Note: I have no idea if I’m the first to do this, but quite frankly I don’t care.
Wait, don’t go! I swear I’m not crazy! Seriously, though, Jonathan Papelbon is an interesting case, one which has fascinated me ever since his last pitch with the Red Sox¹, and since the Jewish community² has been so gracious as to allot me this day off from school, I don’t really have anything better to do; hence, this.
While there has been a lot of criticism directed at Papelbon recently, the fact that everyone seems to overlook is that he is still a pretty good pitcher. It’s true that his strikeout rate has decreased dramatically (“only” 23.3% compared to 29.2% for his career); however, he has compensated for this by reducing his walk rate (4.2% compared to 6.4% for his career) and having a lower HR/FB% (6.1%, compared to 7.1% for his career). Consequently, while his xFIP and SIERA are both higher than his career numbers (3.43 and 2.93 compared to 3.09 and 2.50, respectively), his ERA and FIP (2.35 and 2.70, respectively) are right around his career numbers of 2.34 and 2.65; these numbers rank him him 33rd and 27th, respectively, out of 140 qualified relievers. Combine that with pitching in one of the more offense-friendly parks in baseball, and his WAR is 25th-best out of all relievers.
Now, the obvious counterpoint is that Jonathan Papelbon is not being paid the highest salary of any relief pitcher in all of baseball to be the 25th best. Obviously, this is true, and this post could very easily devolve into the usual “it’s not his fault Amaro’s a dipshit” argument; however, that’s not what I want to write about today. No, I choose to follow a higher calling: to determine whether or not Mr. Papelbon shall be enshrined forevermore in Cooperstown.
To do this, I decided to get a historical perspective, keeping in mind that the Hall of Fame voters are not sabermetrically-inclined, though they are still rational people³. Looking at the FanGraphs all-time ERA leaderboard, we see that Papelbon’s career ERA is the third-best all-time of pitchers with at least 500 relief IP, behind only Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner⁴. Looking at the Baseball-Reference all-time saves leaderboard⁵, we can see that Papelbon is 29th all-time in saves; establishing an arbitrary cutoff, we can see that 5 of the top 37 players in saves are in the Hall, and Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will obviously make that seven.
So, roughly 20% of the “elite” relief pitchers of all time are in Cooperstown. If Papelbon were to retire today, his chances would probably be slim, so the question becomes: how good can he be expected to be over the twilight of his career?
Papelbon is 32, and currently in the second year of a four-year contract. Since his birthday is conveniently located in the offseason⁶, we can identify the next two years as his age-33 and -34 seasons. Most reasonable people would say that the Phillies are several years away from being contenders, so a realistic assumption would be, say, 40 save opportunities over each season. This season, he’s converted 80% of his save opportunities (roughly league average); optimistically speaking, let’s say that rate holds up over the next two years. With Charlie Manuel now gone–and, hopefully, his attitude towards closers taken with him–Papelbon will also probably work some in tie games or games where the opponent has the lead. Let’s assume, again optimistically speaking, he pitches 70 innings each season, and continues to outperform his declining peripherals, allowing 20 earned runs in each season.
Now, the deal that he signed also had an option for a fifth year. Just a random speculation, but let’s say Ruben Amaro–being the genius that he is–decides to pay $10 million for a 35-year-old closer. At this point, there’s probably going to be a dropoff in Papelbon’s production; let’s say he converts 28 out of 40 save opportunities, and allows 24 earned runs in 60 innings.
What does all of this add up to?
That ERA would rank Papelbon as the 4th-best all-time among pitchers with at least 500 relief innings, and that save total would rank him 7th-best of all-time; in addition, this is assuming that he doesn’t pitch at all after the contract expires.
Another interesting angle: which active pitchers have similar cases to Papelbon? Aside from the Sandman, there are three active players ahead of Papelbon on the saves list; since one of them has probably ended his career (by pitching in a hot dog jersey, no less), that leaves but two: Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez⁷.
All three of them have sub-3.00 career ERA’s and have never (as far as I know) been connected to PEDs; Nathan and K-Rod each have more than 300 saves (a feat only 25 pitchers have accomplished). Rodriguez has accepted a non-closer role with the Orioles, and he may never close again. Even if his exceptional start with the O’s (1.82 xFIP! 1.60 SIERA!) is no mirage, it’s hard to envision him being enshrined; plus, y’know, there’s the whole “assaulted his girlfriend’s dad” thing, though it’s not like the voters ever exclude people on moral grounds. Nathan, on the other hand, has never had any off-the-field problems; the biggest crutch holding him back may be his age. He debuted at 24–the same age as Papelbon when he debuted–but took a while to figure things out⁸, and only started pitching really well from age 29 on, when he was traded to the Twins in one of the more infamous trades of the decade. While his career relief ERA is quite good (2.35, the same as Papelbon) his overall ERA is a not-quite-as-spectacular 2.78, and he’s shown some signs of wear at age 38, with a 3.29 BB/9 rate that’s his highest since 2003.
Overall, I–the baseball expert–would say that Papelbon has the greatest chance of the three of heading to Cooperstown. Papelbon has some other notable achievements–the first pitcher ever with 25 saves in each of his first five full seasons, the fastest pitcher ever to reach 200 saves–which may help his case. Overall, this was a pretty good usage of a Jewish holiday. If you read this article in its entirety, I probably just wasted a lot of your time, although it’s not like you definitely didn’t come here for that.
¹A pitch, I should add, that I will remember (and constantly remind Red Sox fans that I remember) until the day that I die.
²I tried to look up the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia clip where they talked about what to refer to Jewish people as, but I couldn’t find it. Does anyone know where that might be found? It’s from “The Gang Goes Jihad”, if that helps.
³Yes, I get that the tweet was sarcastic. The fact that he felt the need to joke about it proves that people with those archaic beliefs still exist.
⁴Wagner’s got an interesting Hall of Fame case as well–it’s outlined here.
⁵I used this instead of FanGraphs’ leaderboard because Baseball-Reference includes the “+” next to the player’s name if they’re a HOFer.
⁶I think a rule should be established saying only players with offseason birthdays can play baseball. That way, there won’t be any confusion with these midseason birthday guys–when people say “he’s in his age-__ season”, do they mean that was his age when he started the season, or that’s his age now?
⁷This could’ve been written about those two, but I chose to focus on Papelbon because cases for Nathan and for Rodriguez have already been outlined, and–as far as I could tell–none such actions had been taken for Papelbon.
⁸People really forget just how bad Nathan was in those early years. In 1999 and 2000, he pitched 183.2 innings, with a 4.70 ERA and a 5.70 FIP, due largely to a 5.34 BB/9 rate; to top it all off, he did it pitching in SAN FRANCISCO.
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