Nearly five seasons ago, Jonathan Papelbon was awarded a $6.25M figure in arbitration, which at the time, was the largest deal in history awarded to a closer in the first year of arbitration. At that point in his career, he had saved 113 games with a 1.84 ERA and the arbiters rewarded him nicely for those figures. He would pitch three more seasons in Boston and left the Red Sox having been worth 16.4 RA9-WAR while converting 88% of his saves.
Philadelphia handsomely rewarded the closer with a four-year deal with a vesting fifth option. Thus far, Papelbon has been worth 4.4 RA9-WAR and has converted 86% of his saves. Yet, two years into the four to five-year commitment, the Phillies are reportedly looking to move him. A quick search of MLB Trade Rumors has Papelbon mentioned in rumors regarding the Orioles and both local and national writers hearing the team is actively attempting to move the closer.
GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has his work cut out for him as Papelbon is guaranteed at least $26M with the potential of a very achievable trigger option pushing the contract to a $39M value. That is well above the money that has been doled out to any free agent closer this offseason.
On Sunday, Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer laid out some of the challenges in front of Amaro Jr.
Gelb’s story did not pull any punches, starting with the title, “Papelbon problem is on Amaro.” The problem being Amaro gave a very large contract to a closer and has been the last GM to guarantee four years and that amount of money to a closer. Since Papelbon inked his deal, Rafael Soriano, Jason Grilli, Koji Uehara, Jose Veras (twice), Joe Nathan, Joaquin Benoit, Chad Qualls, and Jon Axford each has signed a free agent deal for two years or fewer and only Nathan and Soriano’s deals had an AAV of at least $10M. The only other reliever to receive three or more guaranteed years from a team to be the team’s closer is Brandon League. League’s deal over three years guarantees him less than Papelbon’s does over the next two.
Papelbon’s contract would not be such an immovable object if it were not for the warning signs that are popping up from those who are watching him and watching his indicators. As Gelb goes on to point out in his story,
“Any scout who watched Papelbon last season noted his 2.92 ERA was a mirage. One called him a “so-so closer” with “limited” future value. Papelbon’s fastball lost life. Recording three outs became a painstaking task. His strikeout numbers plummeted. His luck was sky high. The brutal reports were filed.
The loss of life on Papelbon’s fastball was obvious last season. His fastball velocity at season’s end was 5mph slower than where it was at the end of the 2012 season. His velocity peaked near Memorial Day and continued to taper off as the season wore on.
Recognizing the drop in velocity, Papelbon utilized more two-seam fastballs in 2013 than he had in previous seasons. That adjustment allowed his fastball to maintain a positive runs above average value on his fastballs while both his breaking ball and splitter had negative values last season. The changes in both his fastball velocity and fastball implementation have led to negative trends in his outcomes against the pitch.
Batters have made increasing amounts of contact off Papelbon’s fastball both in and out of the strike zone, and the difference is more prevalent within the strike zone. To some extent, the same issue carries over to his splitter.
When Papelbon keeps the splitter down and out of the strike zone, his O-Contact% is still slightly above league average over the three-year sample size. Yet, when he makes a mistake with that pitch and leaves it in the zone, batters have had an easier time making contact with the pitch.
The decreased effectiveness of that pitch combination could be problematic moving forward for Papelbon as he attacks left-handed batters. Papelbon throws fastballs and splitters 97% of the time to lefties, and the increase in fastballs in play last season led to more BABIP fluctuation in his numbers. In his final year before free agency, lefties had a .228 BABIP against Papelbon, and that number has risen to .275 and .294 over the past two seasons. That increase in BABIP has allowed lefties to raise their batting average against him each of the past three seasons from .156 to .208 to .241. On the plus side, his wOBA against lefties has been nearly identical each of the past two seasons at .273 and .279.
Lastly, there is the issue of how Papelbon compars to his peers. For all closers with at least 30 saves over the course of the past two seasons (sample size = 32), here is how some of his outcomes compare to his closing peers.
While Papelbon’s numbers line up with the average figures for his peers, his salary is anything but average. Papelbon certainly retains the ability to be an effective closer for Philadelphia, or perhaps another team over the next two to three seasons. That said, the market certainly views the pitcher differently than he was when he signed his current deal two years ago.
Papelbon is paid like an elite closer, yet his numbers are anything but. There are still opportunities for Amaro Jr. to trade Papelbon, but the likelihood of that happening will depend on how much of a loss he and ownership are willing to take in a deal. In short, the Phillies will need to adjust their perceived value of their overpaid asset to where the rest of the league views him.