Trade Papelbon? Not so fast

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the ninth inning of their MLB American League baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts August 5, 2010.  REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)
A few days ago, MLBTradeRumors.com posted a poll on whether or not the Red Sox should trade Jonathan Papelbon. Out of 1,877 votes, 66.5 percent thought that the Sox should trade their current closer.

Emotions, especially in Red Sox Nation, can run high. Sometimes too high. The frustrations with injuries and a third place standing have Sox fans pointing the finger at several players, but perhaps none more so than Jonathan Papelbon. Think it's a good idea to trade your closer? You might want to take another look before making up your mind.

First of all, I'm not going to sit here and preach that Papelbon is as good of a reliever as he has been in the past. In fact, he has regressed for a few years now in several key categories. However, there is still plenty of reason to think things might be better a year from now.

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the ninth inning of their MLB American League baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts August 5, 2010.  REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

A few days ago, MLBTradeRumors.com posted a poll on whether or not the Red Sox should trade Jonathan Papelbon. Out of 1,877 votes, 66.5 percent thought that the Sox should trade their current closer.

Emotions, especially in Red Sox Nation, can run high. Sometimes too high. The frustrations with injuries and a third place standing have Sox fans pointing the finger at several players, but perhaps none more so than Jonathan Papelbon. Think it’s a good idea to trade your closer? You might want to take another look before making up your mind.

First of all, I’m not going to sit here and preach that Papelbon is as good of a reliever as he has been in the past. In fact, he has regressed for a few years now in several key categories. However, there is still plenty of reason to think things might be better a year from now.

Regression

First and foremost, Papelbon has seen a big regression in strikeout rate from about 10 K/9 in 2008 and 2009, to 8.17 this season. His walk rate has also risen and stands at 3.55 BB/9 currently. While that BB/9 rate would mark the highest of Papelbon’s career, it is still league average for a reliever. Papelbon’s strike/ball ratio hasn’t been great since 2008.

Season Balls Strikes Str/Ball Str% Pitches
2006 316 711 2.25 69.2% 1027
2007 276 634 2.30 69.7% 910
2008 319 732 2.29 69.6% 1051
2009 416 768 1.85 64.9% 1184
2010 277 537 1.94 66.0% 814

His BR/IP (base runners per innings pitched) has regressed just about every season, with this season’s outcome yet to be determined.

Season IP H BB HBP BR/IP
2006 68.1 40 13 1 0.79
2007 58.1 30 15 4 0.84
2008 69.1 58 8 0 0.96
2009 68 54 24 4 1.21
2010 50.2 38 20 1 1.18

Progression

As worrisome as Papelbon’s declining strikeouts and control issues have been, there are other categories in which he is showing an improvement.

Papelbon has held opponents to a low 16 percent line drive rate against. League average is usually around 20 percent. Of course, due to the small sample size of innings from relievers, this can change fast over the course of a season and vary greatly from year-to-year (was 21 percent last season, 19.7 percent in 2008 and 15.7 percent in 2007).

The league’s best strikeout pitchers all have one thing in common; they generate a bunch of swings and misses. To this point in the season, Papelbon has done plenty of that, getting hitters to swing and miss at his offerings about 25 percent of the time. If that rate holds up, it would be his best whiff rate since 2007.

When Papelbon has expanded the zone and forced a swing from the opposing hitters, they have only made contact on those pitches 52 percent of the time, which is a big improvement from last season when opposing hitters made contact on pitches outside the strike-zone over 60 percent of the time.

We haven’t seen a regression in Papelbon’s velocity either. In fact, he’s added some gas as the season has gone along.

These factors combined show that Papelbon still has good raw “stuff”, but he’s been hurt, in particular, by one outcome…

Home runs allowed

Six home runs allowed to date, which is a new career high. However, Paps hasn’t allowed a long ball since June 23rd when he allowed two bombs against the Rockies. If he does not allow another home run for the rest of the season he’ll have still set a career high, but only by one (five homers allowed in 2007 and 2009).

Sample size

Relievers are subject to very small sample sizes. This is why we see huge swings in production from relievers from year-to-year. Papelbon has been one of the few relievers that has been consistent year-after-year. This makes me think one of two things.

1. This season is the outlier. The HR/9 and HR/FB rate will revert to previous levels and his K/BB rate will improve.
2. The is the start of a regression for Papelbon in general.

Given that he doesn’t turn 30 until November and he’s still getting hitters to swing and miss a ton, I would say the former is more likely.

Splits

The other part of this whole equation is how comfortable Sox fans are in handing the closer’s job over to Daniel Bard. There is one glaring difference between Papelbon and Bard; their effectiveness versus left-handed batters. Below are their career splits versus left-handed batters.

Player TBF v LHB K/9 v LHB BB/9 v LHB xFIP v LHB
Papelbon 741 10.78 3.06 3.26
Bard 204 8.81 4.98 4.29

Even with all of his struggles this season, Papelbon continues to be quite effective against left-handed batters. He has what Bard lacks, a changeup/splitter (each pitch has the desired effect on lefties). Bard has been working on his change and is throwing it a bit more this season, but all in all it has not been a highly effective pitch.

Unless Bard shows considerable improvements against left handed hitters, he’ll be a more risky option in the ninth inning as teams can use left-handed pinch hitters to their advantage.

Conclusion

While 2010 has been a frustrating season for Red Sox fans and Papelbon has been at least partly responsible for that frustration, trading him away would only open up another hole in the bullpen. His assumed replacement, Daniel Bard, is improving, but has noticeable trouble against left-handed hitters and a history of control issues in the minors.

Last season, Papelbon was a 1.9 WAR reliever. If Paps keeps his home run rate down, as he has for almost two months now, and sees a comeback in his strikeout rate, which I would say is likely, he could easily be a 1.5 WAR reliever. While that wouldn’t make him an elite reliever, it would certainly make him a well above average piece of the Red Sox pen, an area in which they have struggled this season.

Keep Papelbon around (even with a raise through arbitration), let Bard get another season of improvement under his belt and go from there.

Categories: Daniel Bard Jonathan Papelbon

Charlie first started writing about baseball back in 2008 when he opened Fantasy Baseball 365. Since graduating college with a degree in English, he has spent time coaching baseball as well as working in several minor league front offices. He also writes for The Outside Corner and contributes to Project Prospect and ESPN's Sweet Spot. Writer from August 3, 2010 - May 6, 2012

3 Responses to “Trade Papelbon? Not so fast” Subscribe

  1. hai August 17, 2010 at 9:56 AM #

    Papelbon makes 9 million this year. Even as a 1.5 WAR reliever, that's overpaying ny quite a lot. And that price tag is only going up.

    I don't see Papelbon with the club past 2011. There are some GMs that still overpay for closers, but Theo is not one of them. He might not be traded, but he won't be with the Red Sox for much longer. Papelbon has already made it clear he'll go where the money is, and that isn't here.

  2. hai August 17, 2010 at 10:02 AM #

    Also, if Theo can get a good deal for Papelbon, I'd pull the trigger. It's just a little hard to see a good trade coming our way with that salary and this down season.

    • Charlie Saponara August 17, 2010 at 10:38 AM #

      "Also, if Theo can get a good deal for Papelbon, I'd pull the trigger"

      And that is the key indeed.

      What teams are willing to give up a valuable player or top prospect for a reliever likely to break $10 M for next season and be a free agent after that? Not any small market teams for sure, which leaves a very small cluster of possible trade partners.

      I too don't see the Sox getting much in return that will help them win in 2011. So, even though his salary will indeed be more than he is worth, he still fills a team need and allows the Sox to not have to rely on Bard in the ninth with no other good backup option.

      There are some decent free agent relievers out there this winter, but the Sox would likely have to overpay for their services anyway.

      I completely agree with you that Papelbon's days in Boston are numbered. I don't see a scenario where he is with the team past 2011.