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Jonathan Papelbon had himself a heck of a bounce-back season in 2014. After only posting 29 saves and blowing seven save opportunities in 2013, Papelbon came back strong last year for the Philadelphia Phillies and once again pitched like a top-10 closer. He enters this season once again, at the age of 34 years old, as the Phillies’ go-to guy in the ninth.
His Strikeout Rate (K%) improved from ’13, but once again, it fell below 25 percent, placing him in 69th place among all relievers (minimum 40 innings pitched, a total of 171 relief pitchers). Matter of fact, his 24.3 percent K% was matched by two other closers from last season: Jenrry Mejia and Jason Grilli. The only other time Papelbon had a K% this low was way back in 2005–his rookie season.
But, of course, in order to notch 39 saves in 43 opportunities, what he was lacking in strikeout power, he made up with reasonable control. His Walk Rate (BB%) of 5.8 percent was tied for 31st last season, matched by fellow closers Jake McGee and crusty veteran, LaTroy Hawkins. Papelbon would finish the season with a Field Independent Pitching (FIP only takes into account a pitcher’s walks, strikeouts, and home runs) of 2.53, good enough for 21st place among relievers.
Best Set-Up Man in Baseball?
So the production was there last year for Papelbon, no argument about it. Unfortunately for him, he has a much younger teammate whose season was a lot better. He goes by the name of Ken Giles and he’s only 24 years of age. Our own Igor Derysh, in his 2015 preview of the Phillies, made this proclamation on the young pitcher:
It’s early yet but when you put up Craig Kimbrel-type numbers as a 23-year-old rookie it’s hard not to get excited for what’s to come. Can you say closer of the future?
Many fantasy experts are going as far as advising Papelbon owners to handcuff him with Giles. Can you say, “the future is now?”
Giles’ FIP of 1.34 was the third-best by a reliever in the majors last year. His 6.6 percent BB% was a bit higher than Papelbon’s, but still good enough to be among the top 50 lowest. His K% of 38.6 percent ranked seventh last year. Slightly ahead of Giles in this category was some guy named Kimbrel who also posted a BB% of 10.7 percent (hope this Kimbrel character gets his act together).
One can make the argument that Giles is the best non-closer reliever in all of baseball entering the 2015 season, maybe even the best set-up man in the majors. However, he has stiff competition throughout the game, especially after we saw what Wade Davis did for the Kansas City Royals last season, one must be careful to make such outlandish statements.
Aside from figuring out if Giles is the best set-up man in the game, we will also investigate if Giles should also be the Phillies’ closer. So let us take a closer look at Giles’ 2014 season and how it compared in the grand scheme of things.
It should be noted that a big contributor to Papelbon’s bounce-back season was due to the fact that his Batting Average on Balls in Play (or BABIP, a stat that measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit; it is dually utilized to gauge a player’s luck as well) of .247 was nearly 50 points below what he had posted in the last two seasons.
Papelbon is prone to suffer from variance as his balls in play are pretty even in terms of ground and fly balls. It’s a low Line Drive Rate (LD%) of 15.7 percent that helped him to be one of the better closers in 2014. To put things in perspective, Papelbon’s career LD% of 18.6 would have ranked him 54th among relievers. Last year, he finished 21st in LD%. Papelbon’s 2014 Batted Ball profile was similar to Carlos Villanueva.
Giles would have been the most similar to Papelbon except for the fact that his LD% was nearly a full percent better than Papelbon’s (14.8 percent LD%). Nevertheless, Giles loses to Papelbon in pop up rate as Papelbon’s 15.1 percent rate had him finishing in the top 25 and that figure is right on cue with his career average, albeit the two seasons prior he was not as effective in this department.
Although Giles can induce slightly more grounders than Papelbon, he too is vulnerable to variance because of how even his grounders and fly balls can get. But thankfully for Giles, he has a very high K% that keeps variance at bay.
Papelbon was seeing a drop in fastball usage, going from using it 83 percent of the time in 2007 to only using it 30.9 percent in 2013. Last year, however, he surprisingly used his fastball 59.5 percent of the time. His average fastball velocity was 91.2 miles per hour, ranking 116th in fastball velocity. Also worth noting that since the 2011 season, Papelbon has seen a drastic drop in velocity, seeing an average decrease of 1.2 mph.
Papelbon all but ditched his two-seam fastball in 2014 in order to increase his four-seam fastball usage. Other than that, Papelbon also uses a splitter to keep hitters off-balance and a slider, his main pitch to induce swings.
Giles also used his fastball a lot last season (59.4 percent usage in 2014). Unlike Papelbon, Giles utilizes his slider a lot more (39.2 percent). Giles ranked 18th overall in slider usage last season. But his fastball is his true, bread-and-butter. His average velocity was 97.2 mph. It was the second average speed in the majors last season. Finishing ahead of him was Aroldis Chapman (average speed: 100.2 mph!). The rest of the top five are all familiar names:
In terms of stuff, Papelbon might have more options, but Giles’ fastball/slider combination just simply blows opposing batters away.
Finally, we take a look at both pitchers’ plate discipline. Here is how their Swing Rates stack up. To help get a better understanding of these figures, the numbers have been color-coded based on how both pitchers ranked in each category, relative to the rest of the league:
- Red: top 10 ranking
- Orange: top 20
- Green: top 30
- Blue top 40
2014 SWING RATES
As one will notice, both pitchers did a good job at inducing swings, but Giles was able to induce more swings at a much higher level than Papelbon. His O-Swing% (percentage of swings induced outside the strike zone) ranked seventh overall in 2014. Giles also ranked seventh among all relievers in Swinging Strike Percentage (SwStr%).
Clearly, Giles’ explosive fastball combined with his biting slider had batters baffled and swinging at pitches they normally don’t swing at. Even more remarkable is the fact that Giles threw very few pitches in the strike zone (Zone% of 41.9 percent). Growing frustrated at seeing very few pitches in the strike zone, hitters had no choice but to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, with very little success.
We now take a look at both pitchers’ Contact Rates:
2014 CONTACT RATES
Though hitters were able to make some contact against Giles, he was nearly unhittable last season. The Contact Rate outside the strike zone (O-Contact%) is a result of batters swinging outside the strike zone at a relatively higher rate. The fact that his Contact Rate inside the strike zone (Z-Contact%) is higher than Papelbon’s is the result of few pitches seeing the strike zone and hitters attempting to take advantage of the rare occurrence to get something decent to hit. Of course, the total Contact Rate of 68.0 percent was at an elite level.
Although Giles has been struggling this spring, the Phillies are not overly concerned with his performance. Aside from making the case of Giles getting the closer’s role in Philly based on his 2014 performance, Papelbon is in the middle of trade rumors, the loudest whispers speculating that he will be getting shipped to the Toronto Blue Jays. Regardless, it seems as if Papelbon is on the hot seat entering this season and should inevitably give way to Giles.
In the meantime, Giles will be entering this season as the Phillies’ set-up man. Based on his stuff and ability to induce swings, he definitely has what it takes to be the very best of the non-closers. However, pitchers like Wade Davis, Brad Boxberger, and Andrew Miller also make pretty strong cases for themselves. But if Giles can continue to improve upon his successful 2014 campaign, it’s going to be nearly impossible to make a case for any other eighth inning guy.
Stats courtesy of fangraphs.com.
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