The Bigger Fool Theory, Exhibit A. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)
When I picked Jonathan Papelbon as a preview player for TGP this spring, I promised myself I wouldn't write about Jimmy Carter, the Bhagavad Gita, and meeting my cousin's first husband. Despite that promise, it's happening. Sorry folks. I will talk some numbers and do a Madson comparison, but I just can't duck the X factor here. Something about Jonathan Papelbon just demands that all the extraneous stuff comes out. It's a story of coming of age, loss of innocence, and regret, and it has to be told.
Papelbon's season with the Phillies will be viewed, fairly or not, through a green filter. The contract he signed didn't write itself, and he can't be blamed for it. Still, if he struggles, he will no doubt bear the fans' ire for a contract that Amaro wrote. As is the case with Ryan Howard, dissatisfaction over his piles of lucre really should be directed at the Phillies executive who was on the other end of the deal.
With the preemptive contract whining out of the way, what exactly are the Phillies likely to get this year from Papelbon, and how might his body of work compare to the closing services provided until recently by Ryan Madson, whom he is replacing?
Papelbon was born during 1980, as was Madson. This fall, both will turn 32. Papelbon will turn 36 following the last year of the contract the Phillies signed him to, assuming that year five vests. Accounts such as this suggest the vesting is likely.
It is fair to assume, given his age, that Papelbon has peaked and is in decline. The rate of the decline may be manageable, as the same linked article from Sports Illustrated does suggest that Papelbon may be productive for some time. In support of the proposition, it relies on the fact that he has been injury-free, and that he has been an elite closer since taking over that role for the Boston Red Sox in 2006, his second year in Major League Baseball. A selected sample of "elite" closers in that article suggests that pitching at a high level for 60ish innings a year is possible for a long time. The "elite" closers selected as comparables certainly were elite and most exhibited (surpise!) longevity. The link between durability and career "eliteness" is obvious, but whether Papelbon exhibits characteristics tending to productive longevity is less clear. Still, it was in SI, right? And like Fredo, all the guys at SI are schmart. Right?
The contract issues aside, what kind of pitcher are the Phillies getting, and what can they expect from Papelbon this year? This is a 2012 Phillies Player Preview and all, although by kvetching about his contract may suggest that I've got some issues with the team signing him for so long and so much. Still, he's a great player, ok? And he's likely to be great this year, whether or not he's great in 2016.
Papelbon essentially throws a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a splitter. His pitch mix, per Pitch fx, has changed since 2007 in ways described nicely at the Hardball Times in this article. While it reviews Papelbon at the end of 2010, the numbers he put up at the end of 2010 are reasonably comparable to his 2011 numbers, so his adjustments in August and September 2010 appear to have carried forward, though, as with all of the Red Sox, the end of the 2011 season was not pretty. His metrics compared to Madson (2011 and career):
It is worthwhile to recall that Madson accumulated lots of innings as a mediocre starter during 2006, all of them degrading his career "reliever" numbers for K/9, xFIP, and walks. Papelbon had an early stint of starting, too, though. Madson also famously missed time from breaking his toe after kicking a chair, and as a result has missed time, though the soundness of his arm really hasn't been a question. Starting late in 2008, Madson turned it on and has been essentially a 9.5 K/9 -- 2.5 BB/9 -- high 2's xFIP pitcher since. He compares favorably to Papelbon, but Papelbon appears to be a better pitcher on the whole, and especially if 2011 was not a mirage or merely an example of the high degree of variability often captured in the season statistics of low-inning pitchers.
For his career, Papelbon strikes out batters at higher rate than Madson ever has, strands a higher percentage of runners, and has a lower walk rate and a lower HR/9. That said, Madson has walked fewer hitters, at least since 2009. Papelbon had walk problems in 2009 and 2010, but apparently fixed this in 2011. Papelbon also pitched in the AL where there are fewer "easy" outs, though in late games with the opponent behind in the NL, pinch hitters will come up rather than weak-hitting pitchers, so that likely can be discounted a bit. Also, while Papelbon pitched in the tough AL East, he obviously did not have to pitch against the Red Sox, lowering the bar. Still, if the walks are truly fixed, then it's reasonable to expect that Papelbon should be better than Madson. How much better, though?
In terms of WAR, the score is 4.3 vs. 6.2 over the last three years per Fangraphs (from whence all Madson and Papelbon data have come for this post). Reliever WAR can be a funny thing, given the high leverage situations, especially for closers, as well as the limited innings that they play. Keep in mind that Papelbon will pitch perhaps 60 - 70 innings this year of the 1,500 innings the Phillies can expect to play. Still, the consensus appears to be that Papelbon is likely to be a more valuable player, and the metrics bear that out.
Can the Phillies expect a 1 win upgrade from Papelbon over Madson? Maybe. It seems like it was an expensive way to buy a marginal win, but I can still be convinced that a really good reliever is valuable faster than you can say Antonio Alfonseca or Jose Mesa (v.2007). Taking Wilson Valdez (as a second baseman, at least) away from Charlie Manuel may have been more addition by subtraction for the Phillies than the addition by addition with Papelbon, but I certainly don't expect a drop off from Madson to Papelbon. Was it economically efficient? Maybe not, but in terms of raw talent and expected performance, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that the 65 innings pitched by the Phillies' closer in 2012 will be marginally better than those pitched in 2011.
Whether Papelbon earns his $60,000,000.00 contract will not depend on his talent, which is real, but rather whether his health holds out. That same consideration is the main caveat for 2012 predictions for Papelbon. Whether the Phillies overpaid for him is a moot point at this stage, since the cake is baked. At this point, it simply remains to watch him pitch. And to cheer for him to get good results. Which brings me to the "intangibles" part of this post.
Something about Papelbon bugs me. I venture into this territory here knowing that my inability to articulate a rational basis for this will draw...attention. I alluded to my concerns at the top of the post, as well as the fact that the irrational part of me just won't shut up about it. In a nutshell, I never liked Papelbon's Irish step-dancing, doofus act in Boston. And now he's coming to Philadelphia, and I can't really avoid it. And Ryan Madson has left for Cincinnati, and he was just 100% awesome and didn't carry on too much, other than, say, when he was kicking chairs and putting himself on the DL, but that was, like, eons ago, so he's forgiven. Maybe I'm just feeling Red Sox-ism, but I don't think it's just that. At least hear me out on it.
This offseason, I felt a really unpleasant mix of emotions as the Madson/Papelbon storyline played out. The first was some uneasiness about what the Phillies have become. I am in awe of the financial juggernaut that they have created. It's not like they are the Yankees or Boston, and the owners do not have the absolute wealth of the owners of those teams, but that's a fine distinction if you are a fan of the Royals or Pirates, for instance. I remember the days when the idea of the Phillies spending money on real, actual talent was out of the question. The issue here isn't whether Papelbon is talented, but whether the Phillies paid a little too much for maybe a year or two more than they should have. And this is what I am reduced to whining about. How spoiled have I become? I've become one of the Four Yorkshiremen, talking about how tough it was in the olden days.
Ruben Amaro must feel, having lived through the bad old days himself as a player and executive, something like Robert Oppenheimer watching the Trinity test as he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." What I used to loathe, as a fan of a "have not" (or perhaps "would not") team, I now see from that same team. It may be my (baseball) middle class values still showing when I've moved to the gated community by the country club.
At the same time, going back to Jimmy Carter, I now sometimes feel lust in my heart. When I consider that the Phillies can go out and sign players like Papelbon, I start to pine (stupidly, mind you) for a purer, more innocent time - what I refer to in current events as the "halcyon days
that never were of yore." I look across the street at teams like the Rays and I wonder what it would be like to have deep, young systems and costs that are controlled. I started browsing iTunes for versions of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (Gone to Houston, every one...). And then I wake up and realize that I am really grateful that the Phillies have cash flow and can buy CLIFFLEE!!!s and Papelbons while at the same time keeping their good players (the old ones, at least). It has been easier for me to swallow when it's CLIFFLEE!!! rather than Papelbon, since Cliff Lee is so "gee whiz!" But the Papelbon signing was, for me, the moment the Phillies crossed the Rubicon, though that's grossly naive on my part.
After working through all the emotional turmoil, I am still left with the Phillies losing a draft pick and ending up with someone I fear may turn out to be not that different from Kenny Powers. I mean, the Phillies just got rid of the Lidge contract, right? And the Kenny Powers thing comes not from the (current) talent side (Papelbon is obviously not washed up) but from the side of just too much schtick, or at least schtick that makes my skin crawl. Again, I can't raise any specific objections on rational grounds. It's just that it is like the time one of my cousins brought home her fiancee for the first time to meet the extended family. I spent an hour with the guy, and I knew it would end up badly. I just knew it. Now it's ten years later and she's practically selling organs to pay the custody lawyer.
Papelbon gives me the same vibe as my cousin's ex. Maybe it's the goofy dancing. Maybe it's the uber slow working from the mound. Maybe it's the overly demonstrative manner (which rubs my Chase Utley awe *exactly* the wrong way). Maybe it's the fact he played for the Sawx. I don't know. Maybe when the Higgs Boson is confirmed, physicists can tell us that it is what explains the ability, as with animals fleeing volcanic eruptions or sensing earthquakes before the fact, to be able to spot a douchebag. And while my douche-o-meter is not always perfect, I fear that it may be on the money this time. The Force is strong in this one.
That said, I may learn to love Mr. Papelbon's colorful antics. I doubt it, but I'll try to tolerate him. As a Steelers fan, I learned to tolerate Plaxico Burress. Hopefully I can learn to live with them before I
go full Conlin get completely irrational. I'd much rather have it be just about the numbers and getting people out. But maybe someone could pass along the following message to him before the year starts -- just a back channel piece of diplomacy: "A little less Brian Wilson and a little more Roy Halladay, okay?" Do that for me, Paps, and we're good. Baseball has to be good *and* it has to scratch the itches of my personal value system, ok? That makes it betterer. In any case, welcome to Philadelphia, Mr. Papelbon. Please try to act like you've made a save or two before, and we'll be good.