Monday, October 19, 2009

Red Sox MVP No. 5: Jonathan Papelbon

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season, counting down from No. 5: Closer Jonathan Papelbon.)

Lost in all the debate about the intentional walk Jonathan Papelbon issued to Torii Hunter in Game 3 of the American League Division Series was this: Papelbon has always pitched at his best in the toughest possible spots. Rather than giving Papelbon no margin for error, in a lot of ways, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was putting his closer in the type of situation in which he thrives.

Consider this: Papelbon isn't the only closer to walk the type of tightrope he walked this season.
Almost 80 closers since 2000 -- defined for these purposes as having 30 or more saves in a season --have finished a season having allowed 80 or more opponents to reach base. Almost 80 closers since 2000 have put themselves in position to fail by allowing runners to reach base on a regular basis.

Derek Lowe did it in 2000, allowing 114 runners to reach base in his 74 appearances in 2000. Keith Foulke even did it in 2004, allowing 84 runners to reach base in his 72 appearances en route to a World Series title. Oh, and, of course, Brad Lidge did it this season, allowing 111 runners to reach base in his 67 appearances.

Lidge finished this season with a 7.21 ERA. Lowe finished his 2000 season with a 2.56 ERA. Foulke finished his 2004 season with a 2.33 ERA.

Papelbon finished this season with a 1.85 ERA.

Only one of the 78 closers on the list, in fact, finished the season with a lower ERA than Papelbon: Francisco Rodriguez, who had a 1.73 ERA despite allowing 81 baserunners in 69 appearances with the Angels in 2006.

Luck has a little bit to do with it. The more opportunities an opponent has with runners on base, the type of opportunities the Angels had in the late innings of Game 3, no matter the pitcher, the better the odds they're going to stumble into a couple of runs.

But there might be no better pitcher in baseball at pitching out of trouble than Papelbon. One disintegration at the worst possible time doesn't change that. That's been the case throughout his career, and it certainly was the case as he was compiling that 1.85 ERA this season.

In perhaps his most impressive outing of the season, he came into the game with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth against Tampa Bay on Sept. 1 and set down B.J. Upton, Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford in order to get out of the jam. He then struck out Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena in the bottom of the ninth to close out the game.

Papelbon situational splits, 2009
Bases empty: .246 batting/.310 on-base/.346 slugging
Runners on base: .177/.268/.274
Bases loaded: .067/.067/.067
(With the bases loaded during the regular season, opponents were 1 for 15 -- a two-run single in mid-August by Marco Scutaro -- with 10 strikeouts. That's what made Guerrero's hit in the ALDS so astounding.)

Papelbon, career
Bases empty: .205 batting/.253 on-base/.318 slugging
Runners on base: .188/.264/.272
Bases loaded: .086/.132/.171

Let's compare that to some of his peers:

Mariano Rivera, career
Bases empty: .214 batting/.261 on-base/.294 slugging
Runners on base: .208/.268/.288
Bases loaded: .232/.234/.384

Joe Nathan, career
Bases empty: .203 batting/.276 on-base/.340 slugging
Runners on base: .198/.285/.310
Bases loaded: .143/.184/.206

Francisco Rodriguez, career
Bases empty: .201 batting/.281 on-base/.329 slugging
Runners on base: .179/.287/.272
Bases loaded: .232/.337/.464

None of those three come close to the way Papelbon rises to the occasion in the toughest possible spots.

Papelbon gave fans plenty of reason to gnaw their fingernails down to nubs this season. But while he pitched himself into plenty of jams, except on rare occasions, he pitched himself out of them.

One misplaced fastball to Guerrero shouldn't change that.

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