Jonathan Papelbon: An Appreciation


Since signing with the Phillies as a free agent, Jonathan Papelbon hasn’t been a fan favorite. Many associate him with the team’s post-2011 failures. Some feel that his acquisition is representative of the types of moves that helped transform the team from a perennial division champion to a last place team.

Now that he’s become the franchise’s all-time leader in saves, it might be time to take another look at the Phillies’ closer.

Ryan Madson. Image Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2011 season, the Phillies were involved in negotiations with incumbent closer Ryan Madson. Both sides seemed amicable to a deal, but at some point, negotiations broke down. Suddenly, it was announced that the team had agreed to a deal with Papelbon instead.

The deal received instant criticism. The contract was for over $50 million, and many pundits will tell you that it is a waste to pay that much money to a closer whose presence doesn’t actually affect the team’s fortunes all that much. However, if you take a closer look at the state of the Phillies in late 2011, it’s easier to understand their logic.

The Phillies believed they had the best starting rotation in baseball. In 2011, the starters typically pitched deep into games, so they didn’t need their relievers to pitch many innings. With that in mind, they decided to sign the absolute best guy they could to handle the majority of those innings.

Unfortunately, the rotation hasn’t been quite so stellar in the past few years. As a result, there have been more innings for the bullpen, and for the most part, the relievers haven’t been up to the task. Now imagine this: As bad as the Phillies’ bullpen has been since 2011, can you imagine how awful it would have been without Papelbon?

Some analysts believe that the “closer mentality” is a myth, and there’s nothing particularly special about the ninth inning. But if a pitcher does need a certain type of attitude to handle closing duties, it’s clear that Papelbon has it. Win or lose, Papelbon can quickly put each game behind him.

The good news is, he hasn’t lost very often. With few exceptions, when Papelbon has entered the game with the lead, the Phillies win the game.

Heading into the 2014 season, it looked like that was going to change. His velocity was noticeably diminished, and there were many questions whether he’d be able to remain effective. When he blew a save in the third game of the season, it appeared as if an implosion was imminent.

But Papelbon didn’t implode. In fact, he was as effective as he’s ever been. He converted his 15 next save opportunities, and very few of those save opportunities were easy. He rarely got to enter the game with more than a one-run lead.

Apr 21, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (58) reacts after recording the final out against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Papelbon without mentioning his personality. Sometimes when you sign an expensive free agent, you end up with a mercenary who doesn’t feel much allegiance to his new team.

Papelbon has made it clear that he doesn’t “feel like a Phillie,” and that he “didn’t come here for this.”  And of course, there was that time when he showed the fans what he really thought of their boos.

On the other hand, he has reportedly served as a mentor to some of the younger relievers on the team, and has helped in their development. So maybe he’s not that horrible to have around?

So was the Papelbon signing a bad one? In hindsight, the easy answer is yes, but things are always much clearer in hindsight.

Had the Phillies known that the rest of the team would fall apart, they probably wouldn’t have signed Papelbon. They probably could have spent the money elsewhere (although it’s difficult to point to one specific area where the money would have done more good), and they wouldn’t have had to deal with a guy who has openly wished to be somewhere else.

But at the time, closer was seen – and rightfully so – as a huge area of need. The Phillies decided to sign the best guy at that position, and based on the results, that’s exactly what they got.

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