Nov 14, 2011; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr shakes hands with pitcher Jonathan Papelbon during a press conference at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Why The Phillies Shouldn’t Have Signed Jonathan Papelbon


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:

Jonathan Papelbon:

199 IP, 10.8 strikeouts/ 9IP, 2.8 BB/ 9IP, 0.7 HR/ 9IP

Ryan Madson:

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.

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Tags: Featured Jonathan Papelbon MLB Philadelphia Phillies Popular Ryan Madson Statistical Analysis

  • FelskeFiles

    It makes no sense signing Papelbon to a 5-year deal when you could have had Madson, a comparable pitcher in every way, to a 4-year deal. Madson’s stuff is going to hold up better over time, although Paps will probably still be very good for another 2-3 years. Still, giving $60 million to a guy who only pitch in about 5% of your team’s innings in a given year, isn’t a wise expenditure of funds.

  • TheatreRo46

    I completely agree. Why lose home-grown Ryan Madson for a pitcher with similar stats who’s never pitched in NL? I have no idea what happened between Amaro & Boros; but, I have my suspicions that it got very ‘personal’.

    Meanwhile, while Ruben is breaking the bank for Papelbon, the home-grown, battle-tested Cole Hamels is still not offered a long-term contract. This is a disgrace. He’s young, talented & has that wicked change-up. Amaro had better lock him up before he becomes a Free Agent because the Yanks are there just waiting like snakes in the grass to get their hands of Hamels.

    Should have re-signed Madson & locked up Hamels. Very stupid not to, Ruben!

  • bblontz

    @FelskeFiles I’ve heard similar reports that Madson is expected to hold up better over time given his use of the change up over the power arm of Papelbon. That mixed with the fact that Madson ended up agreeing to a one-year deal makes the signing look that much worse.

  • Easeidel87

    I think you hit at the core of the problem, that Madison should hold up better over time. I had a bad feeling at the outset of free agency when Amaro identified closer as their biggest need. I just don’t understand how filling the closer position is more important than short stop.

    The market was riddled with other alternatives, and had they been patient like they were with Rollins there is no way we would be stuck with another fat contract that goes on for too long.

  • http://on-the-way-home.org musicom

    Thanks for the comments guys! I totally agree with how it doesn’t seem right to throw this money at Papelbon and not lock up Cole Hamels. He probably has a chip on his shoulder and I wonder how any future extension talks would be impacted.

  • AgainstKyle

    Well put. The money alone made the signing pretty ridiculous, but looking at the numbers by themselves also make a pretty great case.

  • http://calltothepen.com/ SorianoJoe

    When I analyzed this deal in Novemeber, I said that Paps was overpaid, but such is the nature of the overrated closer market. However, I think your missing something with this deal. The Phils basically thought that Madson was as good as gone, and he was commanding a contract that was nearly as big as Papelbon’s. And, of course, he isn’t as good as Paps. The Phillies said. “Alright, we’d rather criminally overpay on the better player.” It turns out that Madson stayed on the market longer than he should have- or at least longer than he would have liked to- and ended up becoming the Reds treasure.

    The Phillies can’t be faulted too much for the deal, because this is exactly the type of money Paps would have made with any other team. It wasn’t the best move, but I don’t know that it is “bad” per se, because perceived need was there. One thing I disagree with is that Papelbon isn’t going to be effected negatively by throwing too many fastballs, because he is an established closer and opposing hitters aren’t suddenly going to go, “Wait, we should be killing every fastball.”

    I get the whole park adjustments, but there isn’t that much of significance between playing in a slightly tougher- and I emphasize “slightly”- ballpark. It will hurt his basic statistics, but the advanced statistics will barely feel anything. We know Papelbon’s value, and it won’t dramatically change. The question is whether or not the Phillies were right in overpaying for a premium closer instead of waiting for an average one on an average market deal? They took the risk, and I think they were right in doing so. It wasn’t the best decision, but it must be taken in context. Madson was about to get an even more bloated contract than Papelbon.

  • http://on-the-way-home.org musicom

    Some great points, Joe. Citizen’s Bank is definitely only slightly tougher than Fenway. I wonder if Papelbon will stay with the high heat that he likes to throw, or if he’ll start to move a little lower in the strike zone so hitters have to try a little harder to get the ball in the air.

  • The5_5Hole

    @SorianoJoe Joe you make some great points, but I’ll throw this out there: Baseball now is a game of finding the next market inefficiency. I would be surprised to see teams develop home grown closers who put up great numbers and use them as trade bait to teams like the Phillies or Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers. Those teams can spend that money and offer talent in return. It seems like a plan the Padres are moving towards. See the Mike Adams trade last year (even though Adams isn’t a closer). There is no reason to pay a closer more than you pay a starter at any position let alone pitcher. Some teams will recognize that and work to capitalize on it.

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  • Wgf

    Here’s the thing. The Phillies sign the best fee agent relief pitcher on the market and you still bitch about it. Regardless of what he does this team is committed to bringing the beat possible team to Philly. This team rocks, it has for rocked for at least the last 6 years. I am a fan since the early seventies and these years have been the best. Go Phil’s!,,,

  • http://on-the-way-home.org musicom

    @Wgf Thanks for your comment! I appreciate you reading- it will be fun to see how they both perform this year.