September 16, 2006


Closing down: Sox considering Papelbon as a starter (SEAN McADAM, 9/16/06, Providence Journal)

It will be another few weeks before a decision is finalized. But all that's needed is a final meeting and a rubber stamp: Jonathan Papelbon's role as Red Sox closer -- successful as it might have been -- is over.

"Pretty much," said Papelbon yesterday when asked if he was preparing to start next season. "(The Red Sox) have talked to my agent and we've talked to doctors. Right now, my whole mindset is focused on going back to the (starting) rotation."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 16, 2006 8:29 AM

The closer is the most important pitcher on a winning club. The 8th inning guy is the next most important pitcher on a winning club. If Detroit had Papelbon, they'd be at 100 wins right now.

So now Papelbon will be starting, with half his starts wasted on sub-.500 opponents. How vital. He'll also have to throw more pitches if the end of the bullpen is not reliable. This is a conventional and idiotic move by the Sox. 220 innings, with more than a hundred of that fluff.

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 10:44 AM

Depends on where the Sox go in free agency. Papelbon was never supposed to be the closer -- it was just his early-season success that drove some people into a frenzy thinking Boston finally had their own Mariano Rivera. Sticking him in the rotation presumably will mean eliminating one of the holes where it didn't matter how good the set-up and closers were, because the Sox were already too far behind in the game due to bad starting pitching, against either plus- or sub-.500 teams.

Posted by: John at September 16, 2006 11:00 AM

Closers are not only unimportant but a dime a dozen. All that makes a great closer is being put in save situations. Give them enough opportunities and even Joe Borowski and David Weathers are "dominant" closers.

Todd Jones has fewer blown saves than Papelbon and Hansen or Delcarmen or Timlin or Lopez or whoever will go 35 for 40 next year.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 11:04 AM

Jones has often been used in non-save situations in the ninth, and given up comparatively large leads, often; way too often. Watching Jones work the 9th, fist-pumping each of his warning-track outs, raises the anxiety level of the games' ends to an intolerable level.

Closers are a dime a dozen, but the Sox have their own Mariano Rivera in Papelbon, a cinch for the win when he's given the lead. The VORP for a Rivera/Papelbon is probably worth 7-9 games every year. That's a huge advantage. In addition, in the playoffs over the last decade, has there been a more dominating force than Rivera? In terms of games impacted, he's been much more of a brute than any starter.

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 11:21 AM

It's not a matter of Rivera being dominant, but of his being there. If Trevor Hoffman had been the Yankee closer during that same period we'd consider him to be Mariano.

Your personal anxiety about Jones and comfort with Papelbon doesn't actually change their numbers and the number that matters for a closer is blown saves.

The question for the Sox isn't a replacement closer--even Byung Hun Kim did a good enough job closing for them--but whether Papelbon can throw a credible change-up now that he'll be facing guys three times a game. If not you may as well just use him in the bullpen.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 11:31 AM


I disagree about blown saves/save chances. Papelbon has an ERA under 1, for most of the year it was under .50. Jones spent most of the year with an ERA over 5, yes, that's 5.0, with opponents batting over .350, yes, over .350. Jones has been throwing batting practice -- all year long.

Jones' "saves" are typically like this, with, say, a three-run lead: batter1, crackling double that nearly kneecaps one of the corner fielders; batter2, walk; batter3, long jackclark like hammer-shot that's caught at the fence in deepest center to score batter1 from third, fist-pump from Jones; batter4, double; with men at the corners, batter5 launches another rocket to the deepest part of centerfield that's caught but scores batter2 from third but warrants another fist-pump from the "I am dominant, this is my realm" Jones; now we're at two-out, every Detroit fan has been pacing and cussing -- in front of their kids and mothers-in-law and anyone else outside of the hell of their Tigerfandom -- since Jones plodded his severely overweight rump from the bullpen wearing that confident antichrist smile, and they're screaming at Leyland to please God Almighty yank this pitching refuse from the field; now batter6 works Jones for 15 pitches, easily fouling off those torrid 90 mph fastballs on the black, before scalding a cannonshot to deepest center that Granderson leaps over the fence to grab for the third out. Huge fist-pump from the victorious conqueror Jones. Another save by the man who's a better closer than Papelbon.

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 11:59 AM

Palmcroft - Analysts have developed quantitative measures of "leverage" to evaluate the trade-offs you describe. Closers do only high-leverage innings, while starters do a mix of high- and low-leverage innings; but starters do many more innings. It turns out that these effects roughly cancel each other, with a slight edge to the starters. Thus, the best starters generally contribute more Wins over Replacement Players than the best relievers.

But the decisive factor in this decision is health and longevity. Starters can often maintain high-quality careers for 10 or more years, sometimes 20. Relievers rarely pitch at elite levels for more than 3 or 4. (Mariano Rivera is the rare exception.) Closing is just more stressful on an arm than starting. For a valuable young pitcher, therefore, you want him to become a starter if he can.

Posted by: pj at September 16, 2006 12:13 PM

PJ, I see what you're saying and mostly agree. However, if you have a two- or three-year window and could choose between a superstar reliever in-the-hand, or a star pitcher, in-the-bush, I think you choose the reliever -- especially with his post-season impact.

If the team is not on the cusp of a World Series, which maybe the Sox are not for a few years, than the starter is needed because of the improvement in wins for the team over the course of his longer career. My impression is that the Sox think of themselves as contenders. Developing Papelbon as a starter is a rebuilding flag for at least the next two years unless a great reliever replaces him because of the reliever VORP they're giving up.

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 12:26 PM

A rotation of Schilling, Beckett and Papelbon can't rebuild, it will accidentally contend again.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 1:11 PM

ERA is meaningless. Starters need to get you wins and closers not cost you them.

Jones is as good at the latter as Papelbon, but couldn't do the former. If Papelbon can do the former you have to try him.

Rivera was made a closer because he only had one pitch, though that pitch has made him the best closer in history.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 1:16 PM

ERA and WHIP tell you if you've got a good pitcher, or a razor's-edge poseur.

Perhaps Papelbon can be a starter. However, that is entirely unknown. In addition, it is very likely that Papelbon might go years without finding his third pitch, a la Bonderman and his missing changeup. Meanwhile, while the Sox engage in the multi-year discovery process, they sacrifice one of the very best new closers on the scene, replacing him with someone far short of him. This only makes sense in a rebuilding phase. Is that where the Sox are?

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 1:40 PM

No, they don't. BA against and strikeouts per 9 will tell you more than ERA ever will.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 1:57 PM

Well, at least you've moved to raw metrics and away from the abstractions of saves vs. blown saves. You think Papelbon and Jones are comparable in any way? Look at their K/9 figures or their OppBA and tell me they are similar. Actually, OppBA and ERA share the same lack of control: variations in defense.

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 2:17 PM

oppBA .167
k/9 9.88
whip .78
era .92
saves 35/41

oppBA .281
k/9 2.78
whip 1.28
era 4.29
saves 35/39

which one would you want to trot into a bad situation in the World Series?

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 2:45 PM

Yes, Jones's numbers suggest he's at the back end of his fine career, Papelbon's that he's starting what could be a very good one. Jones was as good a closer this year but you'd not seek to make him a starter next year. I would try Zumaya though.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 2:46 PM

The one who's 35 for 39, not for 41 nand still pitching. Papelbon couldn't get you out right now.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 2:48 PM

The Tiger braintrust might very well try Zumaya as a starter, ugh. However, word of hope, the einsteins who acquired Neifi Perez, Sean Casey and now Stairs think that Zumaya's delivery might not be suited to the rigors of starting: idiots. He's spent his whole life starting, done great. However, that means he might step into the closer role, which would be excellent. There's not a more exciting pitcher on the planet right now, when he's right; he's having some forearm problems these last few weeks. In July he regularly touched 104; in fact Griffey hit a 104 out on him. When he gets to 103-104, the announcers stop talking about the speed; they seem to think the radar guns need to be callibrated. The local papers, too, won't mention the top speed; they go on about his 101's but never go higher. I don't get it: we have a guy throwing 104! that's fantastic! Zoom-zoom!

Posted by: Palmcroft at September 16, 2006 3:01 PM

Armando Benitez used to spin and check the scoreboard to see if he'd hit triple digits--it's not a good idea to get caught up in it. You may end up like Matt Anderson.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2006 3:08 PM