Jonathan Papelbon walked off the mound in Cleveland on Tuesday night with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and no outs. That’s not what you want from your closer. Papelbon put the game in jeopardy by walking Jose Ramirez and giving up a double to Tyler Naquin to begin the inning, which led to a comedy of errors that tied the score and forced a pitching change. Papelbon then watched from the bench as Francisco Lindor beat a ground ball through the right side of the infield against Oliver Perez, completing the second ninth-inning meltdown by the Nationals bullpen in as many games, each initiated by Papelbon.
On the heels of a fruitless pursuit of Aroldis Chapman and amidst continued trade rumors targeting a high-profile relief pitcher, Jon Heyman tweeted the following after Tuesday night’s blowup:
it’s ok not to beat that cubs offer for chapman, but the nats still need a closer. badly.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) July 27, 2016
And, yeah. Papelbon probably isn’t the greatest high-leverage relief option for a contending team. Among the 32 relievers who’ve recorded at least 10 save opportunities this season, Papelbon’s ERA- ranks 28th, and while that figure did look fine just a few days ago, we can’t pretend that these last two games didn’t happen, and we can’t pretend like the red flags don’t exist either. Papelbon’s lost another half-tick off his velocity from last year, and is now down to averaging under 91 mph on his fastball. The walk rate is higher than it’s been in five years. He’s posting the worst K-BB% of his career and his lowest ground-ball rate since his early days in Boston. More and more of Papelbon’s age is showing, and he now projects as something like the fifth-best reliever on his own team moving forward.
Papelbon projects as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and he’s pitched as something like Washington’s fifth-best reliever, and yet he’s also pitched Washington’s most important innings. Hence, the Nationals looking for outside help regarding their closer role. But, do they really need to go outside the organization? Don’t they already have an elite closer, worthy of trusting in high-leverage innings down the stretch and into the postseason? Don’t they already have Shawn Kelley?