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Clash of Countries: Jonathan Papelbon: Closer or Starter?

A look at the Red Sox from an international point of view.

by Anders Olsson

Paps in the Pen? I think not!

Right now, we have the best closer in baseball. More prominent names such as Mo (12/13, 2.15 ERA), Billy Wagner (12/15, 2.48 ERA), Jason Isringhausen (18/22, 3.91 ERA) and the rest of the regular standouts have not been as consistently brilliant as Jonathan Papelbon this season. B.J. Ryan (15/16, 0.63 ERA) is the closest competitor, but he doesn't have the ERA Papelbon has. Paps is 20/21 with a 0.28 ERA in 32.1 innings pitched. He has given up no home runs, struck out 33 and while only walking 4. All these stats are incredible, and while hopes were certainly high for Paps before the season started, I doubt few expected numbers like these.

Not only do the Sox have a Rookie of the Year and Cy Young candidate...
So, then, why even discuss moving Paps to a starters role? The answer, obvious as it may be, is that this would enable him to contribute far more to the team. A closer pitches around 60-70 innings per year, while a starter logs around 220-250 innings. Making Paps a starter would thus enable him to, bar any injuries, pitch about four times as many innings. Granted, the ninth inning is usually more important than the fourth inning. As we all know, though, having a solid starter on the mound and a solid offense behind him more often than not means that a closer need not be involved to determine the outcome of the game. Another factor that should be mentioned is the level of craptasticness of our #4-5 starters and that Schilling is only one more year away from retiring. The Sox need more solid starters. Badly.

Having determined that Paps could help the team more as a starter, the next question is whether or not he would be able to handle pitching the aforementioned four times as many innings. Two factors enter into answering this question - durability and the ability to throw 3-4 quality pitches consistently.

Since Papelbon has only been pitching for 2.5 years (he was converted from a first baseman, which of course only makes his development even more remarkable) and of course never has pitched 200+ major league innings, I feel that anything that I can say about Paps' durability would be unfounded speculation. What I can say, however, is that I've seen nothing yet that makes me believe that he would not be able to handle it.

Papelbon has five pitches in his repertoire. Two very good (4-seamer, splitter), two OK (2-seamer, slider) and a so-so one which is rarely used (changeup). As has been plentifully discussed on SoSH, having two brilliant pitches and some odd ones to use around them is more than enough to be a reliable major league starter.

Paps' fastball is one of the best I've ever seen. It moves brilliantly, it almost dances, and is consistently in the mid-90's. I've also noticed that it sometimes almost looks like a cutter because of the movement. Paps has incredible control of this deceptive pitch and can throw it for a strike when needed almost without exception. The splitter is a newly learned pitch, which Schilling has been tutoring Paps to throw to perfection. The drop is more dramatic than Schilling's own splitter, making Paps' splitter look almost like a forkball.

The 2-seamer I don't know enough about to comment. The slider is hard, with an unspectacular break. The fact that the slider is as hard as it is, I lack exact numbers on the speed and would appreciate if someone has some, means that a good changeup would serve Papelbon nicely. Combining the 95+mph fastball with an 80-something changeup would be a lethal weapon to throw off the hitters' timing with. I believe that if Papelbon was to develop a changeup, even if it's only about average, he would benefit greatly.

In conclusion, Paps would help the team more as a starter and has the stuff to be one. It seems clear cut to me. Paps should be our #4 starter next year and the rotation in 2008 would then be Beckett-Lester-Paps-Ageless Wake-X where X could be replaced with friggin Bruce Chen and we would still have a good chance to win the World Series.

Start me up, Paps!

by Hugh Perry

How many other teams in Major League baseball have a lights-out closer like Jonathan Papelbon?

Look at the stats and there's no one to match the Blastgun from Baton Rouge (feeble effort to introduce new nickname).

Sure, there are a few elite closers out there. For the Toronto Blue Jays, BJ Ryan has 15 saves out of 16 opportunities and an ERA of 0.61. Over in St Louis, Jason Isringhausen has 21 saves, 4 blown opportunities and an ERA of 3.76. Both are very good sets of numbers.

...but they've got an MVP candidate as well.
But... Jonathan Papelbon has 20 saves out of 21 opportunities, and an ERA of - rub your eyes - 0.28. You want control? His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is 0.65. That's exceptional by any standard.

He's nailed 33 strikeouts in just about 32.1 innings, some from his rising mid-90s fastball and others thanks to his improving splitter. Even when he blew his first save on 9 June, he got it together in the next inning to strike out the side for a win. He displays courage and fire in historic quantities.

And talk about value-for-money. Not a concept you often find with the high-spending Red Sox, but Papelbon is on $335k. Compare with Isringhausen's $8.75m.

Now match up Paps against the bullpen arms currently with the big club. Let's take the alternatives one by one: Foulke (2005 redux); Timlin (rehabbing); Tavereanez (a two-headed horror story that should be treated like nuclear waste, and buried in a lead-lined container at the bottom of the Atlantic); Riske (most useful in low-leverage situations, it seems); Van Buren (hit-and-miss of late).

It's certainly easy to argue Papelbon's credentials for being the best closer for the Red Sox, if not all baseball. And that in itself is reason enough to keep him as the closer.

Furthermore, moving him into the rotation would be cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just because one area of your roster is underperforming, you shouldn't hamstring another, overperforming, area to compensate.

Sprinkle holy water over David Wells' creaking knee joints... pray that Matt Clement gets his head and arm together... cross your fingers that a combination of DiNardo and Lester (and whoever can be picked up) can make useful contributions over the rest of the season.

But keep Jonathan Papelbon where he belongs: coming in for the ninth inning to challenge batters and secure games for our Red Sox.

After all, we're in pretty good shape, all things considered.