Is Jonathan Papelbon the Next Mariano Rivera?

Over the last week, there was an interesting discussion on my post that examined how both the Phillies and Ryan Madson managed to become the losers of the off-season. It started when “Another John” wrote:

What if [Papelbon] is the next Rivera? How many years did it take Mo to become “Mo”?

A few others responded to that question and I was surprised to see how close Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera are statistically. Through his age 30 season, Papelbon has a 2.33 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 4.4 K/BB. Through the same age, Rivera had a 2.63 ERA with a 7.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, and 2.7 K/BB. Of course, Rivera set himself from everybody else in the ten years since with his cut fastball, which most likely is not being properly accounted for with defense-independent metrics. For example, since 2002, Rivera has a 2.98 xFIP and 2.58 SIERA compared to Papelbon’s 3.09 xFIP and 2.51 SIERA. Papelbon has been excellent, but I think we can all agree that Rivera is better than those metrics indicate.

Commenter Dan K. put it best when he said:

Papelbon is effective largely because he can make hitters swing and miss with the best of them. However, if he doesn’t make them K, his batted ball profile is worrying. 44.1% FB, 36.6% GB, 19.4% LD. Are they terrible? By no means, but when you compare them to Mo’s (30.3% FB, 52.5% GB, 17.1% LD over the same time period) you see the difference in the pitchers. When Mo doesn’t get a K, you’re still not likely to be doing much damage. If Papelbon doesn’t get the K, there’s a much higher chance you’re doing damage.

One thing he failed to mention is that Papelbon has a track record of inducing weak fly balls. Per FanGraphs, his infield fly ball rate is 16.1 percent, best in baseball among all relievers. Rivera is not far behind at 15.7 percent. Both pitchers allow home runs at about the same rate as well, 6.6 percent for Papelbon and 6.2 percent for Rivera.

What worries me most about Papelbon is his pitch repertoire. Rivera became the greatest closer in baseball history with a cutter that no hitter has been able to figure out. Papelbon’s bread and butter is a high-velocity four-seam fastball (avg. 95 MPH, thrown 75 percent of the time), complemented by a slider (10 percent) and a sinking fastball (15 percent). As Papelbon ages (and perhaps is injured), will he be able to compete with a lesser four-seam fastball? Will those infield fly balls start heading into the outfield, perhaps over the fence?

The following heat maps, per ESPN Stats & Info, show Papelbon’s fastballs based on pitch location and release velocity:


We saw a similar story unfold with Brad Lidge. When Lidge came to Philadelphia after the 2007 season, he was one of the elite closers in the game with a nearly-unhittable slider. Following the magical 2008 season in which Lidge went 48-for-48 in save situations, he authored one of the worst seasons ever by a relief pitcher, finishing with a 7.21 ERA thanks to an inability to locate his slider, declining fastball velocity, and a general lack of good health. This was his age-32 season.

You can understand why the more statistically-inclined among us express apprehension when relief pitchers, especially those over the age of 30, are signed to long-term contracts worth lots of money. Rivera is one-of-a-kind; any GM thinking he signed the next Rivera must dodge some long odds and a plethora of hurdles through the years.

Papelbon certainly has the stuff to match Rivera’s numbers, but that is just one part of the equation. The rate at which his skill erodes and the frequency of his DL stints will have as much to do with his legacy as his strikeout and walk rates.

Leave a Reply



  1. B in DC

    January 02, 2012 11:39 AM

    I can’t believe we have to root for this jerk.

    For the record, other than the look on his face, I have no reason to think he’s a jerk, and I will likely come to love the look on his face. Unless he stinks it up for 4 years.

    And that weak flyball stat is a good one. Hooray for pop-ups!

  2. Dan K.

    January 02, 2012 01:17 PM

    Happy to help provide a topic of discussion. Maybe Halladay can help Papelbon in his quest to be the next Mo by helping him develop a devastating cutter, haha.

  3. JC

    January 03, 2012 06:00 AM

    I could not believe the Phillies picked-up Papelbon. He does not have a Philly soul whatsoever, it’s going to be like oil and water. Papelbon doesn’t seem very intelligent either, he said something like “only the strong survive and the weak will perish”. And then he gets beat by the last place Orioles! Pathetic!! I was happy to see the Orioles spoil the Red Sox’s play off hopes and make Papelbon look even more stupid. As a life long Phillies Phan, I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle Papelbon being a Philly. Maybe he will adapt and be a good Philly, but it’s hard to see right now. The first thing he should do is STOP talking to the media. When he speaks, dumb stuff comes out of his hole. PLEASE Jonathan..DONT TALK and don’t make retarded looking faces when you strike someone out….it’s not the Philly way.

  4. Gaël

    January 03, 2012 07:55 AM

    What’s a “Philly soul,” and where can I buy one?

  5. JC

    January 03, 2012 08:20 AM

    Maybe the “JC” above means that Papelbon didn’t buy season tickets for the Philly Soul? Otherwise we may interpret his post as….lame?

  6. JC

    January 03, 2012 11:32 AM

    Let me help you understand Gail and JC. Papelbon is a an unintelligent Prima Donna and it’s all about him. Papelbon is gonna be like Kenny Powers someday, teaching gym class in some backwards redneck s hoop in Louisiana. Gail and JC – it’s obvious you aren’t Phillies Phans or you would know that Papelbon is a bad fit for the organization. Ruben is in panic mode, so he gets a closer. But a closer isn’t the problem, offense is the problem. We should have kept Madson and got some bats with the savings. Pitching didnt lose the series against the Cardinals (well maybe, except for Cliff Lee blowing a 4 run lead) – it was their offense that choked. At the end of the day, Papelbon isn’t going to help the Phillies win anything, it was a dumb move and he is a jerk.

  7. Rob SJ

    January 03, 2012 12:03 PM

    JC – I am certainly a Phillies fan and I don’t get your “Phillies soul” thing either. As far as I can see Phillies fans like players who give their all, but above all players who perform well. Can’t imagine that is any different from other fan bases. We all think their is a player who is a good fit for our team, but take a look at our 3 top pitchers. Hamels, Lee and Halladay are all very different in demeanor and background. However, the fans now love all of them because their results are good. yes, even Hamles. When his results were poor in 2009 we made up a “not a Phillie guy” story, but it was really about his results. As far as I know Papelbon is a hard worker, and his results have certainly been very good. Sounds like a guy I can root for, I’m not that worried about his intelligence, only his results on the mound. The Sox ran Papelbon into the ground the last week of the season and he kept going out there. He was not the reason they collapsed.

  8. KH

    January 03, 2012 01:32 PM

    Lidge doesn’t have the control Papelbon does and was injured often. Sure Papelbon could get injured too. Thats what happens to older players. Also, Papelbon has been more consistent then Lidge. Lidge lost his closers role with Houston a couple times. I think we will get at least a couple very good seasons out of Papelbon. I just don’t understand paying Papelbon more then what you could have had Madson for and I never will.

  9. JC

    January 03, 2012 03:06 PM

    Man JC drop the attitude.

  10. RobM

    January 03, 2012 03:15 PM

    Papelbon is a bulldog, who is extremely confident and always wants the ball in big games, and has performed quite well in the postseason save for one game. I’m not sure what the hell “Philly soul” is, but Papelbon has something that Philly should want. The man has played in high-pressure environments, in a hitters’ park, in a hitters’ league, and he’s done it for teams always in contention, and he’s done it well.

    No reliever should ever be compared to Rivera. He’s an outlier. Papelbon doesn’t have to be Rivera, pitching great into his 40s. He needs to pitch well for the next several years until his 34/35. He’s already put together six seasons as a quality closer, which means he’s done something few relievers have done. There’s a good chance he’ll be effective during the life of his contract, even if he’s somewhat diminished at the end.

    Better comparisions would be other successful power relief pitchers, such as Lee Smith and Joe Nathan. Smith pitched into his late 30s and had some of his best years in his early 30s. Joe Nathan was probably the best reliever in the game along with Rivers through his age-34 season.

    Papelbon will be fine. The concerns overplayed. (BTW I am neither a Philly or Red Sox fan, so I no axe to grind here.)

  11. Dom

    January 03, 2012 03:39 PM

    While I’ve sheltered myself from the AL enough to not know the personalities within it, I can say that I somewhat understand the “Philly Soul” argument. Simply put – or at least how I feel – this club attracts players with positive attitudes and personalities (for the most part) to form a team that isn’t just united in glove and bat, but on a brotherly and often transient emotional level. It keeps the club together and allows the team to triumph even after experiencing a slide or terrible defeat. Granted, there’s only so much “soul” can do for a team, but the effect on the players and consequently the fans (in admiration of both the players and their unity) is something that I find invaluable to this club and am hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

  12. LTG

    January 03, 2012 06:01 PM

    Presumably, Dom means “transcendent” not “transient,” since “transient” means “passing through” (from the Latin, ibo/ire = go; trans = through) as in “I don’t live here; I am just passing through.” Otherwise, he finds value in the ephemeral emotional level and I have no idea how to make sense of that.

    I think the proper response to this Philly Soul stuff is simply: you are projecting all over this team and seeing what you want to see (or feeling what you want to feel).

    And even if this soul-stuff has merit, what evidence is there that Paplebon doesn’t fit in? He wasn’t the problem in Boston. By all accounts, he works hard, cares about winning, and is a little cooky without being cocky. Sounds like Utley and Oswalt’s personalities recombined to me. Not that I really think this matters.

    Finally, isn’t the phrase Philly Soul or something like that usually associated with the character traits that lead to a fan base throwing snowballs at Santa and booing Mike Schmidt? What’s with all this idealistic soliloquizing over Philly soul? I certainly don’t think the town often lives up to its inherited moniker.

  13. Phillie697

    January 04, 2012 01:34 AM

    Sorry, I must start my first 2012 post with a Ryan Howard reference. Apparently, according to one of the JC’s and Dom, all Ryan Howard has to do to stop his decline and give us something more than a 1.6 WAR stinker is some positive attitude and personality, or perhaps a “Philly Soul.” I’m sure he can buy those somewhere with $125M, no? Maybe JC and Dom can help him out there.

    Or, maybe… Ryan Howard already has a “Philly Soul” but sucks so much that even that doesn’t help? OMG, then what would he put up if he lost his “Philly Soul”? NEGATIVE 1.6 WAR???

  14. Phillie697

    January 04, 2012 01:58 AM


    I do want to point out one thing wrt Papelbon’s pitch selection. If you think his reliance on his 4-seamer is a lot now, take a look at earlier in his career. If you look at the trend, I’d say he’s steadily moving away from his 4-seamer as he ages, which is exactly what you want to see. Plus, his sinking fastball shows signs of developing into a plus-pitch too. There is no question Papelbon is a good pitcher, just not $50M good.

  15. Gaël

    January 04, 2012 07:05 AM

    My earlier, somewhat glib comment about this “Philly soul” thingie was an attempt to imply what LTG nicely developed. You’re creating a narrative whose only basis in fact is that the Phillies are currently enjoying a nice string of success, but that’s because they’re good players, not because of some magical link they share.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Chooch hug his pitchers as much as the next fan, but what I’m disputing is, 1) that that’s the main cause of the Phillies winning, rather than they’re simply being a good team, and 2) that you wouldn’t find that on any other team. I’m sure fans of most other teams think the same way about their team. I’m also sure that if the Phillies were just as friendly with one another but were still stuck in the basement of the NL East, we wouldn’t be talking about this Philly soul nonsense.

    Also, Philly soul JC, my name’s not Gail. I understand most American keyboards don’t come with a key for that squiggly think above the “e” in my name, but in a pinch, Gael will do. Thanks.

  16. LTG

    January 04, 2012 08:06 PM

    Ga-el is a beautiful name. Is it Gaelic, Celtic, Welsh? What does it mean? Is there a mythic figure with the same tag? Please tell me. I love languages!

  17. YankDeeZ

    January 06, 2012 11:00 AM

    You cant compare the 2 Mo is the greatest of all time Papelbon is a schmuck

  18. paperdyer

    January 06, 2012 12:10 PM

    Perhaps Rich Dubee can show Pap the monster change-up. Worked for Madson and Cole

  19. redsoxu571

    January 06, 2012 12:19 PM

    YankDeez, that’s a pretty rockheaded comment.

    This article did not say Papelbon IS Rivera (and Papelbon isn’t, given that he has a loooong way to go in terms of career length), but noted how similar Papelbon’s career to this point has been to Rivera’s. And that is an accurate fact.

    Keep in mind that, beyond having similar regular season numbers to Rivera, Papelbon has also had excellent postseason success, down to a major record (most innings to start a postseason career without allowing a run) and prime importance to his team’s championship run. He has still only allowed a run in one postseason outing.

    The almost inevitable difference between the two is longevity. Papelbon will likely decline, even if he sticks around as a very good closer…but after two poor (for him) seasons at age 30 and 31, Rivera actually got better, and has suffered virtually no decline even at age 40.

  20. ebatista

    January 06, 2012 02:03 PM

    even though the numbers are similar mo came up as a starter so u cant go to deep into the numbers

  21. AlvaroEspinoza

    January 06, 2012 02:52 PM

    You could edit this article down to one word: No.

  22. CaptainJeter

    January 06, 2012 03:28 PM

    I don’t care if the author of this article seems to see some similar things in stats.
    Papelbon will NEVER be Mariano Rivera. To even suggest he is even in the same league is an insult to Rivera.
    Stats can be twisted around to suit one’s purpose ,it does not mean whatever this writer wrote is true.

  23. Matt Dering

    January 06, 2012 05:32 PM

    after reading this article, I can tell this writer has NO CLASS

  24. Dan K.

    January 06, 2012 07:05 PM

    @CaptainJeter et al, try reading the article before criticizing, please. Bill’s (and my own) point was that it is possible that Papelbon could be the next Mo. But it is not plausible. Not because Papelbon isn’t good (he’s great), but because Mo is an outlier. The main point was that the two are vastly different pitchers, based on pitch selection and batted ball profiles (mostly). But results, to this point, are extremely and eerily similar.

    So no, he is not saying that Papelbon is the next Mo. Saying that would be a disservice to the readers. However, ignoring the fact that it is a possibility is just straight out ignorance. Please drop your homerist mentality and show some respect to a writer who has, by all accounts, brought nothing but quality and (for the most part) unbiased articles covering many topics in baseball.

    That is all.

  25. Phils_Goodman

    January 06, 2012 08:22 PM

    @ Dan K

    In response to your last comment from the previous Pabelbon thread: I should clarify that I was not arguing that Pabelbon is the next Rivera. I was saying that he has been the next best thing in baseball since he has arrived on the scene. I think we agree on that. If he performs at an elite level for the next 12 years, that would be great, but I’ll be happy with just 3 more years of dominance.

  26. Dan K.

    January 06, 2012 10:44 PM

    I’d prefer 4 more years, but yeah, 3 more elite years will be just fine.

  27. Ryanail.

    January 06, 2012 11:43 PM

    To even mention Papelbum with Mariano in the same breath is a complete joke. No one will ever be Mariano. Papelbum is a jerk who dances around like an idiot after a save. He isn’t even that good. He chokes all the time. I love watching him fail. Typical Sawx plauer, so easy to hate. He has been and always will be garbage, not Mariano. Just stop dude.

  28. LTG

    January 07, 2012 12:57 PM

    Wow. The trolls are out in force for this one. The end of this comment section reads like something on ESPN. Is this what netizen, saber-savvy fans of the Yanks and BoSox have to put up with all the time?

  29. Dan K.

    January 08, 2012 01:29 AM

    If only an I.Q. test was a prerequisite to use the interwebs…

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