So Long, Pap: It was Nice While it Lasted

The Red Sox lost today, completing a sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox. I’d spend this blog talking about how I don’t think Boston’s going to the playoffs, but I didn’t think that BEFORE this sweep (I first mentioned “the feeling” a month ago), so repeating it here is completely unnecessary. So with nothing but meaningless games left this season, it’s time to start thinking about next season. And the question to be addressed is: what do we do with Jonathan Papelbon? 2011 will mark his final season under the Red Sox before he becomes eligible for free agency. There are arguments to keeping him for one more season, and there are arguments for trying to trade him in the off-season. Let’s analyze:

Known Quantity in an Off-Season of Unknowns

The Red Sox are going to enter this off-season with multiple needs to address. Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez will both become free agents, meaning the Red Sox will need at least one more catcher, plus they will probably want to keep someone with more experience than Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Additionally, both Red Sox third basemen- Adrian Beltre and Mike Lowell- are going to be free agents (though Lowell will likely retire). Lastly, the team will need to decide whether or not David Ortiz is worth the $12.5 million exercising his club option would cost. Martinez, Beltre, and Ortiz all potentially leaving means the Red Sox will probably have to address a power outage within its roster. With no particularly notable closers going on the market this winter (with the exception of Mariano Rivera, but he’ll probably re-sign with the Yankees), it might be a bad idea to trade a four-time All-Star. Keeping Papelbon will allow the Red Sox to focus almost entirely on offense this off-season. With so many questions already needing answers this off-season (not to mention our bullpen problems and the lack of effectiveness of Hideki Okajima), it doesn’t make sense to create another one unnecessarily by trading away a still-reliable closer. And with Daniel Bard flourishing as a set-up reliever, why mess with a good thing?

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

For a sabermetrics-loving general manager like Theo Epstein, numbers tell far more about a player’s effectiveness than subjective observations about his make-up. And, unfortunately, the numbers don’t speak well of 2010 Jonathan Papelbon. The first number is seven. So far, Papelbon has blown seven saves this season. That’s more than in any other season so far, and the season’s not yet over. The next number is 22. That’s how many earned runs he’s given up, again more than in any other season. Then there’s six. That’s how many home runs he’s given up this season and, yup, that’s a career-high. But the numbers don’t end there. 24 is how many walks he’s given up, tied with last year’s career-high (which means he’ll likely finish the season with more walks than ever before). 60 is his current number of strikeouts, projected to finish at 71, lower than ever before. 3.36 is his current ERA, higher than ever before. And while his 43 hits allowed project to finish at 51, lower than in his previous two seasons, that is cold comfort. The numbers all show that Papelbon is starting to decline, especially if we throw out 2009’s low ERA as an aberation (he walked three times as many batters in 2009 as in 2008, and his hits allowed and home runs were about the same; my guess for the lower ERA was that he allowed fewer extra-base hits). In fact, his WHIP (his walks plus hits per inning pitched) has steadily increased since 2006. He is putting more and more men on base each season, and that will translate to more earned runs and more blown saves.

Not only that, but there are signs that Papelbon may be giving up mentally. In four of his seven blown saves he has given up three earned runs or more. That tells me that when things start to get hard for Papelbon he becomes unraveled rather than baring down and collecting himself. In fact, through 35 of his saves this season he has allowed runs just twice. This suggests that if he isn’t essentially perfect he comes completely unglued. His stat line is filled with scoreless saves and high-scoring blown saves. There’s no middle ground with him. Were everything under his control, this would all be fine. But baseball is a mind game between the pitcher and the hitter (and the catcher, to a lesser extent). Papelbon seems unable to lose a battle without losing the war. Fluke hits are an unavoidable part of baseball, and a mentally stronger player could shake them off and still record the save. Papelbon can’t, and I worry he will continue to get more and more easily unnerved as the seasons go on. As a power pitcher, his pitches tend to be more easily hittable when they’re not thrown right (plus he is terrible at pitching to contact to get ground outs). And his ever-increasing WHIP shows that he’s becoming more seeable. This will translate to more situations with men on, and Papelbon is showing this season that he lacks the mental make-up necessary to get through those situations safely. If the Red Sox want to contend next year, it might be time to use Papelbon to fill a bigger need and move Bard up to closer.

Can Bard Close?

Daniel Bard has pitched six more innings than Papelbon, and his numbers are much better. His ERA (1.80) is lower. He has also given up less hits (37 vs. 43), walks (22 vs. 24), and earned runs (13 vs. 22) than Papelbon has. His WHIP, that oh-so-indicative stat, is much better (.91 vs 1.14). He has saved three games, showing he at least CAN do it. And through the entire season he has yet to give up more than two earned runs in one outing. His potential for implosion seems far less likely. We won’t know for sure if he has the steely reserve you want in a closer, but now is the time to find out. And so with that I make my final entreatment to the Red Sox: bench Papelbon. Or at the very least, switch his role with Bard’s. Let’s use the final month of games to see if we have a new viable closer for 2011. If Bard CAN pitch, then the Red Sox can trade Papelbon and try to fill one of their open positions. For instance, if San Diego flops out of the playoffs and the bullpen is to blame (their closer, Heath Bell, has never finished a season with an ERA under 2.00 before, whereas Papelbon has three times), perhaps Boston could unload Papelbon for Adrian Gonzalez.

If, however, Bard struggles, now is the time to find out. If that happens, the Red Sox can go back to the table and try to sign Papelbon to a big-money extension. However, they’ll have three seasons’ worth of decline in performance to justify a lower salary than Papelbon might think he is worth. They might be able to convince him to sign for what they offer him rather than risk another season with even WORSE stats, which would produce even LOWER offers come free agency.

Statistics show that Papelbon’s performance has declined steadily each season since he got to the majors. The Red Sox have the opportunity in the next month to answer the question of whether or not he should close next year. These games are meaningless, so why not take the chance? If Bard can close, then there’s no point in keeping a physically declining and mentally incapable closer. Trade him while you can still get something for him. If Bard CAN’T close, by all means take your All-Star pitcher and pay him a lot of money. But now you won’t have to pay him quite so much because his last season will have been marked by a loss of effectiveness and an eventual loss of the closer’s role. Papelbon has steadily declined from an A+ closer to an A-/B+ closer. Many teams win championships with closers like that (we did it with Keith Foulke, remember, and the Diamondbacks did it with Byung-Hyun Kim). But we MIGHT have a potential A closer in Daniel Bard. So let’s use this pointless final month of the season to find out what we’re going to have next year: a brand new closer who can throw harder than Papelbon ever could, or a decent and experienced closer whose pay is finally commensurate with his experience (and not a penny more).

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