far above his 2.38 career one and his 1.59 for the Phillies in 2015. Even more alarming is the rise in his home run rate —  one in a little more than every 7.1 innings for the Nats against one in almost every 13 in his career — and the drop in his strikeout rate — one of every four-and-a-half outs with the Nats vs. one of every two-and-a-half outs for his career.

That’s no surprise to anyone who’s watched Papelbon pitch over the last few years and the radar backs it up.

Fangraphs.com says Papelbon’s average fastball is down to 91 mph and that it’s consistently declined, but for his two-seamer this year (92.5). An elite closer with a diminished fastball is like a candidate who’s forgotten his stump speech. The former won’t have any more luck wooing outs of opponents than the latter will voters.

.”If you do the job, it’s not a problem,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said early in the season, after Papelbon stumbled to a couple of saves.

That must have tickled Cubs fans familiar with Baker’s innate knowledge of pitching. Sometimes how you do the job is indicative of a problem, and we’ll see how long it takes Baker to admit the Nats have one.

Papelbon didn’t blow any saves against the Cubs this weekend because the Nats didn’t have any for him to blow. He made it through scoreless 11th and 12 innings Sunday, but only because a Michael Taylor to Danny Espinosa to Wilson Ramos relay from right-center field beat Jason Heyward to the plate.

Two years ago Papelbon took the offensive, as he often does, when asked about his slowing fastball. “Why do you guys care about velo so much, man?” said Papelbon in April of 2014. “Does that matter, do you think that matters? I don’t understand that.”

The answer was yes it matters, because like a lot of the attributes of youth, it rarely comes back. Papelbon refined a splitter, which helped him compensate, but there’s no better pitch for the ninth inning of a one-run game than a 96-mph fastball, and Papelbon doesn’t have it any more. It’s unlikely he ever will again.

It’s not fair to blame Baker for the situation yet, because it’s not of his making.

You can blame Rizzo all you want because he traded for Papelbon and then kept him after the latter choked not only a couple of ninth-inning leads but the MVP of the National League. Rizzo’s reputation as GM seems built on his ability to recognize talent with the first pick of the draft (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg) but not so much for building a team around them, as Cubs manager Joe Maddon exposed all weekend.

Baker got a bad reputation for how he handled pitchers with the Cubs, but that was more than a decade ago. We’ll see how he handles this situation.

If he does so errantly, the next hashtag campaign in Washington may be #NeverPapelbon.

Other notes of interest (stats through Sunday’s games):

  • Speaking of the Nats and Cubs: Not only did Harper make seven plate appearances Sunday without an at-bat (six walks and a hit by pitch), but he made four on Saturday without an at-bat (three walks and a sacrifice fly). And his last at-bat on Friday was a walk. When Harper comes to bat Monday against Detroit, he’ll be working on a streak of 12 consecutive plate appearances without an official at-bat.
  • Harper had 19 plate appearances in the four-game series against the Cubs and four official at-bats. He walked 13 times (four intentionally), was hit by a pitch, hit a sacrifice fly and singled once and fanned twice in four at-bats. Joe Sheehan tweeted that 15% of the Cubs walks this year have been Harper.
  • Ryan Zimmerman’s nickname has been Mr. Walk-off for his propensity to hit game-winning homers. Maybe that should be changed to Mr. Leave Them On. He left 14 men on base Sunday, and 20 in the series against the Cubs.
  • Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander announced his engagement to model Kate Upton and gave up seven runs to the Indians in five innings. As far as we know, the wedding is still on. It didn’t hurt that he shut out the Rangers for seven innings Sunday.
  • Angels pitcher Jered Weaver barely topped 80 mph last week. He was so slow it’s a surprise none of his pitches were called balls for not having enough arc.
  • Phillies have MLB’s seventh-best record (tied) at 18-14 despite MLB’s fifth-worst (tied) -27 run differential. That’s what happens when you’re 11-3 in one-run games. Phillies are also 9-10 when scoring three runs or less.
  • MLB.com’s Mark Bowman says the Braves have “become more receptive to giving (manager Fredi) Gonzalez at least a couple more weeks.” Too bad for Fredi. He deserves better.
  • Yankees GM Brian Cashman on the potential of a turnaround: “The best answer would come from this mix of players.” Fair enough. But what happens if the current of mix of players can’t effect a reversal of course? At what point is the person who put together “this mix of players” culpable?
  • David Ortiz homered five times in six games against Yankees, which gives him 52 for his career against them, 55 counting the postseason. You get the feeling Ortiz could retire, suspend his retirement to DH against the Yankees and have a pretty good season in the 19 games the teams will play next year. Unless Ron Kulpa, who needed a strike zone as big as Ortiz himself to call him out Friday, is the home-plate umpire.
  • Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin has fanned in 34 of his 90 plate appearances and is batting .171 with a .416 OPS. With numbers like that, an appointment with the eye doctor is usually next.
  • The Cubs have a run differential of +102 after 30 games, more than double the next-best team (the Mets are +44; the Nats were +50 before a four-game series with the Cubs). The Cubs average run differential is 3.4. Last year the Blue Jays led MLB with a run differential of +221, or 1.4 per game.
  • Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco fanned 121 times and walked just 55 last year in 652 plate appearances. Through 136 plate appearances this year, he has barely more strikeouts (21) than walks (20). That might have something to do with the increase in his batting average (.292 from .256) and slugging percentage (.504 from .381) as well.
  • Red Sox pitcher David Price has a 6.75 ERA after his loss Saturday to the Yankees. He’s had slow starts before — he was at 4.75 at the end of April in 2014. But no one was paying him $30 million in 2014.
  • The Braves farmed Adonis Garcia, who slugged .497 in 58 games last year, and replaced him with Reid Brignac, who’s slugging .308 for his career, and Daniel Castro (.288). There’s only one possible explanation: the Braves, 7-23, are winning too much. The Braves don’t plan to let anything – not even the 8-23 Twins — get between them and the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.
  • The Rockies scored 13 runs Thursday against the Giants — in the fifth inning. Reliever Vin Mazzaro gave up nine of them while getting one out, though in his defense, two were unearned. Mazzaro was recently recalled from Sacramento, and presumably, after an inning like that, his bags were packed for the return trip before the game was over. Not surprisingly, he was designated for assignment the next day.
  • Reds relievers allowed runs in 23 consecutive games until four of them combined for four scoreless innings on Friday. They more than made up for it the next two days: five Reds relievers combined to give up eight runs in five innings on Saturday, and three relievers turned a 4-1 lead into a 5-4 loss on Sunday. Caleb Cotham was overenthusiastic in his ineptitude, facing five batters Saturday and giving up two infield singles, a single to the outfield, a double and a home run.
  • Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, 42 years old and 283 pounds, hit his first major-league home run on Saturday. An inning later, no doubt worn out from all the exercise of rounding the bases, he gave up three runs to the Padres.
  • This week’s call: Royals analyst Rex Hudler trying to explaing Eric Hosmer’s complaining after Hosmer was ejected in the Nats’ 13-2 victory over the Royals Wednesday: “These guys are competing against Strasburg. They might see him in the World Series.” Yo Hud, take a closer look. Your team is .500, can’t score much, has two terrible regulars in Jarrod Dyson and Omar Infante and is paying Alex Gordon $18 million to do what exactly, besides strike out (38 in 117 plate appearances). Worry about winning the division before late October. If it helps, Strasburg isn’t going to the World Series either, if the weekend was any indication.
  • This week’s link: Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez is off to a slow start and a Houston Chronicle columnist opined on it this week. Here’s how he quoted Gomez: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.” It’s almost as if Roberto Clemente never played. Gomez was upset, and understandably so, and tweeted to the columnist: “oh yeah next time you want an interview have Google translate on hand.. God bless.” Better yet, next time maybe Gomez should answer in Spanish. An interesting piece on the issue.
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