When compiling the 100 Greatest Phillies of All-Time (now available on Amazon, makes a great holiday gift!), Pat Gallen and I struggled with the placement of a few guys, most notably, Lenny Dykstra, Roy Halladay, Von Hayes, Ryan Howard, and Cliff Lee. As the list and feature became more of a reality as a book, some names that were posted on our Top 100 on the site were hacked off in favor of names that were provided as feedback began to roll in. The process began in late 2013 and concluded, officially, on or about July 1, 2015. There was only one name by that time that we had no idea what to do with: Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon was signed by the Phillies early in the 2011 offseason to the game’s richest, and longest, contract for a closer: a four year deal with a vesting option for year five, at a maximum value of $63 million. 2015 was season four and the option was looking more “vestible” by the day. And Papelbon’s on-field performance wasn’t the issue. On May 13, Papelbon became the Phillies’ all-time leader in saves, passing Jose Mesa for the honor. Through July, Papelbon was 14 for 14 in save opportunities with a microscopic 1.82 ERA. But soon, the dissension would begin.
On July 7, Papelbon would remark that he wanted out of Philadelphia. Papelbon would serve as the Phillies’ lone All-Star and became the first Phillies’ reliever ever to get selected as All-Star twice as a Phillie. By July 14, his desire to leave Philadelphia had been repeated to media members at least once more. On July 24, Papelbon recorded his 17th save of the season in 17 chances and his 123rd and final save as a Phillie. On July 28, Papelbon was dealt to the first-place Washington Nationals for minor league pitcher Nick Pivetta. Despite his desires to pitch for a winner, Papelbon would not make the playoffs: the Nationals would blow their NL East lead and never make a serious run to get back into the race through August and September. And by the end of September, Papelbon would be choking on and off the field: Papelbon would blow saves in back-to-back appearances for the Nats on September 14 and 18 and would choke teammate and presumptive NL MVP Bryce Harper before giving up two earned against the Phillies on September 27. Papelbon would end his season suspended.
Grade: B. And despite all that, during his time as a Phillie, he was OK. Papelbon had lost his dominance some time ago, losing over 3.5 MPH since 2011 off his fastball but he still was a top-caliber closer. Aside from the off-the-field distractions and massive contract, Papelbon was OK. Papelbon’s 1.59 ERA in 39.2 IP in 2015 for the Phillies was a bit deceptive, as his FIP had him at 3.01, a rare case of the Phillies providing better defensive help than not. His good luck ran out in Washington, where he posted a 3.04 ERA and a 4.87 FIP, suggesting that he likely should have even been worse.
For years, Papelbon’s skillset has been declining but he has maintained his “hard” numbers through rough peripherals through smoke and mirrors. Give credit where credit is due to Ruben Amaro for finding a trade partner and getting the combustible closer out of town. No need to have that kind of behavior, between the crotch grab in 2014 and the choking in 2015, around a team primarily comprised of young talent, in 2016.
As for the book, well, Papelbon wasn’t as dominant as Billy Wagner, didn’t have the versatility of Ron Reed, or the combination of magic moments and performance of Brad Lidge and Tug McGraw. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who are considering purchasing it, however, Papelbon did not make the cut despite being the club’s all-time saves leader.