So much for Papelbon’s short-lived career as a starting pitcher: yesterday, as everyone living within 500 miles of Boston undoubtedly knows, Jonathan Papelbon was named the Sox’s 2007 closer. At first blush, it’s hard to argue with this decision: Papelbon, a fourth round pick in the ’03 draft, was, for 5/6′s of the ’06 season, the best closer in the league. And lord knows I’m glad we’re not going to be watching Mike Timlin jogging out of the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth.
The move, according to everyone from Papelbon himself to the ticket takers in Ft. Myers, came after Paps himself requested he return to the bullpen, which, on a certain level, makes the whole discussion of whether or not this is a good idea moot. (After all, when you have a young stud offering to fill the team’s most glaring hole, it’s hard to marshal a good reason to deny him his request.) But will Papelbon be more valuable coming on in the ninth than he would be if he’d taken the mound every fifth day? That’s a trickier question. There’s undoubtedly a big psychological boost that comes with having a lights-out flamethrower set to slam shut the door at the end of a game. But let’s say Julian Taverez — who’s more than a little nuts — fills the fifth starter role to the tune of, say, a .500 record and a 4.43 ERA. And, for arguments sake, let’s say Papelbon would have put up a 10-6 record with a 4.07 ERA.
Actually, that’s not arguments sake: that’s Papelbon’s and Tavarez’s PECOTA projections for the ’07 season. (You’ll need a Baseball Prospectus subscription to view those PECOTA links; for an explanation of just what PECOTA, or Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test, is all about, here’s BP’s PECOTA glossary and the PECOTA Wikipedia entry.) Those numbers are a bit off, because they’re assuming Papelbon would be in the starting rotation and rack up 147 innings, while Tavarez was projected to be in the pen and amass a mere 50 innings (and everything else being the same, more innings=more value). But those stats give Papelbon a 30.1 VORP (value above replacement player), worth 4.5 wins above replacement player; they give Taverez a 7.6 VORP, good for a 1.2 WORP.
Now let’s compare two closers from last year: Mariano Rivera and Todd Jones. Jones, finishing games for the pennant-winning Tigers, ended the year with 37 saves; Mo finished up with 34. But according to PECOTA, Mariano was a lot more valuable, with a 34.9 VORP, and a 7.1 WARP; Jones’s numbers were 12.2, and 3.2. (For those of you who are interested, PECOTA has Pap as more valuable than both of them, coming in at 38.6 and 7.3)
And this means what, exactly? Well, for one thing, it shows how mutable relief pitching can be. (Anyone who bets that Jones is likely to repeat his ’06 performance is likely to lose his money. Lest anyone forget, Joe Borowski looked like an elite reliever last year.) They also give an indication that Papelbon will be a more valuable closer than he will be a starter. But that doesn’t us a complete answer as to our question; for that, we’d need to subtract Tavarez’s value as a starter from Papelbon’s value as a starter and add that to Papelbon’s value as a closer subtracted from that of whomever would have been the closer (or closers) had Paps remained in the rotation. If that number ends up being positive, then Jonathan and the Sox made the right call; if it’s negative, they made the wrong one. (Actually, it’s even more complicated than that, because you’d need to figure out the PECOTA figures of the replacement closer(s) versus their PECOTAs when they’re not closing, and also predict the likelihood that Papelbon will get injured when starting versus reliever, and add in some projections as to whether Manny is more or less likely to be paying attention when his buddy Julian is on the mound, and then try to determine what Papelbon’s presence in the rotation would mean for, say, Lester and Clement, and finally throw in whether John Henry & Co. would be more or less likely to go after Clemens in each imaginary scenario…well, you get the idea.)
This, of course, is the type of hypothetical argument that takes place in a vacuum, and it’s the type of number-crunching exercise that makes Luddite’s like Murray Chass wince. But it’s interesting, and the fact that this kind of analysis is getting little (read: no) attention in what those kooky wingnuts in the blogosphere like to refer to as the MSM is indicative of the extent to which baseball reporting by the mass-market professionals lags behind baseball analysis by specialized writers and amateurs alike.
And to get back to the main point of this here post, it’s the absence of this type of discussion that helps show why precisely this is such a good move, numbers be damned. Even if Papelbon performed above expectations as a starter — say, 13-6, 3.60 — if the team’s closer(s) blew a handful of games, they’d be cries for blood. If, on the other hand, Tavarez goes 4-10 with a 4.79 ERA, there’ll be bitching about his performance…but precious little discussion as to whether the Sox made the wrong move by putting Papelbon back in the pen. Which means that Paps in the rotation has the potential to be huge distraction. And that would be bad for everyone.
In a couple of hours, I’ll offer up an historical example of just how distracting that type of situation can be. And — surprise! — Grady Little plays a central role in that tale.
(Update: the good folks over at SoSH have started a thread on the relative value of relievers versus starters thing; I’m about to run out so I haven’t had a chance to fully check it out, but it’s bound to be interesting.)