A number of readers have written in to point out that the Red Sox’ desire to use Jonathan Papelbon as a starting pitcher stems not from strategic imperatives — strategic imperatives that I contend are misplaced — but from medical ones. Theo Epstein, in consultation with his medical staff, thinks that there will be less strain on Papelbon’s shoulder if he pitches every fifth or sixth day, instead of getting up and down several times a week.
I don’t really have any standing to contradict medical wisdom. Will Carroll, who does, thinks there’s something to the Red Sox’ position. And I’m certainly not naive enough to reduce this to something as formulaic as reliever = fewer innings = less injury risk. The attrition rates for relief pitchers are pretty darn high, and the whole reason that pitchers are able to post lower ERAs as relievers is because they push themselves a little harder, and strain themselves a little bit more. Still, a couple of things to point out:
1. Papelbon pitched exceptionally well last year on zero days rest.
ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO
0.51 18.2 12 2 1 1 4 18
Of course, Papelbon had an 0.92 ERA last year, so just about any way that we slice and dice his numbers is going to come out looking good. But there’s certainly no statistical evidence that short rest is a problem for him.
2. Papelbon pitched exceptionally well when coming out for a second (or third) inning.
Okay, so suppose that the Red Sox absolutely refuse to pitch Papelbon on zero days rest, or only use him on zero rest in “clutch” situations like a one-run game against the Yankees. There’s nothing that says a closer has to pitch in 65 or 70 contests a year. In fact, the Red Sox could use Papelbon in sort of a Bruce Sutter mold, with a target of pitching in 50 games, and perhaps 80-90 IP.
Here is how Papelbon did last year when re-entering the game after having sat in the dugout for the Red Sox’ half of the inning:
ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO
0.90 20.0 12 2 2 1 6 23
Now, there is certainly some strategic cost to not having your best relief pitcher available X number of times a year (guys like Sutter and Rollie Fingers might have thrown 50 pitches on Tuesday … and still been able to go on Wednesday). On the other hand, being able to insert Papelbon in the seventh or eighth inning, and (sometimes) keeping him in for two or three innings at a time, might come closer to optimal relief ace usage than the current 9th-inning-save-situation-only model. (Francona, to be fair, was relatively creative about his usage of Papelbon last season, frequently inserting him the eighth inning when there were runners on. There’s some sentiment, in fact, that these extended outings were the source of Papelbon’s demise).
3. Papelbon’s superior numbers as a relief pitcher are a kind of medical evidence.
There is a blurry line between performance and health, particularly for pitchers, who are always dealing with some degree of strain in their shoulders and elbows. The fact that Papelbon’s numbers were so much better as a relief pitcher last year — far better than anything that might have been expected from his performances as a starter — suggests that he was physiologically fit for that role. Maybe the medical theory is correct that a pitcher with Papelbon’s type of shoulder problem would ordinarily be better off working as a starter. But the empirical fact is that Papelbon got a hell of a lot more out of his arm as a closer last year than he ever had before.