Only a few days ago, it seemed as though the Phillies would be going into the 2012 season with the bullpen set just as in 2011: with Ryan Madson as closer. The rumored four-year, $44 million dollar deal between Madson and the Phillies blew up nearly as soon as it was “confirmed.” Less than a week later, the Phillies have reached an agreement with a new closer. According to Jim Salisbury of Comcast Sports Philadelphia, Jonathan Papelbon will be the Phillies new closer after inking a four-year, $50 million contract on Friday. The deal also includes a $10 million vesting option for a fifth year.
The analysis on long, expensive contracts for relievers tends to be simple: don’t do it. Despite the quantity of data suggesting otherwise, though, teams continue to hand these deals out. This is either a case of the biggest winner’s curse in sports or, potentially, the teams know something we don’t.
As such, the more pressing question, at least to me, is whether the Phillies were correct in tabbing Papelbon over Madson. The first round draft pick the Phillies pay for signing the Type-A Papelbon will likely be recouped through a compensation pick from the similarly classified Madson. Six million dollars over four years isn’t a significant difference for a team like the Phillies, either, so I think it’s fair to simply look at the merits of each pitcher on the field.
The above visualization charts the ERA- and the FIP- of both pitchers over their careers. The chart can be tough to read in its default form, but if you click on the image above, you will be taken to a page which gives the options to highlight ERA- and FIP- individually*, which I think paints a better picture.
*To do this, simply click on the lines of interest.
It is worth noting that Madson’s career picture is a bit tainted by his 2006 season, one in which he failed as a starter before moving back to the bullpen. Still, outside of the past two seasons, Papelbon has been far superior in terms of ERA-. Looking at FIP-, Papelbon even returned to his fantastic 2006-2008 form, a time when he was truly an elite reliever. Overally, Papelbon holds a dominant career lead in both categories. His career 52 ERA- has never been beaten in a single season for Madson (82 career ERA-), and Papelbon’s 58 FIP- has only been equaled by Madson (83 career FIP-) once, in 2011.
In projecting relievers — particularly relievers entering their age 31 seasons, as both Madson and Papelbon will do this season — attrition rates are key as well. These rates are high overall, but the previous career success of Papelbon has to make him the more reliable choice of the two. Papelbon has never had a stint on the disabled list and has spent the last six years of his career closing in the toughest league and division in the game. Madson has been relatively injury free himself, but has missed time with shoulder, hand, and oblique injuries. In terms of reliability, Papelbon gets the edge.
Madson has made a big career surge recently, but there is little reason to expect him to improve over his 2010-2011 performance. We have seen the top of the mountain for him. Papelbon showed the kind of stuff in 2011 that made him great from 2007 to 2009. If we see that Papelbon for even just the first two years of his new contract, he will end up with more value than Madson, particularly to a Philadelphia Phillies team with a championship window significantly wider in 2012 than it will be in 2014.