It's been something of a bumpy road for Jonathan Papelbon these last few years. After being the next best thing to Mariano Rivera back in 2007 and 2008, our closer began to falter in 2009, culminating in his season-ending blown save against the Angels.
Then came 2010, and with it as many heart attacks as saves. Not only was Papelbon not his old dominant self, he was barely even above average. In fact, his 3.90 ERA was well above the median for relief pitchers, though his FIP and xFIP were somewhat better. Either way, though, Papelbon wasn't Papelbon, and we weren't exactly comfortable hearing "Shipping Up to Boston" blaring from the Fenway PA system come the ninth.
Still, as tends to happen with Red Sox players, his reputation with the mainstream media was largely unchanged--how long were they calling Beckett the Red Sox' ace while Lester was outdoing him start after start? So it's understandable that, when Sports Illustrated asked 185 MLB players to name the league's most overrated players, about 4% of them came back with Papelbon's name. A figure good for fifth place.
The thing is, they chose the wrong year. Because so far in 2011, there hasn't been anyone better out of the bullpen than our own Paps.
No, he doesn't have the most saves, the fewest blown saves, or even the lowest ERA. But he does have one of the highest strikeout rates amongst all relievers, one of the lowest walk rates, and the highest WAR at an even 1.0 through just a third of the season. For comparison, the highest WAR amongst relievers in 2010 was a 3.1 figure for Carlos Marmol.
The main difference for Papelbon seems to be command. It's not that he's throwing more strikes--in fact, Papelbon is throwing fewer pitches in the zone than ever before in his career. It's that he's throwing them when he wants to. He can throw a first pitch strike with his fastball without getting it knocked out of the park, and with that pitch established he's free to move on to splitters and sliders that batters have to give credit to. The result: tons of swings on pitches that dive out of the zone, leading to a ridiculous 18.2% of his pitches inducing swinging strikes.
There's always a legitimate knock to be made against closers and designated hitters (David Ortiz earns a sizable percent of the fan vote on facebook), to be sure. They don't participate in nearly as much of the game as starters or fielders. But something tells me that's not what the players were thinking about .
Instead, it seems to me they were suffering from the same sort of lag as the media. No, Papelbon wasn't very good in 2010. Yes, he might just be going all-out in his contract year. But for now, he is pretty much the best you're going to get in that role, and I'm more than willing to ride his arm all the way to the finish line.
Oh, and of course, the Yankees took the top three spots with Alex Rodriguez, Joba Chamberlain, and Derek Jeter. Who else?