PAPELBON MISUSE BORDERS ON CRIMINAL

It is, without question, the single most startling statistic compiled by any current member of the Red Sox.  It is a statistic that should have owner John Henry – a man who knows a thing or two about extracting value from assets and the kind of owner who took the time to write a personal e-mail to Bill James asking him to join the front office – enraged, running from room to room, demanding that something be done NOW.  It is a number that should bring shame to every so-called baseball expert on the team’s payroll.

What is the number of which we speak?  Nine 

For those that do not know, that is the number of innings that Jonathan Papelbon has pitched in the month of May. 

Don’t you see?  This business of using perhaps the best young arm in the game as a "closer" is pure madness.  Madness on such a scale that I can barely bring myself to watch any game other than one started by Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett, because I cannot stop thinking that whoever is on the hill is taking Papelbon’s rightful place in the rotation.

Just when we thought this team was going to eschew all of baseball’s outdated modes of thinking, we see this.  Can you imagine Roger Clemens being used as a closer in 1986?  No doubt he would have done well, closing out for Boyd, Hurst, Nipper and the others.  But would the team have won the division and later the league title?  Not a chance. 

Starters win games.  Period.  Look at the Sox.  The club is 8-2 in games started by Schilling, and 6-3 in games started by Beckett.  That is a combined record of 14-5.  Excellent.  In games started by the others – Tim Wakefield, David Wells, Lenny DiNardo and Lord knows who else, the club is below .500 – 12-13.  That is why the team as a whole, despite having two terrific starters who are nine games over .500 on their own, is only 26-18.

Imagine if Papelbon started, and was even 75% as effective in the role as he has been as a closer.  You are possibly looking at a record of – at worst – 6-3 – in his starts.  In that event, the team is maybe 29-15, a much better record.

Using Papelbon as a closer is a catastrophic mistake.  Nothing in recent years compares to it.  The Hanley Ramirez situation (not just the trade, but the fact that Renteria was signed with this kid tearing up the minors) is for another day, but at least in that case the team acquired a great pitcher. 

For a while, I convinced myself that something else was a work here – perhaps a long term plan to ease JP into the rotation by limiting his innings in the early part of the season.  But it’s obvious he was the closer all along.  After all, why would Foulke be given the boot out after blowing ONE save?  No way a team as forward thinking as this one does that without some advance planning.

And JP himself appears to have joined the bandwagon.  He recently said “I don’t even think of starting anymore.  I am a closer now.”  That’s great.   Guess his agent got to him and told him that the closer role is the easiest path to riches in major league sports.  Why pitch 225 innings to earn $10 million when a team is willing to give you the same money to pitch 65?

Here is what really irks me.  The Sox already have played seven very significant games against the Yankees, all of which have a two-game swing in the standings.  JP has pitched in four of them for a combined 4.1 innings, during which he has allowed no hits, and has struck out five.  That sounds almost like evidence that he was used effectively, if all four were saves of close games, but consider this: three of those four appearances were of, at best, modest significance.  Indeed, two of them came in losses.

May 1 – JP pitches ninth inning in 7-3 win.

May 10 – JP pitches ninth inning to hold the fort in a 7-3 loss.

May 11 – JP earns a big save in 5-3 win.

May 23 – JP pitches ninth inning to hold the fort in 7-5 loss.

Imagine if JP could pitch as he has against the Yankees, but do so as a starter.  Is there any possibility that the Sox lose last night’s game against Randy Johnson?  Is there anyone who seriously thinks that using arguably your hardest-throwing and most effective Yankee killer in four innings of seven huge games is a good idea, especially when two of those performances were of the “hold the fort variety?”

It gets worse if you keep looking at it.  Fifteen saves sounds great – BUT – let us be honest here.  Ten of those saves (66%) involved leads of two runs or more, and six of them (40%) involved leads of three runs, the maximum allowed for earning a save of less than three innings.  How many of those ten large lead saves would have been blown up and turned to losses by say, Mike Timlin?  Even if he blew two (statistically not likely), it still might of have been worth it if Papelbon was 6-3 as a starter.

It is clear what has happened.  Fear.  Baseball executives and managers alike fear blowing a ninth inning lead almost more than anything.  It is a consequence of managing in an era where complete games have vanished.  In the old days, a starter pitched the ninth.  If he lost the lead in the ninth, he lost the lead in the ninth.  To him, and the team, it was a loss – nothing more, nothing less.  BUT, now that ninth inning leads are turned over to someone else, that person is defined solely by how well they do in that inning, and that, consequently, reflects on the front office and manager.  Since blowing a ninth inning lead is – I confess – traumatic under any circumstances, a team almost would prefer to lock up close wins than gamble that same pitcher might produce more wins on the front end as a starter.

The result of this – I fear – is that the Sox will end the season having nurtured a great closer.  JP will have 47 saves, maybe 1-2 blown, and make the All Star team.  Of course, the Sox either will be out of the playoffs, or get knocked off early, but they’ll have their closer.

I am old enough to remember Dave Righetti, the lefty pitcher for the Yankees.  He was a decent, promising lefty starter – compiling a 14-8 record in 1983 at age 24, including a no-hitter on July 4 against the Sox.  Well, the following year, he was converted to a closer, and he did ok, compiling annual save totals for several years in the 25-35 range.  But it is interesting to note that in all the years he pitched for the Yanks as a closer (1984-1990), the team never made the playoffs.  I am not putting all that on his shoulders, but it certainly suggests that having a good closer guarantees little. 

I have said my piece.  I am not going to let this get me down.  If the team wants to throw away a once-in-ten year talent like this, let ’em.  I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to defend it.

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