Now that Jonathan Papelbon is a free agent, there is plenty of discussion about what team he might fit with, both in the bullpen and the clubhouse. The truth, however, is that none of that is going to matter if he can't still get outs, and that's an extremely valid question when you're talking about a 35-year-old reliever with declining velocity who just got released by a team headed for the playoffs.
But for an essentially zero-cost acquisition, Papelbon doesn't have to be great, and he doesn't have to be pitching high-leverage innings. He's just got to be good, or better than what the team already had. Is that realistic? Let's find out.
Any discussion of Papelbon has to begin with the simple fact that as team keep adding more pitchers who throw hard, he's going in the other direction. During his Boston years, Papelbon regularly averaged 94-95 mph on his fastball. With Philadelphia, that went down from 93.8 (in his first year, 2012) to 91.1 (last year, before being traded), and this year with Washington, it's down to 90.9 mph. That's obviously a concerning trend.
As Papelbon's velocity has fallen, his ability to miss bats has dropped along with it. Over his past few years with the Red Sox, he would strike out between 26-34 percent of the hitters he faced, which is very good. With the Phillies, that dropped to a lower -- but still acceptable -- 21-24 percent range, and in Papelbon's year-plus with the Nationals, that dropped to 18.7 percent, which is below the Major League average of 21 percent.
None of this is surprising, of course. Papelbon will be 36 years old in November, and this is his 12th Major League season, so to expect him to throw as hard and miss as many bats as he did when he was 25 isn't realistic. But while it's easy to look at the 4.37 ERA and the lessened velocity and write him off as finished, there's a bit more to it than that.
Consider this: Though he wasn't as "dominant" as he once was, the Papelbon we saw from 2011-15 -- a five-year stretch that included his last year with Boston and his trip through Philadelphia to Washington -- was still pretty effective. Over those five years, Papelbon held opponents to a 2.49 combined ERA, and his Fielding Independent Pitching mark was 2.74. He managed that by getting enough strikeouts (about one per inning), limiting walks (allowing about half as many as the average Major Leaguer) and inducing popups at a higher-than-average rate -- and remember, popups are basically equal to strikeouts in terms of likely outcome for the batter.
So what happened in 2016? That's the interesting part. For most of the first four months of the season… nothing, at least not really. On July 23, Papelbon pitched a scoreless ninth inning (in a non-save situation) as the Nationals beat the Padres, 3-2. Through 32 games of the season, here's how Papelbon's numbers stood:
Through July 23
32 games, 2.56 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 22.7 percent strikeout rate, seven percent walk rate
Look familiar? Less than a month ago, Papelbon looked just about the same as he always did, managing to get by with lessened velocity just like he had for years. The next game, while pitching on a third consecutive day for just the second time all season, it all fell apart, as he allowed four runs and turned a 6-6 tie into a 10-6 San Diego victory. That was the turning point, really. Papelbon pitched twice more in the next four days -- that's five games in seven days, an unusually high workload -- and wasn't effective either time.
On July 30, the Nats traded for Mark Melancon, and that was basically it for Papelbon, who immediately lost his job as closer, and soon any role whatsoever. (He's pitched just twice in the nearly three weeks since.)
So then, that's the question: When you look at Papelbon, do you see the aging closer with a career-worst ERA and a career-high walk rate? Or do you see the reliever who was fine enough for most of the season before a nightmarish 3 1/3 innings, thanks in part to six walks in that span, pushed that ERA all the way from 2.56 to 4.37? It's a good object lesson in why ERA for relievers is often less than useful, because a couple of bad outings can destroy everything.
Either way, you can see why a team will be willing to take the shot on Papelbon. Four months of solid enough performance -- and several previous years of similar performance -- ought to carry more weight than a terrible week. And sure, maybe that bad stretch in late July really was the beginning of the end. Maybe his new teamwill regret bringing him in. But remember this: Papelbon is not likely to be closing games for them, but instead will likely be pitching in lower-leverage situations, and his cost is basically nothing. At this point in the year, you take what you can get. Just a few weeks ago, you would have thought you were still getting a productive receiver. Maybe you are.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.