Ignominy and All, Papelbon Still Among Game’s Best
Jonathan Papelbon is responsible for giving up two of the most soul-crushing home runs that have been hit this year, one to Jordany Valdespin of the New York Mets back in May, and the other more recently to Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves.
The Valdespin home run had a win expectancy shift of 45.4 percent, from 48 percent down to three percent. The Jones home run was much worse, with a win expectancy shift of 87 percent, from 13 percent to 100 percent. As a result, Papelbon has the tenth-highest negative Win Percent Added (WPA) among all Major League relievers. Those ahead of him have had very troubling seasons, including John Axford, Alfredo Aceves, and Heath Bell.
Despite the adversity, Papelbon has been very successful in his first year as the Phillies’ closer after signing a four-year, $50 million contract back in November. A 31-year-old free agent, Papelbon exited the sinking ship that was the Boston Red Sox and joined a team that appeared to be on a quick ascent into the ionosphere, having won 102 games in the 2011 regular season. Although Papelbon has pitched well all season long, the same cannot be said for the rest of the bullpen. Between injuries (David Herndon, Michael Stutes) and shockingly-awful performances (Chad Qualls), holding down a small lead or keeping a tie score in the later innings was an enormous chore for manager Charlie Manuel.
When the game was left in Papelbon’s hands, however, he has persevered. His 2.30 ERA is the eighth-best among all qualified relievers in the National League, and his 2.21 SIERA is seventh-best. Nearly one-third of the batters he has faced have gone down swinging, the seventh-highest rate in the league. As a result, he is averaging five strikeouts for every one walk, a ratio that leaves him sixth among all NL relievers. Looking at shutdowns and meltdowns — a statistic that mimics saves but is based on actual win probability and leaves out all of the arbitrary rules — Papelbon has 34 shutdowns, the second-highest total in the league behind Aroldis Chapman‘s 37. His nine meltdowns are tied with 10 other players and sits near the league average (one in every seven games).
As the Phillies seemed to be under a rain cloud for one reason or another all season long, Papelbon has been consistent and reliable in the back of the bullpen, locking down leads whenever his team could manage to pass the baton without crumbling to the ground QWOP-style. His contract may be too lengthy and expensive, but there are very few pitchers you’d rather have in the ninth inning than Papelbon.