The Papelbon Aftershocks

Let’s separate the Jonathan Papelbon aftershocks by reaction and affect.

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon has never been fully appreciated for how good he’s been—especially by the Red Sox.

He has a clean motion; the post-season history of success; has done the job in a smothering atmosphere of scrutiny; is durable; throws strikes; and is an accountable team player.

Naturally, as they usually do, the Red Sox will start talking about some phantom malady that “concerned” them; in this case it will be Papelbon’s shoulder. A shoulder for which he’s missed zero time since 2006.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story with Papelbon. Because his blowups generally include 4-5 games a season where he’ll allow a crooked number of 3-5 runs, his ERA and ERA+ are always higher than they’d normally be if the lowest grades were dropped.

It’s a simplistic and self-serving effort to bolster a narrow argument to say that Papelbon is a “fly ball pitcher” and his home games being played in Citizens Bank Park will yield a larger number of home runs. His splits between fly balls and ground balls are negligible and slightly higher for fly balls; but he also strikes out over 10 hitters per 9 innings.

He’s a strikeout pitcher with a searing fastball and a vicious splitter.

He allowed 3 homers all season in 2011; 2 in Fenway Park (9th in homers out of all ballparks in baseball) and 1 in Cleveland (tied for 11th in homers).

The ballpark in Philadelphia is not going to be an issue for Papelbon; nor will the tough fans, the expectant media and the pressure of a championship or bust team upon whose hopes may ride on his shoulders.

He’s been through it before and come through repeatedly.

Philadelphia Phillies

This is as simple as it gets.

The Phillies have a superlative starting rotation; they’re old; they have money to spend and a short window to win another championship or two.

They spent a reported $50 million on the top closer on the market after the breakdown in negotiations for Ryan Madson.

They’ve acquired a known quantity for slightly more money than Madson’s asking price.

It’s a championship or nothing for the Phillies. With their success or failure no longer based on a winning season or making the playoffs, they needed someone they trust in the playoffs and World Series. Papelbon gives them that.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have a compulsive, fervent, almost blindly faithful reluctance to accept the fact that they need a legitimate closer to win.

They never appreciated what they had in Papelbon even after having endured the nightmares of 2003 and 2005 when they didn’t have a closer and it cost them dearly; they tried to go with the closer-by-committee nonsense again in 2007 and were saved from themselves by Papelbon seeing where the team was headed and offering to move back to the bullpen after an ill-advised spring stint as a starter.

Papelbon could’ve been signed to an extension, but the club never broached the subject with any seriousness. This is while they tossed money into the trash for Daisuke Matsuzaka, Matt Clement, Bobby Jenks and Julio Lugo.

They paid Keith Foulke $20 million over three years for what amounted to one season of production—and he was worth it because they won a championship they wouldn’t have won without him.

They’re not overspending to replace Papelbon; they’re not going after Ryan Madson and trust me when I say the Red Sox fans do not want Heath Bell.

Daniel Bard is fully capable of taking over for Papelbon in the regular season; but like the Phillies, the Red Sox metric is not the regular season, it’s the playoffs and that’s when Bard will be tested and judged…if the Red Sox get there at all.

Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan are more likely for the Red Sox to sign to cheap deals; they could try to trade for Joakim Soria or approach Theo Epstein to see if he’d like to move Carlos Marmol.

There won’t be a retaliatory strike of “we lost Papelbon so we need a ‘name’ to replace him”—that’s not what the Red Sox do.

Comparisons

B.J. Ryan and Papelbon are human beings; both pitched and made their living as short relievers; Ryan was 30 when he signed with the Blue Jays; Papelbon will be 31 next week.

Apart from that, I see zero connection between the two pitchers.

Ryan was lefty; Papelbon righty.

Ryan’s mechanics were among the worst I’ve ever seen; Papelbon’s are picture perfect.

Ryan was leaving an atrocious Orioles team and heading for a team that was a fringe contender at best with the Blue Jays; Papelbon’s going from one team that was picked for the World Series in 2011 to the other team that was picked for the World Series in 2011.

If there’s a legitimate comparison between two pitchers in this murky plot, it’s Madson and Ryan.

Madson’s mechanics are herky jerky and stressful—they’re not as bad as Ryan’s, but they’re not to be ignored as a non-issue either. Madson missed time with a strained shoulder in 2007.

Madson has been a closer for 2011 only; he hasn’t done it long-term; he is not a strikeout pitcher and uses different strategies with a fastball, cut fastball and excellent changeup than Papelbon does with his power fastball and strikeout-begetting split-finger.

It’s short-sighted and simplistic—the same accusations stat people levy against old-schoolers—to reference numbers as the final word without examining the other aspects of the overall equation—and I don’t mean numbers.

B.J. Ryan is not Jonathan Papelbon; Papelbon is not Ryan Madson.

There’s no connection other than the specious reasoning in equating contracts and variable statistics.

Some have suggested that Madson is “better” than Papelbon based on selective use of said statistics. Madson’s agent Scott Boras appeared close to completing another inexplicable financial coup with the $44 million rumored deal with the Phillies. That’s gone. Now Boras is going to whip out his Madson “book of accomplishments” and numbers crunching of his own to “prove” that his charge not only deserves a Papelbon contract, but more than a Papelbon contract.

The problem is there’s no one who’s going to give it to him.

I liken this situation to the Braves in 1997. Jeff Blauser was coming off a terrific season and was negotiating a new contract as a free agent. His agent was Scott Boras. Blauser felt he was worth the same money that Jay Bell received from the Diamondbacks ($35 million); Braves GM John Schuerholz reacted to this leap of logic by telling Blauser and Boras to take a hike and signed the superior defensive shortstop Walt Weiss. If Boras compares Madson to Papelbon and Mariano Rivera—and he will—any sane team is going to walk away.

Media/Fans

The one legitimate gripe from fans of other clubs is that the Phillies have blown up the market for closers with the Papelbon contract. That said, Papelbon was the number one guy on the market and he got the most money any closer is going to get. No one’s giving Madson that money or anywhere close to it. Nor should they.

Why the fans are worried about Papelbon’s years and dollars is beyond me. My criteria for a contract that’s too expensive is if a want precludes a need. If there’s an overpay for a want and you can’t buy what you need, it’s a bad deal.

The Phillies needed Papelbon and they bought him.

Everything else—the draft, the after-effects, the market—are subsidiary.

You cannot make the suggestion that Madson is “better” as Keith Law does, and then ignore his mechanical issues; you can’t dismiss the closer designation as a meaningless mental exercise as Jonah Keri does in playing up the Rays use of Kyle Farnsworth on the cheap while failing to mention that Rays manager Joe Maddon intentionally declined to name Farnsworth the “closer” because he didn’t want his skittish pitcher thinking about being the closer.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said that Madson wasn’t good at closing. He used him in the role out of necessity and, with a great sense of timing, Madson did well in 2011.

The Blue Jays erred in overpaying for Ryan. That won’t be replicated with Madson. Or Papelbon.

As for the suggestion that the Phillies don’t understand where they are and what they’re doing, it’s the height of outsider arrogance and “I’m smarter than you” pomposity.

They know.

They know that by 2014 they’re going to be ancient, super-expensive and probably on the downslide. Will it be worth it if the Phillies are hoisting a championship or two because of the players they have now? Absolutely. GM Ruben Amaro tried to maintain the farm system while simultaneously contending and keeping financial sanity and it didn’t work; the Red Sox tried to do it and it didn’t work.

They’re paying the price to win now and will pay in the future as well.

Papelbon is proven; he’s better; he’s what the Phillies needed; and they got him.

It’s not difficult to comprehend—tremors and madness irrelevant.

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  1. #1 by Todd Boss on November 12, 2011 - 7:25 pm

    Why does any team “need” a closer to win?

    Posnanski posted the definitive article on the uselessness of closers Last november (http://joeposnanski.si.com/2010/11/26/the-age-of-the-setup-man/), citing this damning statistic: “Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.”

    Verducci also touched on the topic here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/tom_verducci/03/01/rangers-feliz/index.html

    And I posted an entry talking about starting versus closing here: http://www.nationalsarmrace.com/?p=724 where I took a look at the career WAR rankings of Hall of Fame closers, showing how in most cases these guys have career WAR values that are equivalent to mediocre starting pitchers of today.

    My opinion: the Phillies just spent $50M on someone they could easily fill from within for $415k/year. As a Nats fan, I’m glad to see them make dumb payroll mistakes like this. It means its just going to be sooner when they turn into a team like the Mets or Cubs: major market teams with bloated payrolls of under-performing and highly paid players who are in the second division.

    Can’t wait. Hey Amaro, I hear there’s some backup infielders you can buy for $10M/year too!

    • #2 by admin on November 12, 2011 - 8:19 pm

      You really wallow in the sabermetric Kool-Aid when it conveniences the argument.
      The problem is that actually delving into the deeper issues tears apart the statistical “finality”, so you choose to ignore this reality.
      Since Posnanski and Verducci and of course YOU published pieces on it, I guess there’s no point in continuing. But I will anyway.
      Here’s the problem: if you look at the teams that have won, y’know, championships since the advent of the importance of the late-inning reliever, they’ve all had someone they could trust in the late innings to record the outs.
      From the Yankees with Mariano Rivera to the Phillies with Brad Lidge to the Giants with Brian Wilson to the Red Sox with Jonathan Papelbon and on through the years of recent history, they’ve had a legitimate arm to get the outs late in games. Some have used young, cheap pitchers—Adam Wainwright, Bobby Jenks; some have paid their stopper, but they’ve all had someone they could trust.
      You can trust Papelbon. Could you trust Michael Stutes or Antonio Bastardo? With the expectations and the money the Phillies have already spent on their roster? I wouldn’t.
      Referencing a random percentage in comparison from 1952 to 2010 is so far outside the realm of intellectual honesty, that it’s ridiculous.
      Are you seriously comparing 1952 to 2010?
      In 1952, the starting pitchers completed 948 of the 2478 games that were played—that’s 38%; in 2010, it was 166 out of 4860—that’s 3%. And that’s before getting into pitch counts, innings limits and that pitchers are making a load more money and are therefore less disposable than they were back then.
      Pitchers are not trained to complete games anymore; the way relievers are used is entirely different and the bullpen roles are delineated. These arguments are akin to comparing the college game to the professional game—the use of aluminum bats has made the comparison impossible. You can gauge a hitter’s patience, speed, bat control and other factors but have no clue how he’s going to react to using a wooden bat and better competition as he rises through the minor league ranks.
      In the Verducci piece, you leave out that he advocates Feliz not as a baseline “good starter better than closer” statement, but because Feliz has ace quality stuff that could translate; he mentions Joba Chamberlain as a pitcher who should be a reliever and was miscast as a starter because of a stressful motion and his personality—things that aren’t counted on the stat sheet.
      Bringing up WAR is going to convince me of absolutely nothing. WAR is a stat that has to be put into the proper context, yet is constantly used as an end of story point.
      It’s not.
      For example, Willie Bloomquist is a player for whom WAR is valuable because he’s awful and teams are paying him almost $2 million to be awful for them. Papelbon’s and Rivera’s value extends beyond a stat that’s twisted to suit the purposes of the hypothesis of the writer because they’re proven to be able to handle all aspects of the role.
      Can you find someone to get the saves in the ninth inning? You can, but the Red Sox certainly had trouble doing it in 2003; the Mets couldn’t do it last season; the 1990s Braves consistently lost in the playoffs and World Series, in part, because they rarely had a reliable closer.
      If you actually read my piece before going off on your tangent, you’d see that I said teams can find someone to rack up the saves (Bard in Boston) in the regular season, but these are not teams who are playing for the regular season, they’re playing for a championship and that’s when the pitchers like Rivera and Papelbon make their money.
      Oh, and the Nats have been mentioned as a team that is supposedly interested in Ryan Madson. Why? I dunno. They don’t need him because he’s not a guy to trust and they have two better pitchers in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
      But now I’m kinda hoping they sign Madson. Just because.

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