Phillies Pick Papelbon Over Madson

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.



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Kyle
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Kyle

Sign Lidge to a 3-year, $36MM deal. Learn nothing from the experience. Sign Papelbon to a richer deal for more years.

DD
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DD

Check, check, check.

Robbie G.
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Robbie G.

Depressing, isn’t it?

Why couldn’t Philly save themselves tens of millions of dollars by promoting Antonio Bastardo to closer, waiting for the big spenders to blow their wads in free agency, and signing one or two extremely affordable relievers to replace Bastardo’s production? Or promoting a minor leaguer or two; seems like Philly has a fair number of good relief pitchers at the AA and AAA levels of their farm system.

I mean, if St. Louis can win the World Series with a closer whose name I can’t even think of off the top of my head, can’t Philly win the World Series with Bastardo closing ballgames?

And why is Philly seemingly on the verge of spending a bunch more money on Michael Cuddyer, who will, upon Ryan Howard’s return, be a platoon player (with John Mayberry), at best? Mayberry looked like a pretty good every day ballplayer to me during the final couple of months of last season. Nice all around player and obviously at a very nice price.

Robbie G.
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Robbie G.

Sorry, I just realized that Cuddyer and Mayberry are both right-handed, in which case I officially have no idea how Philly justifies a relatively large contract for Cuddyer upon Ryan Howard’s return. I will be surprised if Cuddyer is more productive in 2012 than Mayberry, so demoting Mayberry once again for the sole purpose of justifying a relatively large contract for Cuddyer just does not seem like a good idea.

A few veteran left-handed outfielders who would probably be perfectly serviceable as a regular until Ryan Howard return, and some or all of whom will likely be quite affordable: David DeJesus, Johnny Damon, Kosuke Fukudome, Laynce Nix.

Kyle
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Kyle

It’s frustrating. The cash could be so better spent elsewhere. Even a closer-by-committee would have been better than paying him this much. The team has many more glaring needs.

Ruben Amaro has wasted a remarkable amount of money recently. In addition to the Papelbon deal, let’s not forget the disgusting contract he gave to Ryan Howard (it pisses me off to even think about) two years before he needed to. He could have let Howard’s contract expire and signed the far superior Pujols or Fielder for less money (since Howard’s deal set the market for first basemen). Here’s to hoping Amaro gets run out of town.

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