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August 17, 2010

Give and Take

Jonathan Papelbon

by Marc Normandin and Jay Jaffe

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Jonathan Papelbon has not made many new friends in Boston since the American League Division Series in 2009, to the point where many fans and even analysts are curious about his future with the team. Marc Normandin and Jay Jaffe go over the pros and cons for the Red Sox keeping Papelbon around in 2011 and whether he should stay or go.

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Marc Normandin: Jonathan Papelbon has been a disappointment for the Red Sox, but the reality of the situation is that he is the team's second-best reliever in spite of his performance. He ranks 27th overall in WXRL, which looks solid until you realize he's being paid to be one of the very best relievers in the majors, not to be a good complementary piece. He hasn't even hit his free agency years yet, so he's in line for another raise via arbitration. Based on what he has been awarded so far in the process, chances are good he will make at least $12 million in 2011. He's at $9.35 million now, with an implied free-agent value of $15.5 million-80 percent of that implied value (the average cost of the final year of arbitration) would be $12.4 million. That's a great deal of money for a relief pitcher that isn't on a free-agent contract, and given the way his peripherals have been trending since 2008, a number he will be hard-pressed to deserve.

Papelbon's troubles are nothing new, as you could see the decline coming from as far back as 2008. From his Baseball Prospectus 2009 comment:

At times, Papelbon is a one-pitch closer, since he mostly throws fastballs, with only the occasional splitter to finish off a hitter. That trend was even more pronounced in 2008, as Papelbon threw even more fastballs, partially to combat the lack of swings and misses on splitters in the dirt. His declining strikeout rate reflects the change in hitters' approaches to the pitch, but he compensated by dramatically improving his ground-ball rate. The dip in splitters and wasted pitches dropped his pitches per plate appearance from 4.1 to 3.8, which also helped him lower his walk rate. As long as he displays this level of control, Sox fans will have nothing to worry about.

The last line of that is key, as Papelbon did not continue to display that level of control. In fact, his walk rate tripled in 2009 and his splitter has still not returned to being a weapon he can rely on. His ERA was 1.85, so no one seemed to notice until his ALDS meltdown against the Angels, but his newfound ability to get outs on the ground also vanished, as his ground-ball rate dropped from nearly 50 percent to 26 percent. His SIERA was 3.21, which is a significant difference from his actual ERA, and also something that puts a dent in his WXRL (which is outcome-based, unlike a runs estimator). This year his SIERA is 3.88, higher than his 3.20 ERA. Even with all the trouble Papelbon has been in, he has a .248 BABIP, and hasn't had poor luck stranding baserunners as he is still above the league average in that regard. There's still room to fall performance-wise, and an ERA in the high threes is nowhere near as impressive for a reliever as it would be for a starting pitcher.

You can't count on him to be worth a couple of wins above replacement, and he's set to be paid like he is an elite option. The Red Sox' first choice is to keep Papelbon around in 2011 and wait out the final year of team control, then offer him arbitration and wait for someone to overpay him as a free agent. This approach will net them compensation picks in the amateur draft. This is the most likely option, but there is another-non-tender him.

If the Sox were to non-tender him, they wouldn't get anything back, but they would also have around $12 million freed up to put toward other team needs-of which there are many.

Jay Jaffe: I realize it's somewhat incongruous for a Yankees partisan to play devil's advocate on an issue concerning a pitcher that Yankees fans love to hate, but I can't help but be struck by a parallel to the scenario Marc has outlined above. Namely, it smacks of a certain faction of Yankee fans' desires to see Joba Chamberlain traded amid his ongoing struggles.

Both Papelbon and Chamberlain seem to have fallen far from the dizzying heights of their 2007-2008 performances, stoking outrage and puzzlement among their followers. Of course, the comparison breaks down because of the disparity between the two pitchers' salaries. Chamberlain is making less than half a million dollars this year and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time, whereas Papelbon is in his final year of arb eligibility and pushing eight figures.

While most of us like to stoke our inner Steinbrenner when we run our fantasy teams, releasing struggling players only because we can't order summary executions instead, the reality of a major-league general manager is much different. A good GM won't simply punt a high-upside player because he's on a bad stretch that depresses his value. On the contrary, a good GM will take advantage of the gap between the player's perceived value and his actual value, and call Ed Wade or some other sucker to see if he'll take him off his hands.

In an industry where Brad Lidge is being paid an eight-figure salary to close games for a contender while flirting with replacement level, Papelbon has tremendous value. This is a pitcher who's compiled a 2.04 ERA while whiffing 10.1 hitters per nine innings in his five-plus seasons. Only Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan can top that ERA, and only seven pitchers can top that strikeout rate. Only two of those seven, Rivera and Lidge, have closed out a World Series. Papelbon not only has "the Scarlet C," he has it with distinction.

Plus, even if Papelbon gets his raise to $12 million, he won't be the game's highest-paid closer, nor will his salary look out of line when compared to the other eight-figure closers. Rivera, whose contract expires at the end of this season, is making $15 million a year and has shown no signs that he needs to walk away. Lidge, Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, and Francisco Cordero will all make between $10 million-$12 million next year-which of those pitchers would you rather have than Papelbon? The guy whose manager buried him after he blew a game in last year's World Series? The one recovering from Tommy John surgery? The schmuck with the domestic violence issues?

Marc makes a persuasive case that Papelbon's performance is eroding, but it's worth remembering that reliever performances are fairly volatile from year to year due to the relatively small number of innings they throw. Even during his so-called decline phase, Papelbon's month-to-month performances have included some lights-out stretches:


Month       ERA     IP    K/9  K/UIBB
April '09   1.74   10.1   8.7   1.7
May '09     3.09   11.2  11.6   3.0
June '09    0.75   12.0   6.8   1.5
July '09    2.45   11.0  10.6   4.3
August '09  1.69   10.2  13.5   4.0
Sept '09    1.46   12.1   9.5   N/A
April '10   2.25   12.0   6.8   1.1
May '10     3.60   10.0   7.2   2.7
June '10    5.73   11.0   9.0  11.0
July '10    0.00   10.1   7.8   3.0
August '10  4.91    7.1  11.0   1.8

Does Papelbon flip the calendar from one month to the next and alternate between pitching like the 2007 guy and channeling his inner Fernando Cabrera? No. He's had one and a half lousy months in that entire span, and even then he's gotten the job done far more often than not.

If the Sox non-tender Papelbon, they'll get nothing for him, not even the draft picks they'd receive a year from now which would be worth in excess of $10 million in future WARP given Papelbon's likely Type-A status. If general manager Theo Epstein truly doesn't want him, one has to think he can pull off a sign-and-trade, even if it comes to eating a bit of that $12 million salary in order to get back higher-quality prospects. The bottom line is that there are more options at his disposal than just letting an All-Star caliber closer walk away for free.

Marc: The Sox have numerous needs beyond their bullpen. According to Cot's Contracts, the Red Sox have $100 million in obligations for 2011, a significant drop from their $168 million payroll at present, but this financial flexibility comes from the opening of various holes on the roster and doesn't include raises for the players under team control and arbitration eligible. That $100 million is going to climb quickly once they make moves to either re-sign or replace Adrian Beltre, pick up David Ortiz' $12.5 million option (or decline it and re-sign him for less), re-sign or replace Victor Martinez, and then pay Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in arbitration. That's without even getting into whether or not they will be in on the race for free agent Carl Crawford. They can hit 2010 levels again, but don't expect them to go much higher-they aren't the Yankees, despite their deep pockets.

There are better uses for that $12.4 million than Papelbon-see all of the names above, in addition to free-agent relievers like Scott Downs, Grant Balfour, Jason Frasor, Chad Qualls, or Matt Thornton among others. You could pick up a few of those arms using that $12 million-building a bullpen from within is a cheaper route and arguably as much of a crapshoot, but the Red Sox don't have the arms on hand to do this and therefore have to pay for bullpen upgrades at present. They require depth in the 'pen, which is arguably more important for 2011 than having Papelbon around in order to turn him into draft picks (see: 2010).

Jay: I'm not disputing that the Sox have other big needs for 2011, nor am I suggesting that the Papelbon decision should be examined in a vacuum. But this isn't a team that has to mind every nickel; the Sox ranked third in revenue last year according to Forbes.com, and the odds are that they'll rank high again this year, even if their standing reservation in the postseason is in jeopardy. So I don't think it's a case where signing Papelbon for $12.4 million and keeping him through next year would preclude them from making the other moves they need to make.

Beyond that, as you run through the options for potential free agents whom the Sox could call upon to build a bullpen, it's worth noting that Papelbon has got a much longer track record of success-and health-than guys like Qualls, Balfour and Downs, or even a bigger-dollar free agent like Rafael Soriano, who's unlikely to be re-signed by Tampa Bay. A team can quickly make a mess doling out several million dollars here and there to Proven Middle Relievers; GMs who forget the lessons of pacts like those of Steve Karsay, Bob Howry, Scott Linebrink, David Riske, and-wait for it-Ramiro Mendoza are doomed to repeat them. You can't just grab a bunch of those guys and assume that value is linear; the contributions of three 1.0 WARP pitchers don't add up to the worth of one 3.0 WARP pitcher (roughly Papelbon's pace this year after averaging 4.6 per year from 2007-09) because of the value of the roster spots.

Let's not forget that set-up man Daniel Bard's track record isn't all that long, either. He's only three years removed from a bout with Steve Blass Disease, has just over 100 major-league innings under his belt, and struggled over the last third of 2009 (6.15 ERA, 5.2 BB/9 from August 1 onward). Can he make it through a full season pitching effectively in the majors, let alone closing? He's overly reliant on his fastball, which he throws about 75 percent of the time. What happens if/when his velocity dips?

It occurs to me that while it won't be a popular decision with Papelbon, right now might actually be a good time to give Bard a spin at closer. I don't doubt that he has the ability or even the intestinal fortitude to close, but I'd be interested to see how well his stuff holds up in the dog days of August with 50 innings under his belt (checking his game log, he's been scored upon in three of his last seven outings). At the very least, such a move would cut into Papelbon's save total and lower his leverage a bit come arbitration time. If the Sox fall much further out of the wild-card spot, it's an avenue worth exploring.

Marc: That WARP total for Papelbon in 2010 is misleading though (as well as his 2009 figure), given what his performance should look like. His SIERA is well off the pace of his ERA, and as a better predictor of future performance, is worrisome. In theory, you would be signing other relievers to fill out depth in the bullpen instead of paying Papelbon to be the second act in a two-man show-the Red Sox lack the internal options to do this, and have to use free agency. Considering Michael Bowden, a fly-ball pitcher with iffy strikeout stuff who hasn't dominated in the high minors, is supposed to improve the bullpen goes to show you how desperate they are in that regard.

It's not that Balfour, Thornton, etc. are better options than Papelbon, it's that they will be cheaper, and as 2010 has shown, you need to have more options in the pen. If you're concerned about Bard's future, then that makes the Red Sox' revamping of their bullpen even more of a priority because they can't rely on him to produce three-fourths of the pen's WXRL again.

Non-tendering Papelbon may not be the best way to go about this, as you've made clear, but having him on the payroll in 2011 may not make much sense for the club either given their other areas of need and the lack of depth in the 'pen.

Jay: I think you're overthinking the SIERA/ERA gap a bit, in that Papelbon is still more likely to regress toward his career numbers than he is his 2010 SIERA. We've got a whole lot more data suggesting he's a pitcher whose ERA should be in the low twos than in the high threes. Even taking into account the dollar disparity between his salary and the potential free agents you've listed, I do find it curious that your No. 1 solution to a lack of depth in the bullpen is to jettison the guy who's given them the most reliable performance there over the past five years, one of the most reliable performances of any major-league closer.

Building a bullpen is hard work even under the best of circumstances. Through farm system, trade, and free agency, you round up a bunch of live arms of different shapes, sizes, and angles hoping the vast majority of them stay healthy, and try not to overreact to small sample sizes or fan bases bearing pitchforks while hoping that your manager is on the same page.

 The Sox bullpen is just 10th in the league in WXRL right now, so it's tough to argue that the posse Epstein and company have put at Terry Francona's disposal this year has been a success, particularly when the six-win gap between their WXRL and that of Tampa Bay is larger than the gap in the standings. At the very least I think we agree that re-signing Papelbon, whether they keep him or not, gives them more flexibility in building next year's bullpen, because he has real value which the Sox can recoup if they choose to repurpose his salary. Where they go after that is a matter for somebody else to sweat out.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

R.A.Wagman

Speaking as a somewhat neutral observer (a Jays' fan), Jay has created a more compelling argument. Marc seems to be approaching this matters somewhat as a reactionary.

Aug 17, 2010 05:20 AM
rating: 1
 
Marc Normandin

It probably comes off as reactionary based on the timing, but considering the quoted comment from 2008 was written by me, you could say it's something I've given a lot of thought to the past few years.

Before this was published, I had already backed off the non-tendering stance, as you can see by the end of the article. But in the spirit of showing everyone how this unfolded, we kept it in its original form of a back-and-forth discussion. I feel he has more value to another club given the Sox other needs and the difference between Papelbon's assumed value versus his actual.

Aug 17, 2010 09:30 AM
rating: 0
 
Dave Holgado

If you really have backed off your non-tendering stance, I don't see how this article leaves any distance between your (newfound) position on the matter and Jay's original one. Everyone agrees that Papelbon isn't worth what he'll make in arbitration next year. But Jay is absolutely right that there must be some team out there that would give at least some value for one year of (semi-)control over him, such that exploring a trade for whatever value he might return -- in addition to clearing his likely $8-10 million arb award from the balance sheet -- is far preferable to doing just the latter.

Jay's idea of putting Bard in the closer role *now* in order to lessen Pap's award next year is also an inspired (and sinister) one, however there's a limit on how much of a paycut he could receive at arbitration (I believe a 20% cut from his current $9.35 MM, meaning $7.5 MM is the low end of what he'll get... still more than he's worth, IMO).

Frankly, it is surprising that your initial recommendation was what it was, given your simultaneous acknowledgment of the fact that overpaying him for one more year will allow Boston to reap the benefits of the compensation picks in the 2012 draft (assuming those picks, over MLBPA's objections, remain a feature of the new CBA). The picks are easily worth whatever they'll overpay Papelbon, and nothing says they have to leave him in a high leverage role in 2011 (though admittedly, if they don't, they'll risk him losing type A status).

Finally, not sure where you came up with $12 MM as the likely arbitration award. I believe $10 MM still stands as the highest award ever (Ryan Howard '06, as well as Alfonso Soriano '06 and Francisco Rodriguez '08, both in losing efforts). Lincecum, before he settled this past off-season, sought only $13 MM, and this was after back-to-back Cy Youngs (though his may be a different case given his much lower prior year salary). I just don't see Papelbon filing at $12 MM, not after the season he is having. I know K-Rod asked for something similar in his last arb year (and the Angels foolishly filed at $10 MM, so that even when they won that case, they lost it). But K-Rod does a lot of things he shouldn't do.

Aug 18, 2010 14:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Drew Miller

That's funny, I was thinking just the opposite.

Aug 17, 2010 22:54 PM
rating: 1
 
Dan W.

There was a mention early on about the 2008 Annual comment that Papelbon needed to maintain his low walk rates. But if he's just going fastball/splitter -- and his walk rates have spiked -- is it accurate to say that he's no longer throwing strikes or is it just that he's doing what he always did and guys are laying off the splitters out of the zone now?

I ask (1) because it might be a generally interesting topic to investigate (i.e. different types of increased walk rates - the Papelbon type, the Steve Blass type); and (2) because it might say something about why Marc's references to Papelbon's SIERA/ERA gap seem to ring hollow to Jay, me, and the previous commenter.

Aug 17, 2010 05:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Marc Normandin

It's not just the splitter--Papelbon nibbles in the zone with the fastball and hitters wait for a good one. Papelbon's idea of changing speeds is to throw faster, which reduces his command, and results in long plate appearances where he's forced to throw pitches where a hitter can get to it.

Aug 17, 2010 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
krissbeth

I think you have to give Papelbon one more season before you throw his carcass to the talk radio vultures. The return isn't likely to be better and could be a whole lot worse.

Of course, since Papelbon expressed for many years a desire to START, you have a third choice. Not a good one, of course.

Aug 17, 2010 06:32 AM
rating: 0
 
caminante1

That is not correct. The Red Sox wanted to move Papelbon to the rotation and he came to them and asked to remain as the closer. I can't recall exactly when this happened.

Aug 17, 2010 07:31 AM
rating: 1
 
Marc Normandin

Papelbon is on a regimented program for his shoulder, and both the Sox and Paps are aware he can't start. It's no longer the issue it once was since he knows he can't do it.

Aug 17, 2010 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Schere

I think they should offer him arbitration and hope he declines. He probably should decline arbitration, since I'm sure he can get at least $30/3 yrs, which has to be better than $12/1 yr. Probably he can do far better than $30/3, and I assume the value of having Paps for one more year isn't that significant for the Sox given the likely available options and the draft pick compensation.

Aug 17, 2010 08:10 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Since Papelbon has less than six years of service time, he does not have the option of declining arbitration and becoming a free agent.

Aug 17, 2010 08:26 AM
 
Schere

Aha! Thanks very much.

Aug 17, 2010 11:29 AM
rating: 0
 
cordially
(917)

Ryu win

Aug 17, 2010 09:19 AM
rating: -1
 
Nick Smith

Thornton would be a great guy to write a big check to, but Chicago holds a $3M option that they will exercise barring catastrophic injury.

Aug 17, 2010 10:51 AM
rating: 1
 
Marc Normandin

Whoops, missed the asterisk for his option the Cot's page when I was assembling names. Good catch Nick.

Aug 17, 2010 11:16 AM
rating: 0
 
Pete

In my opinion, Papelbon's fall can be seen in the following counting stats if you compare where he was in 2006-2007 in light of those same numbers from 2008-2010*

walks & hits (as shown in his WHIP going from under 0.80 to 0.95 to 1.15 the last few years). It may not be a lot, but it shows a trend.

Also in 2006-2007 he averaged 967 pitches per year and since then 1012 & 2010 isn't over yet (he has just over 800 as of a few days ago). His K/BB rates have decreased over the last year +, his HR/9 is increasing this year & his SO/9 is also decreasing.

As a side note, his POP% is decreasing too, but I'm not sure how much that is affecting him. This with his lower K rate shows me that he's not fooling batters like he used to.
*so far this year

Aug 17, 2010 12:23 PM
rating: 1
 
hmamis

What about trading Papelbon for the Met's Francisco Rodriquez?

harry

Aug 17, 2010 19:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Pete

As a Red Sox fan, I'll say no thank you, sir! I'll stick with Mr. Bard!

Aug 18, 2010 10:49 AM
rating: 0
 
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