Phillies Have Deal with Jonathan Papelbon
News broke today that ex-best closer in Red Sox history Jonathan Papalbon has signed a record-breaking deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Proving that he wasn't going to leave the offseason without spending $10 MM on a relief pitcher, Phillies GM Ruban Amaro, jr. signed Papelbon to a 4-year deal worth a reported $50 MM, with a vesting option for a fifth year at an additional $10 MM. Reports are saying that the option should vest easily.
While a large part of me simply screams that this is a bad idea, I want first to look at why it might be a good idea.
The first issue is the money - the Phillies will be paying $12.5 MM to a guy who is going to throw 4% of their innings -- this is inherently silly. However, Jonathan Papelbon is at the pinnacle of his profession. Since becoming a full-time closer in 2006, few men deserve to be mentioned in the same breath (Rivera, Nathan, Putz, Rodriguez), and some of those names will grace plaques in Cooperstown one day. Yes, he is pitching a small amount of innings, but nobody in the game is going to allow fewer runs in those innings than Jonathan Papelbon.
Going back to 2007, I will provide the average WAR for Papelbon for three different systems: one which measures end-product prevention, ie: actual earned runs allowed (Baseball-Reference WAR), one which measures end-result plate appearance outcomes (FanGraphs WAR), and one which measures batted-ball rates (StatCorner WAR).
Because Papelbon is coming off one of his best years, having had the best relief season in the AL in 2011, I think it is fair to call him a 2.5+ win pitcher, but for the sake of argument, let's call him a 2.5-win pitcher. Under that scenario, the deal is fair, as 2.5 wins, at $5 MM per win, is exactly what he's getting paid, $12.5 MM per season.
Papelbon's resume even quells some questions: he's been the picture of health since tweaking his shoulder in 2006. Following that minor incident, he has followed his shoulder program religiously, been a maniac as far as keeping fit, and never had any other health issues. He's a big guy, and should be in it for the long haul. The Red Sox have never pushed him, either, so he should have avoided Scott Proctor Syndrome.
Citizen's Bank Park, which is a hitter's haven, may not be an issue for Papelbon, who strikes out a ton of guys and was a four-time All-Star at Fenway Park.
All of this is great, but there is one huge issue with this contract: it's a five-year deal to a 31-year-old reliever, and no matter how good he is, this is an enormous risk. Relievers are insanely hard to project, and even Papelbon, perhaps the best reliever in baseball over the last 6 years, has produced a standard deviation of 0.77 in his WAR over that time, or about a third of his value. Even the reliable guys are difficult to predict. Relievers can lose effectiveness overnight, and while Papelbon has been healthy as a horse, because of their wacky usage patterns, a reliever can burn out and start April as a relief ace and end September as Triple-A roster-filler.
Another big question I have is whether he can maintain his release point. For the first three years of his career he came straight over the top with a mid-high 90s heater that flew straight, but had perhaps the best life in baseball. The result was pinpoint precision and velocity and life that combined for a dominant pitch, and from 2006-2008 he posted a K/9 of 10.0 to go with a BB/9 of 1.7.
In 2009 he began to add more lateral movement to the fastball, which took away a lot of his effectiveness. His fastball lost a little bit of velocity, most of its late explosiveness, made it flat and robbed him of his control. In 2009-10 his BB/9 was 3.5 as his strikeout numbers fell, and he became a 'good' reliever instead of a great one.
In 2011, though, he found that release point again and threw the explosive, pinpoint fastball to great success, compiling a 8.70 K/BB. I assume he knows what he did and worked to correct it, and will work to maintain that, but there is a bit of doubt there that he could lose that release point again.
It comes down to this: if Papelbon were providing this type of value at any other position, the deal would seem a lot safer. He's providing value to match his salary, he should stay healthy, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. But there will be questions, and there should be questions, about the length of the contract concerning his age, and, most importantly, his volatile position. I have no reason to doubt that Papelbon will be healthy and effective for the next four years, but until he actually does that, I cannot condone the contract that Amaro doled out today.
MLB and WWI
Today is November 11, celebrated and Canada and the Commonwealth as Remembrance Day, noting the day the armistice came into effect on November 11, 1918, ending the Great War, known now as World War One. I really wanted to do a piece about baseball players serving in this war, and there is significant information on this topic out there, but the inspiration for a full article never found me. Instead, I've got a short list of facts about baseball and WWI that will make me feel like I've done something to commemorate the day.
-- Hall of Famers Branch Rickey, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson served in the same regiment during WWI, the 1st Gas Regiment, which spent time in France teaching American and Allied troops about the offensive applications of chemical warfare. Rickey served as a Major, with the two legendary players serving under him. Cobb would spend four months in Europe and Mathewson contracted a case of tuberculosis from a training accident in 1918 that probably contributed to his early death in 1925, aged 45.
-- The 1st Gas was a unique and groundbreaking unit at the time, at least on the Allied side, and they were highly regarded throughout the Allied armed forces. The Baltimore Sun observed a training exercise and wrote of them: "If His Satanic Majesty happened to drop around at the American University training camp to-day, he would see the "Hell Fire Battalion" at work and might blush with envy. On the War Department records the battalion is known as the "Gas and Flame Battalion of the Thirtieth Regiment Engineers." Throughout the Army they are known as the "Hell Fire Boys".
-- Eddie Grant was a Harvard Law Graduate who won the NL Pennant with the New York Giants in 1913 and once hit 2 home runs in a single season (#1912beastmode). Grant was a lawyer after retiring in 1915, and when America joined the war in 1917 Grant was one of the first to enlist. He obtained the rank of Captain and during the Meuse-Argonne offensive led an entire battalion in a search for a group of American troops who had become isolated because the US wasn't good at war yet. He led his troops for four days before being killed by shellfire at the age of 35.
-- The 1918 season was forced to shut down on September 1, 1918 as the US government issued a 'work or fight' order to all eligible men, and many ballplayers were either drafted or forced to work in war-effort occupations. As such, the World Series was played from Sep. 5-11, as Babe Ruth's Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs in six games. Attendance had been down for a couple of seasons league-wide, and with the war in full swing, the future of professional baseball looked bleak. In fact, baseball could very well have been saved by the sudden end to the fighting, allowing the league to return in 1919 to watch Babe Ruth set the single-season HR record in three consecutive seasons.