Since Jonathan Papelbon first became eligible for arbitration, the boisterous closer wasn’t shy about telling everyone he wanted to get paid. Not surprisingly, the Red Sox, who have the gained the reputation as one of the more saber-friendly organizations, weren’t as keen to hand out a long-term deal. So, it really shouldn’t come as surprise that Papelbon is now packing his bags for Philly.
I feel like with me being at the top of my position, I feel like that [salary] standard needs to be set and I’m the one to set that standard and I don’t think that the Red Sox are really necessarily seeing eye to eye with me on that subject right now.” – Jonathan Papelbon, quoted by AP, March 4, 2008
There was simply no way the Red Sox were going to match the 4-year, $50 million offer (with a vesting option) that the Phillies extended to Papelbon. In response to the news that his closer was headed south, new GM Ben Cherington admitted as much. According to Cherington, Papelbon is replaceable, either internally with Daniel Bard or via a shorter, less lucrative deal with one of the many free agent closers who will be looking for a job this offseason.
Within the hardcore sabermetric community, and among those who dabble on its periphery, Cherington’s position has a lot of support. After all, not only are most closers notorious for their inconsistency, but often times the most unlikely relievers have great success for a year or two. Because a closer usually throws 60-70 innings per year, and is often used in low leverage situations (i.e., three run leads in the ninth), the conventional sabermetric wisdom suggests they can’t possibly be worth the kind of money Papelbon will be making over the next four years.
As evidence why long-term contracts for closers are generally a bad idea, some point to the many past deals that haven’t worked out, while others will bring up the variability that exists among the leader boards for stats like save percentage and win probability added (WPA). Both arguments have a lot of merit, but, ironically, they also explain why a closer like Jonathan Papelbon deserves to get paid.
Top-3 Relievers Since 2006
|1||Mariano Rivera||227||1||Mariano Rivera||19.4|
|2||Jonathan Papelbon||200||2||Jonathan Papelbon||15.9|
|2||Joe Nathan||200||3||Francisco Rodriguez||14.6|
|1||Francisco Rodriguez||232||1||Jonathan Papelbon||20.2|
|2||Mariano Rivera||224||2||Mariano Rivera||19.6|
|3||Jonathan Papelbon||219||3||Joe Nathan||16.2|
Note: Minimum 300 innings in relief for ERA+.
Since Papelbon emerged as a rookie closer in 2006, he has been the most effective reliever not named Mariano Rivera. His ERA+ of 200 and cumulative WAR of 15.9 rank behind only the immortal Rivera, while his WPA of 20.2 is actually a notch ahead of the future Hall of Famer. In October, Papelbon’s sparkling ERA of 1.00 in 27 innings (all three earned runs were surrendered in one game) is another sterling accomplishment overshadowed by his contemporary legend, which makes you wonder whether he would be considered the best closer of all time if not for the magical career of Rivera?
You can point all you want to contracts given to lesser closers, or single out Tyler Clippard’s league leading WPA in 2011 as reasons why the Red Sox were smart to let Papelbon walk away, but doing so ignores his unique consistency, something the Red Sox will now have to spin the wheel in hopes of replacing. And, don’t think it will be easy. For every flash in the pan closer who has a great season, there are many others who struggle, but that usually gets ignored by those who think the job can be done by just about anyone.
It often makes more sense to bet the field than pay a premium for the favorite, but baseball teams don’t have that luxury when building a bullpen. The Red Sox can’t wait until the end of next season and retroactively install a surprise closer. They need to make that decision now, and chances are the replacement they select won’t be nearly as good as Papelbon, not next season nor the three thereafter. Although closers are collectively overrated, the elite are worth every penny. The Red Sox may not have appreciated that over the last six seasons, but next year, it shouldn’t take long for them to finally figure it out.