Targeting Jonathan Papelbon

There is a lot of disagreement among fantasy players about when to start taking relief pitchers. The one thing that most agree upon is that the first one to take is Jonathan Papelbon. The Red Sox closer has a three-year track record of success, pitches for a team that should clear 90 wins and is a young 28, with only 230 major league innings on his arm. Papelbon has an ADP of 54, which means that fantasy players start targeting relievers in the middle of the fifth round.

Papelbon’s K/9 fell from an otherworldly 12.96 in 2007 to 10.00 last year. But he compensated by cutting his walks in half. His BB/9 checked in last year at a minuscule 1.04, which was the third-lowest mark for relievers. After back-to-back seasons with a BABIP in the .230s, Papelbon had a .313 mark last year. Combined with a LOB% of 69.5 percent, he saw increases last year in both his WHIP and his ERA.

With a more typical distribution with his LOB% (the only player with 15 or more saves to have a lower rate was Brandon Lyon) Papelbon could easily exceed last year’s overall numbers. And if no pitcher challenges for the all-time saves record, Papelbon could meet pre-season expectations by being the top fantasy closer at the end of the year.

But fantasy players have to ask themselves how much they are willing to pay for Papelbon’s track record. Is it worth taking him in the fifth round, while passing on players like Joe Mauer and Dan Haren? Especially when 30-save pitchers like Kerry Wood and B.J. Ryan are available eight rounds later? Both of those players have had injury problems in the recent past, which makes the Papelbon decision not so cut-and-dried.

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Papelbon’s ADP was 44 last year. You could’ve had Beckett (45), Sabathia (49), or Hamels (55) in that same round.

Alternatively, Brian Wilson’s ADP was 206 last year. You could’ve had Pettitte (210), Gorzelanny (213), Randy Johnson (216), or Guthrie (222) in that same round.

What combination is more valuable? Papelbon and Pettitte or Wilson and Sabathia?

Assume your team’s other generic five starters and two closers posts this line:
1000 IP, 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 833 K (7.5 K/9), 75 W, 50 SV

Here’s Papelbon and Pettitte added to that:
1272 IP, 3.85 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 1068 K (7.6 K/9), 92 W, 91 SV

Here’s Wilson and Sabathia added to that:
1319 IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 1150 K (7.8 K/9), 92 W, 92 SV

Here’s Papelbon alone:
1068 IP, 3.81 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 910 K (7.67 K/9), 91 SV

Here’s Wilson alone:
1061 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 900 K (7.63 K/9), 91 SV

I guess my point is, closers are one-trick ponies. Papelbon’s ratios look nice compared to Wilson, but the bottom two lines show that Papelbon doesn’t have too much of a positive effect over Wilson in those categories. The innings just aren’t significant enough. Starters, on the other hand, contribute significantly in four categories. It’s much easier to find a quality, reliable starter in the 5th round than it is in the 12th round. It isn’t difficult to find a 20+ save closer who can strike a few guys out in the 12th or later. I think the first two lines illustrate that nicely.

There’s an additional argument that three great relievers can essentially equal another starter, minus the wins. Last year, one owner in a league of mine took Papelbon and Nathan in the 4th and 5th, and then added Rivera in the 8th. Here’s their combined production last season:

207.1 IP, 1.69 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 12 W, 119 SV, 228 K (9.9 K/9)

Looks gaudy. You’re going to be highly competitive in saves, and your getting ratios that are equivalent to a career year from an elite starter. Their logic is valid, but you can still utilize that strategy without paying for closers. Even if you scraped the very bottom of the barrel last year with Wilson, Sherrill, and Gregg, here’s your output:

184.1 IP, 4.44 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 13 W, 101 SV, 199 K (9.72 K/9)

That’s equivalent to having Andy Pettitte (204 IP, 4.54 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 14 W, 158 K) in your rotation for a full season, except you’re adding 101 saves and some strikeouts.

The big difference is, the second scenario freed up your 4th, 5th, and 8th round picks for offense and starting pitching. Selecting Sabathia in the 4th, Hamels in the 5th, and Halladay in the 8th last year quickly made an Andy Pettitte in your rotation easier to swallow. They are going to neutralize the ratios from the closers without much of a problem, plus you’re still at the top in saves. Selecting Paps, Nathan, and Rivera means you’re sacrificing a lot of offense, starting pitching, or both. That owner’s draft went Utley, Teixeira, Manny, the two closers, Verlander and Furcal in the 6th and 7th, his third closer, Beltre in the 9th, Swisher in the 10th, Fukudome in the 11th, and then a run of Billingsley, Hughes, and Pettitte in the 12th-14th rounds. Billingsley was a good pick, but this guy was relying on the waiver wire (Dempster and Lee helped him significantly) early and often for pitching help. He had some bad luck injury wise, but the closer selections didn’t work in his favor, despite their excellent combined performance.

Another example of making the “teens closers” work for you: had you plugged Wood, Marmol, and Lidge into your lineup last year, this would be their combined output:

223 IP, 2.26 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9 W, 82 SV, 290 K (11.7 K/9)

That’s Pedro Martinez circa 1997 with Matt Cain’s luck. Plus, you’ve got 82 saves, alone enough to put you in the middle of the pack in most roto leagues.

Even if Papelbon returns to his 12.96 K/9 in 70 IP, adding 100 K to your total, it would only propel the 7.5 K/9 in the initial example line above to 7.8 K/9. To put this into perspective, if you wanted to “buffer” your 7.5 K/9 in the line above (trying to put my Biology degree to work), Papelbon would allow you to take on a 200 IP starter with a K/9 of 5.6 (Hideki Kuroda, Jeremy Guthrie, Jamie Moyer). Wilson’s 9.67 K/9 in 70 IP would add 75 K to your total, sufficiently buffer a 200 IP starter with a K/9 of 6.8 K/9 (Cliff Lee, James Shields, Jon Lester). I concede that a ridiculous K/9 close to 13 could allow you to take on low K/9 starters with good ratios and become more competitive in ERA, WHIP, and K. That being said, I still don’t think a K/9 close to 13 makes a closer worthy of an early-round selection. The post-12th round closers still have high K/9, specifically referring to Francisco (11.8), Fuentes (11.7), Wood (11.4), Hanrahan (9.9), and Wilson (9.6). You can always stack some high-K middle relievers like Balfour (12.7), Cruz (12.4), or Kuo (11.2) if you’re extremely worried about a low K/9. These guys usually carry the added benefit of being next-in-line for closer gigs and are good to stash if you’ve got room on your roster.

So, in conclusion, don’t draft closers before the teens.


Great stuff Clayton. You broke down the “don’t pay for closers” to a tee. It’s amazing looking at these expert mock drafts and closer still go way above their value; but maybe owners love that security blanket of a solid closer.