When the Phillies signed Papelbon to a 4-year, $50 million contract, I think we all felt slightly uneasy. Papelbon would be nearly 35 years old when the contract ended, 36 if his 2016 option vested. And what about all those young, high-upside relievers we had stashed in the minors? But we (or at least I) reassured ourselves. At least we were getting arguably one of the top five closers in the game.
Well, here we are, in only the second year of the contract, and already we find ourselves with a deteriorating Papelbon. Here are his average fastball velocities from 2007 to today (all stats from FanGraphs):
2007- 94.5 mph (26 years old)
2008- 94.9 mph
2009- 94.5 mph
2010- 94.8 mph
2011- 94.8 mph
2012- 93.8 mph
2013- 91.8 mph (32 years old)
It's true that we are only a few games into the season, but it's hard to ignore the trend downwards. To put Papelbon's decline in another way: in 2011, Papelbon had an average FB velocity of at least 95 mph in 36 of his 63 appearances. In 2012, that number sank to 4 in 70 appearances. Papelbon hasn't come close to 95 mph in 2013, topping out at 92.7 mph.
Of course, none of this matters as long as Papelbon is pitching effectively. And last year, he performed just about as well as he always has. But it appears that Papelbon may have compensated for his diminishing velocity last year by throwing more two-seam fastballs. In 2012 alone, Papelbon threw what FanGraphs classifies as a two-seamer 325 times, 29% of his total pitches. Between 2007 and 2011, Papelbon threw a two-seamer a mere 149 times. That's a huge increase, though it's probable that he simply put different movement on his fastball. It's also impossible to tell whether the increase in two-seamers directly contribued to Papelbon's relative success last season.
In conclusion, Papelbon is losing velocity and may begin to lose effectiveness this season. So far this season, in fact, he's posted the highest FIP of his career. He's throwing a slightly different fastball than he was earlier in his career, but it probably won't matter if his velocity continues to drop. He might not have a terrible 2013, but it's definitely something to pay attention to as Papelbon hits the third, fourth and possibly fifth year of his contract.