Ever since the Philadelphia Phillies took their four-year contract offer off the table from incumbent closer Ryan Madson and ended up signing Jonathan Papelbon instead, the deal has had a bad taste in my mouth. The 31-year-old All-Star closer agreed to close games in Philly for the next four years to the tune of $50 million. Also, there is an option for a fifth year that will automatically kick in if one of two things happen: Papelbon finishes 15 games in 2015, or finishes 100 games from 2014-2015. As we learned from the K-Rod contract situation with the Mets last year, finishing games is not a problem for a closer. So, unless Papelbon gets injured and isn’t able to pitch, this option will kick in when the time comes, bringing the total potential compensation to approximately $60 million. Since the contract became official, I’ve felt that he would have a hard time pitching at Citizen’s Bank Park, but I didn’t have the stats to back up my argument. Well, now I have them.
Whenever I’ve had conversations with other fans about Jonathan Papelbon, the first thing I say is that he depends on his fastball too much and doesn’t mix in his secondary pitches (i.e. splitter and slider). I never knew the percentages, but it was shocking for me to find out on RotoHardball that from 2008 to 2010, the former Boston closer was throwing his fastball at an alarming rate of 77%. However, Fenway is quite the pitcher friendly park, with a home run rate in 2011 of .880 (22nd in the MLB), so it wasn’t a surprise to me that Papelbon has been able to get away with throwing that many fastballs for the duration of his career.
Now that he left Beantown for the Phillies, he will be in a more hitter friendly ballpark at Citizens Bank (.950 HR rate, 16th in MLB), which means that his 46% fly ball rate could lead to giving up more home runs in 2012. This signing moved at a rapid rate and I was even more surprised that Ruben Amaro Jr. was willing to take Ryan Madson’s offer off the table as fast as he did in favor of Papelbon. I found some awesome statistics at www.baseballanalytics.org that compared the two closers on things they could control, and other things that they could not. Here is the first wave of statistics that analyzes the three year averages for each closer from 2009 to 2011:
199 IP, 10.8 strikeouts/ 9IP, 2.8 BB/ 9IP, 0.7 HR/ 9IP
191 IP, 9.6 strikeouts/ 9IP, 2.4 BB/ 9IP, 0.6 HR/ 9IP
Obviously, these stats are pretty close, but Madson does have the edge when it comes to both walks and home runs surrendered per nine innings pitched. Papelbon averages more strikeouts per nine innings and that makes sense because since 2009, he has averaged more strikes thrown (66.8%) than Madson (65.9%), but Madson still has a higher swing-and-miss percentage (30.5%) than Papelbon (28.5%) and a higher percentage of pitches chased out of the strike zone (39.1% to 35%). How exactly has this happened? Well, it’s because Madson mixes in his secondary pitches more often and realizes that MLB hitters are going to eventually figure out how to time his fastball if they always know it’s coming.
A valid argument against this evidence is that Papelbon faced tougher hitters because he played in the AL East, as opposed to Madson’s competition in the NL East. However, this can once again be disproved by looking at the numbers; over the last three years, Papelbon has faced hitters with an average OPS (on-base + slugging %) of .769, whereas the OPS of hitters that Madson has faced is .767. So, the type of competition they are facing is pretty darn even.
At the end of the day, which team will benefit most from their deal for a new closer, the Cincinnati Reds for Ryan Madson or the Philadelphia Phillies for Jonathan Papelbon? Madson is going to a much more homer friendly park (1.31 HR/game), but who would you take: a closer with a 32% fly ball rate and secondary pitches for one-year and $8 million or another with a 46% fly ball rate and his fastball for four years and $50 million? That question is easy for me.
I think the Phillies made a big mistake in letting Madson walk, but we will see how 2012 plays out. After all, that’s why they play the game.