Jonathan Papelbon sits atop the Major Leagues as its saves leader, closing the door in 9 out of 9 save opportunities. Papelbon is sporting a miniscule ERA, a strikeout per inning pitched, and has provided a stop-gap solution in the back end of the bullpen.
In the off-season, Papelbon received the second-highest salary per year a closer has ever received. A lot of folks, both Phillies Nation commentators and commentors a like, were critical of the move. The money spent on Papelbon, they argued, would be better spent addressing shortstop, left field, and finding a viable fill-in for Ryan Howard at first base. And at the time, and even now, it is argued that the money spent on Papelbon would prohibit them from extending Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, and/or Hunter Pence or finding a 3rd baseman for 2013.
Yet, Papelbon has delivered. Among NL relievers whose primary job description is closer, Papelbon is tops in ERA and has yet to blow a save. While his peripherals, particularly FIP, xFIP, and K/9 IP, put him in the upper-middle class of NL closers, Papelbon has gotten the job done. Was the decision to sign Papelbon wise? Let’s compare his performance to other current closers who were available free agents in the off-season.
Right out of the gate, it is instantly clear, and I’m not sure that it’s ever been argued, that Papelbon is and has been a better closer than Kyle Farnsworth, Frank Francisco, Brad Lidge, and Jon Rauch. Next, Heath Bell‘s absolute Miami Meltdown should be tossed from the pile as his stats, both regular and peripheral paint an ugly, “Petco really helped support his middle-of-the-road peripherals” picture. And to think, the first conversation I had with Pat Gallen was “Is Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins, and Ty Wigginton a better deal/fit than Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, and Michael Cuddyer?” All other players aside, Bell has cost his team at least three games and does not look comfortable on the mound.
The main contender to sign with the Phillies before Papelbon signed? Ryan Madson. Hindsight is required to properly judge this decision because of Madson’s untimely injury. Madson signed a 1-year deal with the Cincinatti Reds for $8.5 million, nearly half the price per year than Papelbon, but now requires Tommy John surgery and may miss the entire season.
Of the remaining free agents, Joe Nathan, 37, and Francisco Rodney,35, are the most comparable to Papelbon in terms of 2012 success. Both were major question marks heading into 2012 – Nathan had a 4.84 ERA and was 14 of 17 in save opportunities and was coming off an elbow injury, while Rodney was 3 of 7 in save opportunities with a 4.50 ERA and was also coming off of a back injury. Rodney has been particularly impressive, with the lowest ERA, FIP, and xFIP amongst the group while pitching in the AL East. Nathan has pitched well in a barren AL West for its top dog.
Was the risk in signing Papelbon worth it? When comparing to the options available at the time using hindsight, while an overpay, the Phillies did get the best closer, with the best mix of favorable age and injury history to take the closer role, particularly if they were looking to secure the position long-term. We will know for sure if and when Papelbon is tested in October.