Every great closer in baseball history has a featured out pitch.
Mariano Rivera had his split-fingered fastball for the New York Yankees, and Elroy Face of the Pittsburgh Pirates had his forkball. Among past great closers for the Philadelphia Phillies, perfect-in-2008 Brad Lidge had a slider that dropped off the table at seemingly a 90-degree angle and Jack Baldschun from the ill-fated 1964 season had his screwball.
Jonathan Papelbon has none of that, but what he did have when he was an effective closer with the Boston Red Sox was a 97 mph fastball. With the Phillies in his two seasons, Papelbon’s fastball has never reached 97 mph once.
So is Papelbon’s recent string of success, including nine saves in nine straight attempts, a product of increased velocity or a tease? The numbers would seem to indicate the latter. Papelbon, who threw in the 91-93 mph range last year, pounded the gun with a 93 mph fastball for the final strikeout in the Phillies’ 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals on Sunday. It was the only time Papelbon threw a fastball as high as 93 in that one inning of work.
By contrast, the Phillies have a closer at their double-A level, Ken Giles, who seldom is clocked below 100 mph.
If a 93 mph fastball is all Papelbon has on his best day, he’s putting together his season without smoke and with mirrors and that won’t cut it in the long run. Unless Papelbon, a bit of a screwball himself, comes up with a screwball or something similar, hitters will figure him out before long and these nine straight saves will be nothing but a curious footnote.