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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

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