FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 14: Pitcher Jonathan Papelbon #58 of the Boston Red Sox pitches against the New York Yankees during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at City of Palms Park on March 14, 2011 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Jonathan Papelbon is no longer a Red Sock. After seven stellar seasons, the closer has left the OldTown for Philadelphia where he joins an incredible pitching staff and replaces a very similar player in Ryan Madson. Boston may now scoop up Madson or the Padres stopper Health Bell as Papelbon’s replacement or else move Daniel Bard to the ninth inning.
Regardless of the solution, replacing Papelbon will be missed. Since Paps became Boston’s closer in 2006, he has been the most valuable reliever in baseball (fWAR 14.7), edging out the legendary Mariano Rivera (fWAR 13.9) and leaving everyone else in the dust. He has the best FIP of any reliever in that time as well and his 395 innings ranks 11th among all relievers, 4th among those who would still be considered closers. In 2011, Paps had what be finest season ever. His 1.53 FIP was a career best, barely trailing Craig Kimbrel’s 1.52 mark. What will it take to replace this elite level of production?
The replacement level for any bullpen pitcher is a more complicated issue than for position players or starters. The recognized bullpen roles of closer, setup man, LOOGY, ROOGY, and long reliever or swing man are not positions in and of themselves. Lose a closer to injury mid-season and typically they are replaced by the setup man, while the next best arm in the pen takes on the eight inning duties and so on, down the line. To further complicate things, top pitching prospects often see time in the major league bullpen to gain valuable experience and limit their innings at a young age.
If that isn’t enough, there is the wild volatility that comes with relievers. Papelbon himself has had some wild fluctuations of late, with his FIP reaching an all-time high of 3.51 just last year and then dropping just as dramatically. A relief pitcher’s season typically consists of just one third the innings of a starter and they pitch in a wildly irregular pattern. All of this means that predicting future performance and narrowing down what it will take to replace any reliever is perilous.
Nonetheless, with Papelbon out of the picture, Boston will need some pitching help next year. They will, at very least, need to find an extra 65-70 innings, Papelbon’s typical workload. Were Bard to move to the closer role, then that total would go up as, Bard has pitched more innings in his current role than he would closing assuming the role remains the same with the new manager. Promoting Bard would mean an additional ten relief innings.
The 2011 Red Sox featured very good bullpen. The pen held a 3.67 ERA overall, fourth best in the AL. Thanks to a starting staff that struggled to fill innings, they also pitched the second highest innings total in the league, 517.1 innings. The average AL bullpen only pitched 466 innings and the two top rotations, TampaBay and Los Angeles, needed only 391 and 422 innings from their pens, respectively. Boston was forced to give an extra 50-100 innings to their bullpen as a result of the starting rotation’s shortcomings.
Those one extra innings took their toll. As good as Boston’s bullpen was, it still gave 60 innings to players at or below replacement level and 40 more innings to player who contributed just .1 fWAR. Had the rotation managed to pull its wait, the bullpen would have had far less need for its least effective pitchers. Papelbon’s role would not be effected much, however. This improvement would have been from the bottom up.
Signing a single player to replace Papelbon presents a problem. Paps has a better track record than any other available closer. However, Boston has ample opportunity to replace Papelbon’s production in the aggregate. The Sox returns their second and third best relievers, Bard and versatile long man Alfredo Aceves. Ex-closer Bobby Jenks struggled with injuries last season, but had been worth 1.5 fWAR in 2010. Jenks is the perfect example of the volatile nature of relievers having produced over 1.5 fWAR three times in the past six years and less than .5 fWAR twice. Should Jenks be able to return to even just the 1 win level, Boston be nearly half way to filling the void.
The remaining 1-1.5 wins Boston would likely get from Paps could easily be made up in those one hundred innings starters failed to cover in 2011. Relief pitchers are rarely able to top 1.5 wins in such a limited role. In 2011 only 17 relievers managed the feet. Starters, however, produced 85 pitchers over 1.5 wins. Boston had three starters above that mark despite a below average rotation. Replacing Tim Wakefield’s .8 fWAR from 2011 with a full season of Erik Bedard, who produced 2.4 fWAR would cover the remaining gap. Simply returning the starting rotation to an above average level would cover Papelbon’s production.
The Red Sox will be looking to acquire at least two starters this off-season and this is there best chance to replace Papelbon’s production. The 2011 bullpen produced 7.7 fWAR, the best in baseball. The starting pitching was less impressive with just 12.6 fWAR. In total the staff managed 20.3, Papelbon contributing 3 wins on his own. Of the six teams that topped Boston’s 20.3 wins from pitching, everyone received more production from the starters. Three of those teams featured below average bullpens. In fact Papelbon’s new home, Philadelphia can count on an improved bullpen with the additional of Papelbon alone, as he easily projects to surpass their 1.7 fWAR 2011 bullpen total.
Jonathan Papelbon is an excellent pitcher and he will not be easy to replace. However, he is still a relief pitcher and as such, his value is unlikely to ever exceed its 2011 level. Boston will miss his intense gaze, his blazing fastball and his river dancing. If Cherington and company can address their biggest weakness, the starting pitching, they may not miss his production at all.