Jonathan Pabelbon won’t be running out of the bullpen to “Shipping up to Boston” anymore. Papelbon will have to find a new rock song, by a Philadelphia band to get his blood pumping at Citizens Bank Park, until (at least) 2015. After Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson left the Phillies, Ruben Amaro had to fill the void in the back of his bullpen from either in house or by signing a free agent closer. He went the route that most expected, in signing a big name closer to a big contract. This week, Jonathan Papelbon signed a 4 year $50 million deal with an $10 million option for 2016. I have always said that closers are an overvalued commodity, with too much emphasis put on the 9th inning, if your name isn’t Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera, then being a closer normally has a pretty short lifespan, due to many reasons (declining velocities, lack of composure, etc.). Eric Gagne, Keith Foulke, and Francisco Rodriguez come to mind when I think of closers who fell from grace. The Phillies have actually seen this happen to their former $12 million dollar closer Brad Lidge. So will Papelbon be able to maintain his success, in his 7th through 10th seasons as a closer and while moving into his big thirties?
The Phillies’ new closer has never been on the DL, but has appeared in 59 games or more in 6 straight seasons. That workload can take a major toll on the arm of a closer. Yet, Papelbon has not seen any loss in velocity, his average velocity of his fastball in 2011, 94.8 was in fact .3 miles per hour faster than his average fastball in 2007 (94.5). Papelbon has evolved has a pitcher, though he throws 18.5% less fastballs, 64.5% in 2011, than he did at the beginning of his career. Also, he’s developed a two seam fastball since 2009, he used it heavily in 2011 throwing it 10.5% of the time with an average velocity of 95.3 mph. Over the course of his time with the Phillies, there is a good chance his fastball will decline velocity, and he’ll have to continue developing as an all-around pitcher, instead of just a flame thrower. So there aren’t too many signs that he will be worse in Philadelphia than he was in Boston, thus in order to see if he is truly worth $12.5 million a season, lets just say in a perfect world Papelbon will be as good as he was on average over the last three seasons.
Over 2009-11, Papelbon averaged an xFIP of 3.21, 35 saves, 5 blown saves, and a WAR of 2.0. The metric numbers (WAR and xFIP) are inflated by his 2011 campaign in which he had an xFIP of 2.16 (the best of his career) and a WAR of 3.0. These numbers made Papelbon the second best closer in baseball, behind only Craig Kimbrel. Many will attribute the fact that it was Papelbon’s contract year, so he pitched significantly better. So to project his value I used Fangraphs’ value rating for wins over the next four seasons l as well as, just assumed Papelbon will attribute 2 wins per season to the Phillies on average over the course of the deal (which as stated before would be very surprising if he performed that well). His value only calculates out to just under $11 million per season or $43 million over the course of the deal. Thus, the Phillies would be overpaying, even if Papelbon pitches like he did in his late 20’s, when he’s in his mid thirties. That is to say that economically this contract makes no sense, but the Phillies are the new Yankees and it does not have to make sense. The Phillies can spend more than other teams and need a closer, so money really doesn’t matter, they went out and signed the best closer available. I’m sure there will be thousands of Phillies’ fans wearing red Papelbon t-shirt jerseys on opening day come April, it will be interesting to see if his time in Philadelphia will be a love affair or a complete debacle.