Seasons in Boston: 2005-2011
Honors: 2007 World Series Champion, 6x All-Star,
Red Sox Numbers: 2.33 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 23 W, 219 SV, 509 K, 52 ERA-, 14.1 fWAR
Signature Season (2006): 68.1 IP, 75 K, 4 W, 35 SV, 0.92 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 3.1 fWAR
Out of the 12 pitchers who made my 26-man All-Time roster, Jonathan Papelbon is one of just two that was drafted, developed, and debuted with the Red Sox. Both Dick Radatz and Smoky Joe Wood were signed, developed, and debuted with the team, but only Papelbon and Roger Clemens were drafted, the former being selected in the fourth round out of Mississippi State. Papelbon was a reliever in college, serving as the Bulldogs closer, and was converted to the rotation after being drafted
The conversion from college closer to minor-league starter mostly worked. After struggling briefly as he was being stretched out as a starter in 2003 he began to dominate in his new role, pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA in both 2004 and 2005. On July 31, 2005 Papelbon earned his ticket to the big leagues making his debut start against the Twins. He won the game pitching 5 ⅓ innings and allowing just two earned runs while striking out seven. However, on August 25 after just three starts, he made the conversion to relief and never looked back. The veteran-laden rotation had pushed him out and his gift and passion for pitching in relief was readily apparent.
In 2006, Papelbon’s rookie year, he put forth a season for the ages. He was the closer out of the gate, earning his first save of the year on April 5 and his last on Aug 31. During this magical year he threw 68.1 innings while posting an ERA of just 0.92. That mark ranks as tenth lowest ERA for a qualified reliever in major-league history and is the fifth lowest for a closer with 30 or more saves. It also happened to be the second best season by ERA by a reliever 25 or younger in league history. That season he posted an ERA- of 20 which was the lowest mark in team history for a reliever. He earned a second place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
Papelbon was able to succeed with an electric fastball that he could place anywhere in any count. Over the course of his career he threw this pitch about 75 percent of the time, a splitter 15 percent of the time, and a slider about 10 percent of the time. By FanGraphs pitch values none of his offerings outside of the fastball graded out as above average pitches, but his fastball was truly special. From 2005 through 2011, his fastball was worth 98.9 runs which made it the sixth most valuable pitch in baseball behind Cole Hamels’s changeup, Mariano Rivera’s cutter, C.C. Sabathia’s slider, Cliff Lee’s fastball, and Matt Cain’s fastball. The pitch, though dominant during nearly his entire time with the team, began losing effectiveness every year before briefly rebounding in 2011. He seems to have gained velocity as the years went on, which is unusual, but lost some of his elite command.
In his six full-seasons with the Red Sox Papelbon saved 30-plus games every single year with a range of 31 saves to a high of 41. He also pitched in four postseasons with the club, throwing 27 innings with a 1.00 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, .152 BAA, 21 ERA-, 15% K-BB rate, seven saves, and two blown saves. Across his first three postseasons in 2005, 2007, and 2008 he didn’t give up a single earned run. 2008 was his most dominant postseason by the numbers, but it was 2007 where he earned a ring, striking out the last batter in the clincher. Though, he’s probably best remembered for his post ALCS Irish Jig, he did it at the parade too while holding a broom.
He finished his career as the Red Sox All-Time leader in saves with 219. He also ranks first among relievers in team history with 14 FanGraphs WAR and is tied with Koji Uehara for the lead in ERA- at 52. He’s got the second best ERA in team history, third best WHIP and third most strikeouts, and he’s fourth best in K%-BB% at 23.5 percent. All of this despite being just fifth in reliever innings pitched is pretty impressive. In three of his six full seasons as the team’s closer he had an ERA under 2.00 and only once did he post an ERA above 3.00. He was consistently elite.
Following his 2011 season, Papelbon became a free agent and signed a record setting deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for four-years and $50 million dollars. Signed after his age 30 season, this deal was worth more guaranteed money than any closer had ever gotten in baseball history. Papelbon did not disappoint posting an ERA of 2.31 over 237.2 innings with the Phillies while closing out 123 games—he is the Phillies All-Time saves leader as well.
Papelbon had an amazing career succeeding over and over again in any situation that he found himself in. He earns the nod to be the setup man for my All-Time team with just one reliever dominating to a higher degree than he did.