Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Papelbon in Pinstripes

Red ones, anyway.

So, it’s official. There was a press conference and everything. Jonathan Papelbon is the newest member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Whenever a big free agent changes teams, two questions pop up. Was it a good signing for the new team? Will the old team miss him? In this case, your answer will have many levels depending on what you’re looking at.

From the Phillies end? They got a great closer. Is he worth the money they gave him? I have no idea. I’m on record saying that I don’t care one little bit how much a player is paid or overpaid, as long as it doesn’t prohibit other moves. So, if the Phillies have huge holes that they can’t fill because they’re giving Pap $50 million, that’s a problem. Otherwise, they’ll love seeing Papelbon storm out of the bullpen in the ninth inning for years to come.

The more relevant question is will the Red Sox miss him? I guess that depends on what you think of closers in general. Are they key members of a team? Are they just fun for the fans? Are they a way for managers to not think? Was Mariano River a crucial member of multiple championship teams, or is he an overrated pitcher who’s not good enough to be a starter? (I’ll let you guess which end I come down on that one.) I’ve said many times that I loved being at Fenway when “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” blared through the air. It was fun. But, what if Daniel Bard came out to that song instead of Pap. Would it matter?

Maybe. Papelbon was an elite closer. More often than not, he shut the door on the other team. He didn’t even leave room for them to imagine a comeback. But, can you get a save without doing that? Sure. Closers can lead the league in saves without ever having a 1-2-3 inning. As long as you don’t give up the runs, the team wins. So, how hard is it to pitch one inning without blowing the lead? Not very. For a little exercise, let’s look at a non-closer.

I’ll pick a Red Sox starter. To hide his identity and prevent bias, I’ll just call him Ron Slackey. Mr. Slackey pitched for the Sox in 2011 and had a terrible season. Maybe the worst season ever by a starter. But, how would that season translate into a closer? Let’s see. I looked at Mr. Slackey’s September record. Why September? Because I’m too lazy to look at his whole season. Slackey’s numbers in September 2011 stood at an 0-2 record, and a 9.13 ERA. He gave up 24 earned runs in 23.2 innings. So, just for comparison, let’s pretend that instead of five or six starts, those numbers were broken into 24 different 1-inning outings…like a closer.

In order to record a save, a closer could enter a game in the ninth inning with as much as a three-run lead, and pitch one inning without giving up the lead. So, in how many of his September innings did Slackey give up three or more runs? Three. So, in only three innings would the worst starter in baseball history have blown a three-run lead during his worst month. Or, an 87.5% save percentage. Not too bad. What about the 1-run leads? How many scoreless innings did Slackey throw in September 2011? Fourteen. So, even with a one-run lead, the worst starter in baseball history would have converted 58% of his save chances. For the record, he would have saved a 2-run lead 70.8% of the time.

What on earth does all this mean? That this horrible pitcher should be expected to save a 3-run lead 87.5% of the time. What would an average pitcher be expected to do? Or, a decent one? Suddenly, you realize that the ability to save games isn’t exactly rare. Really, just about any pitcher should be expected to convert a save opportunity.

Yes, I know this isn’t a perfect example. Teams play differently at the ends of games. They don’t sacrifice bunt in the first innings, but they don’t play the infield in either. As the game goes on, Slackey may have gotten more comfortable, but the batters would also see him a second time. So, it may all be a wash in the comparison. In any event, there it is.

So, will the Sox miss Jonathan Papelbon? Sure. He’s a good pitcher. Will they miss having him in the closer role? Maybe not. It seems to me that they can find someone for much less than $50 million to save games. Then, they can use that money to get a DH. Or a right fielder. Or a starter. Or, is that why they can afford Crawford and Gonzalez? Because they knew Pap was off the books? If this gives the Sox the ability to do other things, let Pap walk to Philly.

Just don’t turn and give Heath Bell $45 million.

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