Is Jonathan Papelbon even the best closer on the Red Sox?
August 25, 2007 9 Comments
A small tip of the cap across the way to the folks at Fire Brand of the American League, MVN’s Red Sox blog. Blogger (and um, MVN president… so, my boss) Evan Brunell takes a look at the question of whether or not Jonathan Papelbon is the best closer in the bigs. First off, regular StatSpeak readers will know that I’m no fan of the position of “closer”. I personally think the save rule has done more to ruin the game of baseball than steroids. (Yeah, I said it.) Evan uses Blown Save Rate, WHIP, and opponent’s SLG, and a few other stats (including, *cringe*, ERA) as his criteria. Like a lot of stats, these aren’t terrible horrible awful ways to evaluate a closer, but there are plenty of better ones.
First off, let’s strip away one lie about closers. A pitcher is not automatically good for having put up 30 saves. It just means he most often pitched in the ninth inning, when saves are handed out. A scrub pitcher who “closes” for a decent team would probably pick up 30 saves in the process. A closer is a reliever who is participating in one of the greatest con jobs in history. He makes 5-8 million dollars to do the exact same thing that the 7th inning guy does, but does it 30 minutes later in the day. And the seventh inning guy gets paid 500K. (Before you say, “But the closer is under so much pressure, please read this.”)
So, let’s take a look at all the relievers in baseball and see who’s doing a dandy job. First, let’s stop off at win probability added (WPA). Your top seven relievers in MLB? J.J. Putz, Takashi Saito, Rafael Betancourt (non-closer!), Tony Pena (after all those years of catching in the 80s, who knew he could pitch!), Papelbon, Joe Nathan, and Hideki Okajima. Some of you can perhaps see where this is going. Batting Runs Above Average is another fun stat to use. Your top seven (as of this writing): Putz, Okajima, Betancourt, Matt Guerrier, Carlos Mamol, Kevin Cameron, and Papelbon. Hmmm… J.J. Putz is looking pretty good this year. But there’s Okajima hanging out there in the top seven of both categories along with Papelbon.
As far as WHIP goes, Okajima has a WHIP of 0.82, Papelbon has a 0.83. Call it a tie.
Okajima’s VORP? 32.1. Papelbon’s? 21.2.
Finally, let’s get down to the issue of saves. If we’re going to keep this dreadful awful stat around, then let’s at least put some context around it. MLB was kind enough to include “holds” as an official stat starting last year, and I commend them. A hold is a save, except that the pitcher who did it didn’t have the good sense to tell his manager to have him do it in the ninth inning, rather than the 7th or 8th. The rules for a hold are basically the same as for a save. I consider the two to be equal (at least for the moment).
Okajima has 24 holds, 4 saves, and 2 blown saves/holds. So, he’s protected 28/30 close leads handed to him, for a protection percentage of 93.3% Papelbon has 1 hold, 30 saves, and 2 blown saves/holds, for a protection rate of 93.9%.
Moral of the story: don’t be fooled by gaudy save totals. Papelbon is a very good relief pitcher, and is one of the better relievers in the game. But, for some reason, no one wants to give Okajima the same love. He does all the same things that Papelbon does, it’s just that he doesn’t get the saves. I’d say it’s pretty fair to call it a jump ball as to whether Papelbon is even the best closer on the Red Sox, much less all of MLB.