Wait, $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon?!

Fifty Million Dollars! Wicked awesome brah!

I didn’t know that Jonathan Papelbon was on the cusp of signing with the Phillies for $50 million until my friend Jane told me Sunday evening during the Giants game. My immediate reaction was glee. The Red Sox made it known they wanted Papelbon back. He’s gone. Theo’s gone. Terry Francona is gone. Boston still has needs in the starting rotation that aren’t being met. While Papelbon’s contribution as closer wasn’t enormous, he is still a good reliever. His departure adds to the image that Boston is currently in disarray.

My second reaction was shock. Are the Philadelphia Phillies serious? Do they actually intend to pay Jonathan Papelbon $50 million over four years? Yankee fans know all too well the dangers of signing relief pitchers not named Mariano Rivera to much of anything. Most often lefties have burned the Yankees (Damaso Marte, Pedro Feliciano) but the Bombers also picked up last year’s prized free-agent reliever for way too much money only to see Rafael Soriano hit the disabled list and struggle for much of the first half of the season. When will teams learn?

Closers are, without exception, the most over valued players in all of baseball. Even the best closers in the game — the Rivera’s, Papelbon’s and Soriano’s — have a limited impact on games because they are one inning pitchers. At most they will pitch in 75 innings in a season, which puts a hard ceiling on the overall value they can contribute over the course of the season. For example, Jonathan Papelbon’s contract will pay him $12.5 million per season. At that salary, if you trust Fangraphs’ value metrics (I know how imperfect these are, so I welcome alternative measures from readers who are sick and tired of reading about these stats), only Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel would have earned Papelbon’s future salary in 2011. While Papelbon would have managed to earn his money this past season, that level of performance is an aberration for him. According to Fangraphs he was only worth more than $12.5 million one other time in his career, in 2008. This is a money losing deal for Philadelphia.

My prediction is that the Phillies will come to regret this contract. Papelbon isn’t this good because closers are of limited value to their teams. Even Mariano Rivera, who is without exception the greatest one inning pitcher in the history of the game, reliever or otherwise, doesn’t actually earn his money on the field during the regular season. In his case, his proven brilliance in the post season combined with his status as a Yankee icon help justify the extra money, but in Papelbon’s case this is one more example of a baseball team throwing money away on an over hyped reliever.

6 thoughts on “Wait, $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon?!

  1. I am completely on the other side of this argument.

    Off the bat, Papelbon is closer to Mariano than the pack of inconsistent closers. During his six years, Papelbon has been second only to Mo, and has had a six year run that would look remarkable if not for his legendary contemporary.

    I am not a big fan of the fangraphs valuations, but they are worthy of mention. Using that reference, Papelbon has averaged $10.5 million of value during his career, and has three times reached $12 million. Because of the inconsistency of most closers, I believe ones like Papelbon deserve a premium because their unique track record mitigates the risk.

    Finally, value assessments fail to account for “intangibles”, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Closers like Papelbon not only have a settling effect on a bullpen, but they can also impact how the opposition manages a game.

    Basically, I think where this argument goes off base is by comparing Papelbon to “other relievers not named Mo”, when, instead, he should be credited with being the next best thing over the last six years.

    • I agree with you. Relievers are a huge part of the game. I have seen games win and lose on the closer’s back. I do agree that some if not most are over paid. But that’s now the industry standard. I am not a Boston fan, in fact I am a huge Yankee fan, but I am a baseball fan first and foremost. Papelbon has had a pretty good run. I don’t believe the Philly’s need to pick him up though. Not for That much.

  2. There you have it. One either feels Papelbon is worth a considerable premium or that he is not. I feel that he is not worth the premium his $50 million contract implies. The other side of this argument has perfectly valid points, however.

  3. On a side note, the Yankee-Sox rivalry has lost much of its personality over the past few years. First Pedro, then Manny and now Paps. Paps was so emblematic of that fan base. Brash, loud, in your face. As a Yankee fan he was so easy to hate. There used to be a real distinction between the personalities on the two clubs, but now they’ve increasingly become mirror images of each other.

  4. The Phillies once gave Brad Lidge who was turning 32 a 3 year/36 million dollar extension half way through his best season as a pro. Now Papelbon will go to a more professional pitching staff in the National League, and he’s an elite closer. They almost gave Ryan Madson who’s older a 4 year 44 million dollar contract so… this is actually logical with how they throw money around now.

  5. Mike, you have some very valid points. However, I wonder how much any metric can value the psyche of a club that keeps losing games at the end. It seems that said team would tend to press, both at the plate, on the field, and cause tensions in the clubhouse. And that doesn’t even touch the central issue of a closer’s worth. I think that metrics that denigrate a closer who always is ‘just lucky’ under-values the effect of the guys that walk off the field as winners. Those guys are there night after night and are watching a different game than most fans, scouts and most software. Just sayin’….