Jonathan Papelbon’s Early-Season Success an Encouraging Sign for 2011

Jonathan Papelbon's Early-Season Success an Encouraging Sign for 2011 Trying to analyze the expectations for Jonathan Papelbon heading into this season was no easy task.

Once among the most dominant closers in all of baseball, Papelbon's stock had fallen dramatically over the course of the last two seasons. With his WHIP ballooning from a combined 0.774 in 2006 and 2007 to 1.207 in 2009 and 2010, Papelbon seemed to have lost his ability to enter a game and simply shut down the opponent.

Though he's made just three appearances thus far in 2011, the early returns indicate he's still got it.

Since opening the season in Texas by giving up a pair of doubles, hitting a batter and issuing an intentional walk, Papelbon has been almost untouchable. He finished that outing with three swinging strikeouts, stranding three Rangers on base. His next time out on Friday against the Yankees, it was strikeout looking, strikeout swinging, flyout.

Papelbon pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning on Sunday night, getting both Brett Gardner and Mark Teixeira to look at strike three. They were the sixth and seventh strikeouts of the year for Papelbon, and considering those K's account for 78 percent of the outs he's recorded this year, it offers a positive sign for the Red Sox in 2011.

That's not to say Papelbon had completely lost his ability to strike out batters in '09 and '10. He retired 76 batters each year by way of the K and posted more-than-respectable strikeout-per-nine innings marks of 10.1 and 10.2, respectively. Still, the unbeatable Papelbon of '07 was a pitcher who got a lot more outs without contact, posting a career-best 13.0 strikeouts-per-nine innings.

That, as much as anything else, may be the key statistic for Papelbon, who for the very first time in his career is playing to earn a monster payday on the free-agent market. Whether it is that next contract that motivates him or if it's simply a desire to return to his best form, the Red Sox stand to benefit either way.

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