INTERVIEW: Jon Papelbon, Red Sox Minor League Pitcher

There’s a treat for you today. I was able to interview Red Sox minor-league pitcher Jon Papelbon, who is among the best prospects the Red Sox have. Jon was kind enough to take time out of his training regimen to answer several questions, thanks to his mother, Sheila Papelbon, who works for the Bank of New York, where she has done corporate trust work since 1980, and who I have been in contact with.

Jon Papelbon was born Nov. 23, 1980, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, for his mother’s job. He attended Mississippi State University, and currently lives near MSU in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with his fiance and her family.

In Hattiesburg, he is training with former MSU teammates. His MSU roommate, a pitcher, is originally from Hattiesburg, and he and another friend of Jon, a catcher, were both drafted last year.

Papelbon is currently lifting weights to work on various parts of his body, and he also works on his arm mechanics. ǃ˙I long-toss [a baseball exercise in which you throw the ball over a long distance to build up arm strength], and I have been throwing,ǃ? Papelbon said. ǃ˙I did not throw the first month or so, and I rested my arm and worked on endurance.ǃ?

When not training in Hattiesburg, he lives in Jacksonville, where he owns a home in which his twin brothers currently live. His two brothers pitch for the University of North Florida baseball team. Jeremy is a left-hander, while Josh is a submarine right-hander.

For Papelbon, pitching was not new, although he never did it full-time. He was originally recruited to be a first-baseman for MSU, but became a pitcher during his freshman year at college, when he threw on the side during practice.

“I guess they were pretty impressed because afterwards the pitching coach asked me if I’d like to learn how to pitch. He said if I wanted to play in the big leagues pitching was the way to get there,” Papelbon said. “In Little League, I caught, played some infield and pitched a little. In high school, I didn’t really pitch. As a freshman, I caught on [Junior Varsity], I think I pitched a couple of times, nothing that I remember. As a sophomore, on Varsity, I again caught some, and played first base. I don’t remember pitching as a sophomore or junior. My senior year, I asked to pitch and got a shot towards the end of the season, but I was told I was needed badly at first. I remember I got to start one night for the first time and threw a no-hitter. ”

Papelbon preferred to start, but the team desperately needed him to be their closer, thus he decided to close. “At MSU, the team really needed me to close and I told the coaches I wanted to do whatever was best for the team. I believed I could do either (start or close) but again the team needed me to close,” he said.

When Papelbon’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, drafted him, they decided to convert him to a starter. “The Red Sox told me that they thought I had a good arm and to get the most out of it, they felt I could be a starter,” he said. The fact that the Red Sox had drafted Papelbon came as a surprise. “I wasn’t hoping for any particular team to draft me, I just wanted to get drafted. The Red Sox came from nowhere on draft day. I had not spoken to anyone from the organization.” Papelbon continued, talking about how he signed with the Red Sox. “I did the negotiating with them, at that time I did not have an agent. My parents helped me with the decisions but I was the one who talked with the Red Sox. I flew to Boston one week after the draft to sign, get a physical and report to Lowell (Massachusetts). I wanted to sign quickly so I could start working right away – I didn’t want it to drag out. I signed the typical Minor League Contract.”

After he signed the contract with the Red Sox, he reported to Low-A Lowell, where he amassed a 6.34 ERA, relieving in seven games while starting six. Papelbon attributed this rough start to the transition from pitching in college before making the jump to professional baseball just a few months later.

“It was tough going from college ball to the pros. You have already played a whole year of nonstop ball and to keep playing was hard, and the competition was a lot better,” Papelbon said. “Instead of facing a strong two, three, and four hitters in college, everyone is a two, three or four hitter in the pros. You can’t let up at the end of the order. Playing in Lowell, as far as the crowds and fans wasn’t hard – I was used to that at MSU, where we would draw 10,000 at SouthEastern Conference games – but getting acclimated to being a pro and then being a starter was difficult.”

He finished up a stellar 2004 campaign with the Sarasota Red Sox, a High-A affiliate. He started 24 games and finished 12-7 with a 2.64 ERA, striking out 153 in 129.2 innings. He will report to the Portland (AA) Sea Dogs for 2005, only two levels away from the major leagues.

During the 2004 campaign, Papelbon experimented with his pitches, and had abandoned his slider. The slider made a comeback near the end of the season, though. “I started throwing a cutter variation to get a better feel for my slider, once Nip [Red Sox pitching instructor and former professional pitcher, Al Nipper] thought I had that, we went back to my slider so it would be more effective. I guess I threw it to make my slider better than it was.”

Papelbon won the 2004 Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Month in April and July. He also was an All-Star in the Florida State League, and the Sarasota Pitcher of the Year (PICTURE ON LEFT: Papelbon receives his Minor League Awards at Fenway Park). He still has plenty of room for improvement, though, especially the mental aspect of the game. “I think this is where as a starter you have to be stronger than as a reliever,” Papelbon said. “The mental preparation is what I’m working on a lot. As a closer, you never know when you were going in, as the game got closer I’d know, then I’d go to the bullpen preparing to go in and the game would change and I’d never go in. Now, I know exactly when I’m going in and need to learn how to prepare for that.”

Papelbon credits his own work ethic for getting him to where he is today, but he also credits Nipper for the hard work he has put in to instruct the young pitcher. ǃ˙I was never handed anything in high school or college and had to work extremely hard to get to where I am today,ǃ? Papelbon said. ǃ˙IǃÙve pushed myself to be better and to beat out all the superstars. IǃÙve faced tough competition throughout my baseball life and itǃÙs made me better. If you were looking for me to give someone besides myself, IǃÙd have to say Al Nipper. If I make it to the bigs, it will be because of him also.ǃ?

Papelbon speaks very highly for two heralded fellow Red Sox minor leaguers–shortstops Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia. He thinks they are both very hard workers, love to compete, and have great potential. His highest praise is reserved for minor-league pitcher Abe Alvarez. Papelbon believes that Alvarez has the best chance of becoming a star or at least a solid player in the majors because ǃ˙he has a certain poise about him, heǃÙs left handed, he can throw all his pitches for strikes, and he came from a great college program.ǃ?

In the final week of January, the Red Sox flew up their best minor league players, Papelbon included, to Fenway Park. There, he participated in the Red Sox’s second annual rookie development program in which they learned about how to deal with the media, the fans, and everything that a Boston Red Sox major league player will have to handle. Papelbon said that he really enjoyed the program and learned a lot, but was not a fan of the cold and the snow. Fortunately, Spring Training is only a week away, which will see the Red Sox head south to Fort Myers, Florida.

Papelbon is very determined to make a name for himself in Spring Training, less than two weeks away. “[I want] to report in the best shape I can. Work on aspects of my game for the 2005 season – fastball location and my change up. I want all my pitches to be plus pitches.”

An additional question is below:

Fire Brand of the American League: If you end up making it to the majors and being lucky enough to become a highly-coveted free agent, are you going to place more emphasis on money, or surroundings, or family, home-team, etc. In other words, are you going to be one of those people that give hometown discounts to the team that you came up with, etc.?

Jon Papelbon: My decision will be made based on what is best for me at the time, what is best for my family, my lifestyle and won’t be based solely on the money. Yes, I would love to stay with Boston my entire career and that will play into my decision.

Huge, gigantic thanks go out to Sheila and Jon Papelbon for being extremely accomodating throughout this interview. We look forward to Jon becoming a star in the major leagues, and seeing Sheila in the stands rooting him on. Another tidbit of news is that a Red Sox scout and a number of other scouts were at a University of North Florida game the other day to take in Josh Papelbon’s dominance in yet another game. Josh was then named the Peach Belt Conference Pitcher of the Week. Congratulations to Josh, and again, thanks to Sheila and Jon. The Red Sox are lucky to have Jon Papelbon in their minor league system. We’re lucky too, because we’ll be watching him on NESN in a short time.