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Papelbon’s Status

Last night, the Red Sox handed a one run lead to Jonathan Papelbon. He managed to record just one out while giving up a pair of home runs, losing the game for Boston in the process. It was his fourth loss of the season. He’s now allowed six home runs on the season, more than he’s given up in any prior season, and it’s not even July yet. His striekout rate has fallen from 10.06 last year to 7.58 this year. Given his problems, it’s only natural that people are suggesting that perhaps its time to give Daniel Bard a shot to close games.

I don’t think that’s a great idea, however.

While Papelbon has certainly struggled, we’re still dealing with a sample of just 125 batters facced, and his underlying skills don’t seem to have changed much. His velocity is the same as always. His swinging strike rate, generally a more accurate predictor of future strikeout rate than actual strikeouts, is right at his career average. His first strike percentage is nearly a career high, so he’s not falling behind hitters and having to serve up gopher balls.

And yet, it hasn’t translated into success. Whether its a location issue or just small sample noise, it would appear that the issues he’s having should be fixable with a little bit of patience.

Some would argue that perhaps Papelbon shouldn’t be working through these problems in the ninth inning, and I would be more sympathetic to that argument if they had a good alternative. However, Bard is not one – not yet.

One of the keys to being a shut down closer is to be able to retire hitters from both sides of the plate. You don’t get to selectively use your closer when the match-ups are in his favor, as you can with middle relievers. As such, if three left-handed hitters were due up in the 9th inning of a one run game, and Bard was the closer, he’d be on the mound. Except, you don’t really want Daniel Bard on the mound against left-handed hitters in a high leverage situation.

This year, Bard has faced 78 lefties and posted a 4.56 xFIP against them. He has struck out just 12 while walking 8 (plus hitting another batter), which pales in comparison to the 27/4 K/BB ratio that he’s running against righties. He was better at blowing lefties away a year ago, but still struggled to throw strikes against them, and now sports a career 4.13 xFIP vs left-handed hitters.

Bard has good enough stuff to get lefties out, and in time, he could indeed be a quality ninth inning guy. But right now, the Red Sox are better off letting Papelbon work through his issues.