Jonathan Papelbon is experiencing a slow decline as a current closer in the MLB. It looks as though his pitching velocity is the problem. His ball speed is down in the low 90's to start the season which hasn't been a problem for him in the past. The reason is because he was able to get it back up again into the season but last season was the first season he ended in the low 90's. This is what has caused everyone to consider his career to be over.
The research I have done on his current situation is not good. The main concerns I have with Jonathan Papelbon is he is 33 which is an issue when it comes to pitching performance. His age is causing his pitching mechanics to change for the worse when he didn't have the best pitching mechanics to start with. On top of that he has a set of pitches that is only really effective for a hard thrower. His splitty is in the upper 80's and his slider is in the upper 70s' which has been his biggest lost in velocity (see chart). If the ball speed loss wasn't going to be a factor for him late in his career he would need to switch the speeds of his splitty and slider to be effective.
In this article, I will go over the age factor in pitching performance. I will also go over Jonathan Papelbon's change in pitching mechanics and other factors that are effecting his pitching velocity. Finally, I will talk about one key bonus that Papelbon has that is the reason he has had significant inclines in ball speed in past seasons which could give him what he needs to revive his career and become a legendary pitcher.
Jonathan Papelbon and the Pitching Age Factor
Unfortunately, age is a negative factor in professional baseball. It makes it hard for older pitchers to get into the professional ranks and it makes it hard for older pitchers to hang around the professional ranks. Probably because studies show a decline in statistics for MLB pitchers as they move into their 30's:
In major league baseball players, the athletic performance on key indicators (e.g., ERA, Strikeouts) rises relatively quickly from age 19 to a peak age of 27 and declines gradually thereafter (2).
Studies also show a decline in pitching mechanics as pitchers move into their late 20's and early 30's but no significant difference in ball speed.
Six position variables were found to be significantly different between the two groups. At the instant of lead foot contact, the older group had a shorter stride, a more closed pelvis orientation, and a more closed upper trunk orientation. The older group also produced less shoulder external rotation during the arm cocking phase, more lead knee flexion at ball release, and less forward trunk tilt at ball release. Ball velocity and body segment velocity variables showed no significant differences between the two groups. (1).
The interesting information from the study is as the pitching mechanics changed the older the pitcher got but the body segment velocities didn't change. This means you can have what many coaches would consider low velocity pitching mechanics but still throw with a high pitching velocity. My article, Study: High Level Pitching Based on Strength and Muscle Mass, continues to define the great divide between high velocity pitchers and low velocity pitchers. The conventional wisdom of this game continues to believe it is purely mechanical but many of the studies show it is more about the speed of the movement than the mechanics itself.
The study on age and pitching implied that the loss of the pitching mechanics was due to the loss of joint range of motion due to age that some other studies have discovered.
The joint range of motion of the human body has been demonstrated to degrade with age among both the general population (3,4,5) and young overhead athletes (6,7).
The study hypothesized that the reason the loss of joint range of motion and the loss of these high velocity pitching mechanics didn't effect ball speed and body segment speed is because temporal relationships between mechanics improved. This means the better timing of movements overcompensated for the loss of good pitching mechanics. My article, Study Proves Timing Increases Ball Speed While Reducing Injury talks about the critical aspect of this timing factor.
Jonathan Papelbon Pitching Mechanics Problems
With Jonathan Papelbon, I have noticed the same reduction in the six position variables listed in the pitching age study above over the past few season. The problem here is Papelbon had very poor pitching mechanics to start with, so I am not sure if this reduction of these mechanics has made much of a difference in his performance. I believe he was always using his size at 6'4 225lbs and athleticism to overcome a lot of his mechanical problems and with his age really affecting his athleticism as studies show (8), it has been very hard for him to overcompensate for his natural breakdown in age related pitching issues.
Here is a video analysis I put together of Jonathan Papelbon's mechanical changes over the years from the Red Sox to the Phillies. You can see there is a good indication that his body segment speeds are slowing down especially in his lower half.
Jonathan Papelbon and the X Factor
The X Factor for Jonathan Papelbon is his insanely competitive attitude. He is quoted saying:
"My role is an intensity-driven role, so on nights when the ballpark is full and it’s a close game, that’s what makes me tick and we’re in a race.....That’s the big reason I’ve always decided to be a closer ... when the dial is turned up and there is something on the line, I just seem to be at my best."
He obviously loves to be put in a place where he is forced to survive or forced to come from behind. This is why he has had two season where he started in the low 90's and either jumped in the high 90's or close to the mid 90's. With a guy like Jonathan Papelbon, I would never write him off because that is what drives him to get better but with all good and even great pitchers the game does come to an end. I would bet Papelbon has a few more years in his belt even with his serious pitching performance issues.
- Dun S1, Fleisig GS, Loftice J, Kingsley D, Andrews JR. - The relationship between age and baseball pitching kinematics in professional baseball pitchers. - J Biomech. 2007;40(2):265-70. Epub 2006 Mar 3.
- Schulz, R., Curnow, C., 1988. Peak performance and age among superathletes: Track and ?eld, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Science 43 (5), 113–120.
- Allander, E., Bjomsson, O.J., Olafsson, O., Sigfusson, N., Thorstein- son, J., 1974. Normal range of joint movements in shoulder, hip, wrist and thumb with special reference to side: a comparison between two populations. International Journal of Epidemiology 3, 253–261.
- Barnes, C.J., Van Steyn, S.J., Fischer, R.A., 2001. The effects of age, sex, and shoulder dominance on range of motion of the shoulder. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery 10 (3), 242–246.
- Clarke, G.R., Willis, L.A., Fish, W.W., Nichols, P.J., 1975. Preliminary studies in measuring range of motion in normal and painful stiff shoulders. Rheumatology and Rehabilitation 14, 39–46.
- Kibler, W.B., Chandler, T.J., Livingston, B.P., Roetert, E.P., 1996. Shoulder range of motion in elite tennis players. American Journal of Sports Medicine 24, 279–285.
- Meister, K., Day, T., Horodyski, M., Kaminski, T.W., Wasik, M.P., Tillman, S., 2005. Rotational motion changes in the glenohumeral joint of the adolescent/little league baseball player. American Journal of Sports Medicine 33, 693–698.
- Stones, M.J., Kozma, A., 1984. Longitudinal trends in track and field performances. Experimental Aging Research 10 (2), 107–110.