Three days ago, Jonathan Papelbon became just the fourth pitcher in major league history to save 30 games in his first two full seasons. He joins Billy Koch, Kaz Sasaki and Todd Worrell in this group.
This begs the question: Is Jonathan Papelbon the best closer in the game?
Now, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in this regard. He is certainly not the best closer of all-time. If you want evidence about this, how about the group of four that I just rattled off above? Billy Koch, Kaz Sasaki and Todd Worrell are not headed for Cooperstown. Eric Gagne and Brad Lidge were the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman; their careers have since been derailed.
Could Papelbon end up another Hoffman or Rivera — or better? Hell, yes he could. No doubt about that. But remember this: Hoffman and Rivera are the exceptions, not the norm. Papelbon still has a long way to go before we entertain that thought. However, there’s one thing Papelbon has going for him. No, not his health. No, not his menacing stare, nor his wicked fastball. Not his statistics, not the highly contagious entrance song he uses.
It’s his constant adaptation to the game. Mariano Rivera crafted a career out of his cut-fastball. Trevor Hoffman’s changeup is baffling. Eric Gagne (when he uses it) has a tremendous curveball and changeup. However, Gagne is struggling to adjust to life with a 93-mph heater as opposed to 99-mph. Papelbon doesn’t have to adjust to life with a 93-mph heater; he lives at 93, but he can dial it up to 97 on command. Even if an injury or old age saps his speed in the future, Papelbon will be able to overcome it.
How? Consider that since he’s stepped foot into the major leagues, he’s since developed a cut fastball and a splitter go to along with his high heat. While he can snap off a curve or changeup on occasion, those are largely forgotten pitches (for now). He’s constantly adjusting, constantly striving to stay one step ahead of the scouting reports, constantly trying to befuddle the hitters. He certainly has been, but that won’t stop him from developing new pitches. Ah, and he has: the slutter. Obvious R-rated connotation aside (although in this day and age, it sadly would be PG-13), the slutter is a combination cut-fastball and slider, that is thrown keeping the palm outward and no pronation in the wrist (think of this as not ‘snapping’ your wrist). (I have to mention this: he’s a copycat. In wiffleball, I have perfected a pitch called the “clider,” which is, you guessed it, a cut slider. He took my pitch and renamed it. I demand royalties.)
His constant adjustment has led to a career 1.58 ERA in 148 innings (this statistic, as with every other statistic in this article, does not include Thursday’s game). He’s checking in at 1.77 this year, a 0.83 WHIP and 30 saves in 32 chances; 41 games finished. He’s pitched 45.2 innings on the year, way down from 68.1 last year. By last year, I mean April to September 1st, when he was shut down with shoulder problems. He’s certainly not going to reach 68.1 in the next week and a half, but he’s only finished eight less games this year than last year, and most of that is due to our hot streak not requiring any saves.
I’ve contended all year long that the Red Sox were saving Papelbon up for the end of the year, and we would start seeing him pitch more often, and longer. I’ve been proven right as he’s pitched five times in a 10 day span, unheard of earlier in the year. In those five games, two have been four out saves.
Referring back to the Globe article, Papelbon feels rested. Very rested.
The Red Sox have managed him very closely, making sure Papelbon doesn’t get overworked, and that handling — which some would call babying — has worked wonders. Papelbon feels strong, with no signs of wear and tear. There aren’t many closers who feel refreshed in the third week of August. But this one does.
Imagine that, a player — let alone a closer — feeling refreshed in the third week of August! This can only bode well for the postseason. (I would say September, but I’m starting to feel confident in that we can keep this race out of reach from the Yankees. … I better knock on wood for this one.)
So, back to the issue at hand. Is Papelbon the best closer in the game? First, let’s look at the Blown Save Rate (think of this as the opposite of save percentage) of all closers in the game who currently have at least 14 save opportunities. Papelbon, who has 30 of 32 save opportunities in his belt, ranks second in this category to J.J. Putz. This chart is to your right.
Papelbon ranks 10th of all closers in total saves (Francisco Cordero and Jose Valverde, hardly household names, pace baseball with 37), but of those with at least 40 innings pitched (and this includes relievers as well), Papelbon ranks 10th yet again in ERA. (Hideki Okajima paces baseball at 1.19) He also ranks fifth out of all closers (J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Wagner). Joe Nathan with seven saves ranks just behind Papelbon on this list, checking in with a 1.80 ERA.
This seems to me to be the best way to determine the best closers in the game: the most saves (yes, I know this depends on how good the team is, and so on and so forth) coupled with the lowest ERA (I know people debate on if ERA is an acceptable stat or not; I agree it’s not perfect, but no statistic is). Thus, to answer if Papelbon is the best closer in the game, we need to prove if he’s better than Putz, Saito, Isringhausen, Wagner and Nathan. I’ve decided not to include Kevin Gregg in this group, despite ranking with these five in Blown Save Rate because even though he is close in saves, he does not rank close in terms of ERA (26, 2.96). Again, while this is subjective, I think this combination of most saves and lowest ERA is an effective way to determine the best closers in the game currently.
Let’s move to WHIP. Papelbon checks in at 0.83. Putz is at 0.69, Saito is at 0.76, Isringhausen is at 0.94, Wagner is at 0.98 and Nathan is at 0.98. Now, I understand that some people feel WHIP is a deeply flawed stat … but I am not one of these people. I love WHIP. If I could, I would eat it for breakfast. (Okay, now maybe I’m taking this a bit too far.) Give me low WHIPs on my pitching staff, and I’ll show you a World Series champion. So, given my love for WHIP, we can deem Papelbon better than Wagner and Nathan.
One more stat to go: slugging percentage. I was tempted to go with opponent batting average (Papelbon would have placed second in this, by the way), but I thought that it placed too much of an emphasis on hits, and we’ve already covered hits with the WHIP qualifier. WHIP shows us how many (or few, in this discussion) baserunners these pitchers allow per inning. Now, what I think is most important for a closer is just that; allowing few baserunners. What’s the second most important thing I want my closer to harness? Keeping the ball in the park, keeping the batters from advancing past first easily. So, let’s look at slugging percentage.
Isringhausen checks in at a fantastic .237 slugging percentage. Putz can’t even keep up, checking in at .260, while Wagner barely outdoes him at .257. Papelbon? .242.
We’re starting to cherry pick here, though. Papelbon ranks second behind Isringhausen in opponent’s slugging percentage … but in opponent’s batting average, he ranks second behind Saito. In strikeouts per nine innings (which could easily be argued the most important virtue), Papelbon blows everyone away at 13.80 (second is Wagner at 10.80). Wagner outdoes everyone in homers allowed (two of them) and comes second in on-base percentage behind Isringhausen. In terms of K/BB (another great ratio), Papelbon ranks second behind Putz. So you see, you can cherry pick any statistic you want and come up with a different closer as the best of these four. So we won’t do that. We’ll just say that Papelbon is at least a top four closer in this game … with great potential to be the best of them all by the time he hangs up his cleats (but I fear his face will have permanently frozen into his glare into the catcher by then).
And I’m okay with that.