Is Jonathan Papelbon even the best closer on the Red Sox?

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.

9 Responses to Is Jonathan Papelbon even the best closer on the Red Sox?

  1. Caroline says:

    From inside the Boston bubble I can definitely say that Okajima gets a lot of love locally, both from the media (which lobbied relentlessly for him to win the All Star Game golden ticket and has now moved on to promoting him as a Rookie of the Year candidate) and from us rabble in the stands. Okajima shirts aren’t quite as common yet as Papelbons and Dice-K’s, but they’re picking up speed, and the reaction to him is overwhelmingly positive.

  2. Nice analysis, PC.
    One thing that I think you might be overlooking is the “novelty” effect of Okajima coming over from Japan. As hitters get used to his pitching style, “okie-dokie” (forkball-style changeup), and the fact that he doesn’t look at the plate when he releases the ball, I think Okajima will regress. He’ll still be effective, just not this dominant.
    Papelbon’s been around and most AL hitters have seen him. He’s battle tested, and proven.
    It’s tough to say if Okajima would be as effective if he were the Sox’s full-time closer. But I guess my somewhat-circular, middle-of-the-night logic has lead me to the exact point you were making.
    ‘Scuse me while I go bake myself a DiGiorno.

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Daniel, yeah, there’s something to be said for the novelty/adjustment piece, although I’ve never seen data to back it up. As of this moment, Okajima has faced 235 major league hitters, while Papelbon has faced 583.
    Not sure if that makes a difference or not. Perhaps I should check…

  4. Carlos Rubi says:

    Where does Soria rank vs Okajima in the ROTY race?

  5. Central Square says:

    Very interesting, PC. Your knowledge of the game/team clearly exceeds mine, but I do have a couple of things I would ask you about:
    I read the piece about ‘clutch’ performance, which was cool, but I think it ignored the fact that ‘clutch’ really means the ability to focus MENTALLY under intense pressure in addition your physical abilities.
    It’s true that closers are good because they’re naturally good pitchers, but a good closer (or reliever) has to be good at the right TIME, which necessarily means the ability to focus as well as physically perform.
    How many pitchers have we seen who are great but have mental lapses that hurt them? (Love ya, Dice-K, but you often seem to lose it for an inning or two!)
    Now both relievers and closers have to be able to dominate for their first 20 pitches or so, but a reliever knows that if he blows a hold, there’s still time for the team to recover. A closer doesn’t have this luxury, obviously. Therefore, I would argue that it is slightly more difficult to perform mentally under those circumstances.
    Also, I might argue the same thing for the offense the pitcher is facing. Obviously in the 7th and 8th a reliever’s opponents want to get hits and runs, but in the 9th in a close game eventually the batters reach a point where they HAVE to hit or lose.
    Which do you think a pitcher would rather face: Guerrero in the 1st, 8th or 9th inning? Do you honestly believe there’s no difference? I think there is, and the closer has no room any mental errors on those last at-bats.
    Don’t get me wrong: every night and every morning I thank God for Hideki. My Man! My Main Man!
    I also admire Okajima because I think he’s a wilier pitcher, with more tools at his disposal than Pap.
    But I think Eric Gagne’s experience so far here has opened my eyes to the fact that reliever is not the same as closer. Wouldn’t think so, but for some reason it seems to be a very different job.
    Honestly, I think Jonathan has the harder task….

  6. Pizza Cutter says:

    Central, you’re intermingling a few issues. First is the issue of fatigue, which I agree hasn’t been adequately studied. (I’m in the beginning stages of looking at it myself).
    Another piece is the ability to bounce back from a set-back (in my field, we call this resiliency). After a reliever has blown a lead, can he still pull it back together? Again, no research that I know of.
    Can a pitcher pitch well (vs. falling apart) in a crunch-time situation when the game’s on the line? The “clutch study” that you reference says that there is very little to suggest that a pitcher pitches any better or worse than we might expect based on the circumstances.
    Papelbon doesn’t have the harder task just by virtue of the fact that he pitches in the ninth inning. The rules in the ninth are the same as the rules in the eighth: get three outs, don’t let the other team score. Which situation is more important to determining whether or not a team will win the game? Top of the seventh with a one-run lead, but the other team with runners at 1st and 3rd with one out, or starting off the top of the ninth with a three run lead?
    And for what it’s worth, I’d rather face Vlad in the ninth. Hopefully, he’ll be tired.

  7. Central Square says:

    I hear ya, PC….
    I guess what I’m saying is that BB is an extremely mental game….indeed all sports at the pro level are.
    If relief is the same as closing, then why has Gagne struggled like he has changing from closing to relief? Same athlete, same rules….I have faith Eric will get it together, and it’s true he was in a different league before, but I’ve heard it almost universally in the press that it’s closing is a different job than setting up the closer.
    On a different note….I’m not sure, but isn’t a player’s on-base hitting percentage (OBP) higher that when his teammates are not on base? If true, wouldn’t that demonstrate that players focus more mentally and get more hits when they know they’re in a position to drive in runs?
    If my interpretation of OBP is wrong, please forgive my ignorance…..haha!

  8. Central Square says:

    HAHA….sorry OBP means how often a player reaches base other than fielding errors, etc… BAD!
    Still, I’m curious about your thoughts on Gagne….

  9. Pizza Cutter says:

    The deal with Gagne can be summed up in the words “small sample size.” He’s only been in Boston for a month and people have bad months. Plus, he’s still an injured pitcher at the back end of a season. The elbow might be wearing out.
    I’m not familiar with the study concerning a difference in OBP when there are runners on base, but it could very well be out there. If it’s not, it could be done fairly easily to check to see if that’s true.

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