June 21, 2006

WHAT A WASTE (via Glenn Dryfoos):

Papelbon is a perfect fit in 'pen (Bill Simmons, 6/21/06, ESPN)

The 2006 Red Sox MVP happens to be a rookie, a potential 20-game winner who hasn't started a single game this season. Instead, he's been moonlighting in the closer role, almost like a bartender waiting tables for a few days because two of the waitresses are sick. Now, a few days have turned into a few months. Will he ever go back to bartending? That's the big question.

I'm talking about Jonathan Papelbon, the baby-faced assassin who has single-handedly kept my team's playoff hopes alive and prevented a Boston Strangler-level panic attack in New England. When Terry Francona opted for Papelbon over floundering Keith Foulke to close the third game in April, Red Sox Nation braced for a closer controversy. It never came. Paps got the next save chance. And the next one. And the next one. By early June, Paps had converted 20 straight and evolved into a Rivera-esque weapon, someone who gets you more than three outs if necessary and seems equally unperturbed in sold-out Yankee Stadium or lifeless Tropicana Field. He's the best player on the team. There's no question.

Here's the catch: Papelbon's ceiling as a starter has been compared to that of everyone from (a healthy) Mark Prior to Roger Clemens. And baseball experts unanimously agree that a great starter is more important than a great closer, if only because we're talking about 220 to 250 innings instead of 70 to 80. Starters have more value. Starters have longer careers. Starters earn more money than closers. No team that ever employed Clemens, Pedro, Greg Maddux or Bob Gibson said, after the fact, "Man, it's too bad we didn't make him a closer." Yes, Jonathan Papelbon should join Boston's starting rotation some day. It's the logical move. It's the only move.

So why do I find myself hoping they don't make it? [...]

We have watched dozens of quality relievers over the years, but only a few were dominant forces: Rivera, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Eric Gagné, K-Rod. That's about it. You can always overspend for Billy Wagner or call up someone like Chris Ray, but how far will that get you? Can we even quantify Rivera's worth compared with that of the average closer? Was there a more indispensable player over the past decade, a bigger disparity between the No. 1 and the No. 2 guys at any other position? We rarely consider closers as MVP candidates, but name another player who came through in the playoffs more times. With the way October baseball works in the 21st century -- three rounds and 19 possible games over four weeks -- an extraordinary reliever might be the single greatest asset for any team. [...]

I like feeling safe in the ninth, holding a trump card in every close game -- one who thrives in his particular job more than anyone else at any other position. Maybe it defies all logic, but I hope Jonathan Papelbon stays my team's closer for the next 15 years.

Some things are just meant to be.

That's absurd. There are no stud closers for 15 years. Gossage was great for about 9 years, Sutter for 6. No one thinks K-Rod's arm can hold up. Gagne had a couple good years and now he's toast--and remember he was converted because he was an awful starter. Rivera is freakish but this is his 11th year and he's near done.

Meanwhile Joe Borkowski, Takaisi Saito, and JJ Putz are doing effective jobs closing this year.

Roger Clemens is 22 years into a dominating career. Maddux 21. Glavine 20. Moyer 20. Randy Johnson 19. Smoltz 18. Even Pedro is 15 years in.

Here's all you really need to know--even the D'backs with no closer but two great starters were able to beat Rivera.

The fall-off from Papelbon to even someone like Mike Timlin would be at most a couple wins, while the fall -off from Papelbon to DiNardo/Wells/Snyder/etc. has been dramatic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2006 2:52 PM

Not to disagree with your main point, which I think is correct, but I think Trevor Hoffman might qualify as a stud closer for the last 13 years. And he's not slowing down.

Posted by: Brandon at June 21, 2006 3:13 PM

11 years, but he deserves mention.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2006 3:22 PM

Calling Jamie Moyer's career "dominating" is perhaps the most outlandish thing to ever erupt from your keyboard, oj.

Posted by: b at June 21, 2006 3:26 PM

How many better starters have there been over the past ten years?

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2006 4:03 PM

Probably a few dozen. So what? The fact is he has never been anything vaguely approximating "dominating"--he has 9 career shutouts! That's one less than John Tudor had in 1985.

Posted by: b at June 21, 2006 4:30 PM

No, about six.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2006 4:36 PM

Six? Now that's just silly. First, the exact timeframe is irrelevant, so let's consider guys who have been around for at least 5 years, and would have always been picked over Moyer: Clemens. Johnson. Martinez. Maddux. Glavine. Smoltz. Mussina. Wells. Hudson. Zito. Mulder. Schilling. Brown. Hampton. Millwood. Schmidt. Leiter. Oswalt. Morris. Colon.

That's 20 guys more or less off the top of my head, and the list could probably be doubled pretty easily.

He's been a solid #3-type starter for a long time. I'm not trying to say he's a bum. But even his mother wouldn't say he's been "dominating."

Posted by: b at June 21, 2006 4:58 PM

He's top 100 in wins all time. Mussina, Wells & Schilling should be on the list too. Those eight are who his peers are.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2006 5:10 PM

No, those 8 are not his "peers". They are 8 who you are willing to concede are at least as good as him, when all of them are light-years better than him.

Posted by: b at June 21, 2006 5:35 PM

Moyer is 146-71 over the last 10 years with over 200 innings pitched in all but 3 of those years. That is way better than one would expect from a "solid #3-type starter."

Posted by: Patrick H at June 21, 2006 6:56 PM

and no one would start Mussina instead of Moyer in a game that mattered.

He's not just an elite pitcher of his era but one of the best starters of all time over the long haul.

Anybody here top 100 at anything all-time?

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2006 8:33 PM

I would have to say that Rivera has probably had a better career as a closer than he could have expected as a starter. It's hard to see a guy who weighs 180 and only has one pitch eating up 200 innnings a year for very long.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 22, 2006 12:48 PM

Yes, he's sui generis, though Pedro Martinez had a nice run.

Posted by: oj at June 22, 2006 12:54 PM

How many votes will he get for the Hall of Fame?

Posted by: b at June 22, 2006 1:09 PM

Lacking hardware he's the kind of guy who has to wait for the veterans committee to put him in. Mussina and Wells are probably in the same boat.

Posted by: oj at June 22, 2006 1:19 PM