For two months, we have complained on this blog and on Twitter about the misuse of Jonathan Papelbon, so it is only fair to heap praise on manager Charlie Manuel when the $50 million closer is used properly. A Google search for site:crashburnalley.com papelbon “leverage index” yields 40 results, so you can imagine how happy the Saber-inclined among us were when Papelbon was brought into the eighth inning of last night’s series opener against the Florida Marlins.
Antonio Bastardo had, in the spirit of Chad Qualls, surrendered two home runs to the Marlins to start the eighth inning, bringing them from 6-2 to 6-4. Flame-throwing lefty Jake Diekman came in to put out the fire, but after a strikeout, he allowed two fluky hits to load the bases. With only lefties Raul Valdes and Joe Savery left in the bullpen, Manuel decided to call on Papelbon to get out of the jam. With the bases loaded and one out, you are looking for one of three things: a strike out, a pop-up within or close to the infield, or a ground ball double play. Papelbon’s skill set makes him perfect for the first two as he has averaged three strikeouts for every ten batters faced, the fourth-highest rate among relievers dating back to 2005 (min. 400 IP). He has also induced infield pop-ups at a 16 percent clip, the highest rate among relievers in the same time span and innings pitched threshold.
Lo and behold, Papelbon comes in and gets Omar Infante to pop up to Jimmy Rollins for the first out, keeping all three runners in place. He ended the inning with a 2-2 splitter on the inside corner, striking out the always-dangerous Hanley Ramirez. The leverage index for those two at-bats were 5.44 and 5.26, respectively. (The average LI is 1.00 and 2.00 is considered high-leverage.) As you can tell here, those two at-bats rank among Papelbon’s most important on the season.
His work wasn’t done yet. After the Phillies went down in the bottom of the eighth, Papelbon went back out for the top of the ninth and his first save of more than three outs on the season. It was smooth sailing from there, as he retired Giancarlo Stanton on a ground-out and Logan Morrison on a fly ball to left field. The game ended when former Phillie Greg Dobbs lined out to center field, with John Mayberry making a circus-style catch. Papelbon and the few remaining fans at Citizens Bank Park let out a huge sigh of relief as the Phillies moved to within 2.5 games of first place.
This is a game that very easily could have slipped out of the Phillies’ grasp with Manuel’s typical bullpen management. A combination of injuries (Jose Contreras left the game earlier) and the right-handed Infante and Ramirez made the decision to bring in Papelbon obvious. Hopefully, last night’s success emboldens Manuel to use his closer in this fashion going forward.