clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2015 Phillies Player Preview: Jonathan Papelbon

Despite concerns about his declining fastball velocity, Jonathan Papelbon continued his run as one of the most consistently effective relievers in the game in 2014. Will he continue to defy the omens of velocity decline in 2015?

"Still Got It"--Jonathan Papelbon, at some point, probably.
"Still Got It"--Jonathan Papelbon, at some point, probably.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The following is the result of an entirely legitimate and thoroughly-researched literature review of the term "window." These rankings, the product of said study, represent the frequency with which the term window is used in scholarship in various fields, ranked in a descending manner:

  1. Construction

  2. Sports

  3. Medieval Architecture

  4. Operating Systems

  5. Male Genitalia (all instances are Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz references)

Conclusion: sports writing dwells on windows. Specifically, we often discuss the state in which windows find themselves: open, closed, closing, opening, slamming shut, being propped open by paint stirrers. Every team is a window and is defined by the open-closed state of that window.

The Phillies, being a team, are also a window. When they won a World Series in 2008, their window had been shot out by a stray bullet. Not only were they already very good, but all their key players were in their mid-late 20s. They still had a respectable farm system. The cool breeze of a mid-April day was blowing in. Window? We don't need no stinkin' window!

Halfway through 2009, the Phillies decided to install a window when they traded Carlos Carrasco, et al. for Cliff Lee. It was still wide open, mind you, and the breeze was damn refreshing, but trading prospects for present success at least presented the possibility that windows can shut. Windows will window.

By the 2011 trade deadline, with the Hunter Pence trade, the Phillies qua window were as open as ever. However, this window, endowed with self-awareness, realized the weather was soon to worsen and that it would have to shut, if not tomorrow, maybe next week.

And boy did that stormfront come wailing in as Ryan Howard lay sprawled on the grass of Citizens Bank Park after committing the final out of the 2011 NLDS. Despite the Roy Oswalts, Hunter Pences, and Roy Halladays propping it open, the window, parentheses the Phillies, crashed down.

That offseason, the Ruben Amaro tried to re-open that window that is his team by signing the best available closer, Jonathan Papelbon. With some of the best players in the game--Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz--still healthy and on the roster there was hope that the window would re-open.

Unfortunately, the window slammed down so hard that the lock latched shut without anyone noticing and there was nothing Jonathan Papelbon, as fierce-willed as he might be, could do to force it back open. Since Papelbon's arrival, the Phillies have not finished over .500 in any season and have gone a combined 227-259 (.467).

None of that is Papelbon's fault. He's lived up to his contract as much as any elite reliever can live up to his contract. Since joining the Phillies, Papelbon has put up a 2.45 ERA while averaging 66 IP and 35 saves per season. Those are, more or less, his career numbers. Sure the velocity is down and the strikeouts are along for that downward ride, but the bottom line is the same as the one that earned him--as much as a reliever can earn that type of contract--4 years and $50 million.

But there was still something that didn't feel quite right. What's the point of having an elite, well-compensated closer in his mid-thirties on a team that isn't sniffing the playoffs? Closers are a luxury good; they (probably) don't serve an absolutely essential function, but when you're strutting your stuff in the playoffs, having an elite closer might be the thing that gets you noticed by Baseba'al.

But then, deep in the darkness of 2014, something happened that changed the public (ok, just my) perception of Michael Flatley. It started with what may have been a harmless readjusting of one's protective equipment.

Papelbon crotch grab
Then it transformed into a triumphant cigar-chomping Saturnalia that culminated in the presentation of a Bulldog in a manner similar to Mufasa presenting Simba atop Pride Rock.

Add a burning desire to mentor his young bullpen co-occupants to the fun that is the new Papelbon and you have a tolerable player, even though he may be anachronistic on these Phillies.

But what of his upcoming 2015? Despite incredibly consistent results over his 10 year career, the projections are in disagreement on Papelbon:
















As you can see, there really isn't much agreement in the projections. PECOTA has Papelbon remaining the elite reliever he has been since his debut; Steamer has an average or worse (the standards for relievers are high) reliever season; ZiPS splits the difference. Basically, the objective measures at our disposal give us no idea what to expect from Papelbon in 2015.

That leaves subjectivity as our only guide. On the one hand, it's tempting to speculate that the results will finally catch up with drops in Papelbon's velocity over the past couple of seasons. On the other, this has been a trend over the past 3 seasons. If declining velocity was going to hinder Papelbon's ability to get batters out, it likely would have shown by now. Perhaps all along velocity was just window dressing covering up the fact that movement was the primary factor in his success.

Without any strong evidence, I'm inclined to fall into the camp that Papelbon is more likely to repeat his past performance than suddenly lose effectiveness. Gun to my head (please don't actually do this), I would put Papelbon at around 60 innings, with a 2.70-2.90 ERA. That's not as good as last year, but it should be plenty good enough to interest a playoff-bound team with a weak bullpen.

Ultimately, Jonathan Papelbon is neither holding the Phillies window open nor holding it shut. Like a newly-constructed school building, Papelbon has nothing to do with windows. His performance in 2015 is unlikely to noticeably affect the team's win total. At the same time, a strong performance, such as a repeat of last year, is unlikely to convince a trade partner to send away a prospect worth writing home about.

For Papelbon's sake, hopefully the Phillies find a contender interested in his services by the end of July. There, he might be able to help another team jump through their already-open window.

Let's just hope he gives us a good GIF or two before he leaves.