Pap to the pen: A good move?

March 23rd, 2007 → 11:37 am @ // No Comments

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.)

Post Categories: Jonathan Papelbon & Julian Tavarez & Red Sox Fans & Sosh & Sports Reporters & Statistics

10 Comments → “Pap to the pen: A good move?”

  1. UnretireHurst

    17 years ago

    I don’t think we’ll be bitching about Tavarez’s performance if he goes 4-10 with that high ERA, because I don’t think he’ll be in the rotation long enough to get those numbers. Lester will be healthy and after some time in Patwucket, he’ll be able to take that 5th spot. There’s always Kyle Snyder to get the job done. He’s shown some positive outings this spring, and he’s probably a better choice than Tavarez, though Manny might not agree.


  2. NateDogg

    17 years ago

    I’m still digesting this news. While I certainly look forward to the dominating presence Pap will bring to the 9th inning. There are multiple things about the decision that don’t sit well.

    1) While nice to have, that dominating presence is wasted more often than not in a typical save situation. T. Jones, J. Mesa, B. Wickman for example. A. Alfonseca once saved 40 games. The immortal Billy Taylor was an effective closer for the A’s despite not making the majors until he was 32. Is is worth passing on a possbile #1 or #2 type starter for 10 or so high leverage innings a season when history is littered with mediocre pitchers being above average to excellent closers.

    2) It looks like and feels a lot like a panic move. They can spin it any way they want. But it certainly seems like Timlin’s injury, Tavarez’s control issues, and Donnely’s unimpressive spring combined to scare them. Oddly, the ‘relief’ pitcher they paid 4 mill to allegedly be the closer has looked pretty good since his first outing.

    3) Everything the organization has said, written, typed, emailed, or had Schilling release to the press via radio, TV or blog since Pap went down with his shoulder issue has stated that he was unequivocably a starting pitcher now. Did 3 meaningless weeks of spring training and a dozen innings change that much? It makes me wonder if either the team was blowing smoke up our butt the entire time (which I’m ok with in the interest whatever makes the team better – see Belicheck,Bill) or are they flying by the seat of their pants so much that a 6 month plan of attack can be dismissed before a real pitch has even been thrown. Safe to say which one I am hoping is the case, despite appearances to the contrary.


  3. tinisoli

    17 years ago

    Imagine this: Your young closer is shut down near the end of a Cy Young-type season b/c of a shoulder injury. The specific injury suggests to some medical pros that pitching every fifth day might be better for this young man in the long run than pitching every two or three days. He’s also a guy who was drafted to be a starter, and you’ve just slogged through a year in which you let 14 different guys start because so many things wrong. Plus, the available closers on the market are low in number and, in some cases, risky (Gagne), and the asking prices for closers under contract (Cordero) are too high. Meanwhile, you’ve got your eye on one of the offseason’s biggest prizes, a starter named Matsuzaka who could be a perennial Cy Young candidate. You would rather have the unscrupulous agent of this prize think that you already have four great-to-good starters in line for the ’07 season, so as to not invite said agent to milk you for any more money b/c you’re desperate for starters.

    Come springtime, Matsuzaka has been signed, Pabelbon’s shoulder seems healthy and is going to be well looked after from here on out, and there are a number of pitchers on the team (or Pawtucket-bound) who could step into the fifth spot of the rotation (Snyder, Lester, Tavarez, Gabbard, Pineiro). You still don’t have an obvious candidate for closer, aside from the guy who was an All-Star for you last year. And you’ve already suffered through the closer-by-committee plan in the recent past, and one of the guys who would’ve been part of the committee is starting the season on the DL (Timlin). And the market for closers is still a sellers market.

    What would you do?


  4. jtredsox5

    17 years ago

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I reckon we can get a similar performance out of Kason Gabbard as we will out of Tavarez–and it will help his development. I like either one of them better than Snyder (although I think he will be great in the bullpen), but for me, if the performances are likely to be equal, I would just as soon develop the youngster as placate the veteran. But that’s just me…


  5. sonomasox

    17 years ago

    Seth –

    Not sure if you came across this – but just another example of the “quality” journalism taking place at NYT.

    As for Paps to the pen: We’ve moved from closer by committee/tryout to 5th starter by committee/tryout. Might this push Theo & Trio to get Clemens??



    17 years ago

    If we could accurately forecast how the trio of Schilling, Dice-K and Beckett are going to perform this year, wouldn’t that make the answer a lot simpler? If those three all deliver the goods, it seems clear to me our best shot is with Papelbon closing. But if one or more of those three falters, we’re better off with Paps in the rotation.


  7. Barrythek

    17 years ago

    Could it also be that every team we might aquire a closer from, feels Boston is so desperate before we moved Pap back into the pen, that we couldn’t make a resonable deal for a Cordero or such? This way, they still may now get someone and change the rotation later OR at least this change could be for ’07 only and we may either aquire a closer next year – or one may emmerge from within ala Cox or Hanson and thus sending Pap back to the rotation next year….or amybe earlier.

    In other words Theo may just be psturing for a better deal.


  8. maineiac

    17 years ago

    I generally think we had plenty of starter options where as we really had no option for closer.

    It amazed me that Theo would go so hard and spend so much money on JD when right field was not a “priority”, and then just take a wait and see approach with the closer. As someone who saw Craig Hansen pitch in 8 games for AA Portland in 2005 and not surrender a single run, I had great hopes that Craig would dominate this ST. Maybe that’s what Theo et al were hoping as well.

    On the starter situation, I agree with UnretireHurst, Tavarez will not get that many oppurtunities to start if he doesn’t produce. We have Kyle Snyder and Devern Hansack ready to go, Jon Lester waiting in the wings, Chris Smith and Kason Gabbard at Pawtucket, and the Rocket and Clement as long term fill ins.

    Just don’t trade any starters Theo.


  9. rebbe sox

    17 years ago

    You’ve got a starter who really wants to be a closer (and has excelled in that role in the past), and you’ve got a relief pitcher who really wants to be a starter (and has done much better in that role in the past). Tell me, what would you do?

    This move does not look like desperation to me. I think the logic of the situation has overwhelmed all the initial anxieties about keeping Pap’s arm healthy. They went back to the medical people and found out that the difference between starting and relieving was a marginal difference, not a slam dunk, in the stress it would inflict on Pap’s arm. From that point, they just couldn’t do anything else given the team’s needs and the players’ desires. Case closed.

    I don’t think Theo was ever going to go after any of the few decent closers on the market. The prices, in terms of giving up talent, were just way too high. None of the available relievers are that great. It’s not worth giving up the top notch prospects a mid-level closer costs today.

    Now Theo’s going to use that same crazy market to cash in. He’s going to trade Pineiro in a market that’s dying to pay too much for him.

    And here is just another tangent that fascinates me. Today, after a sub-stellar outing in spring training (0 hits in 5 innings, but 5 walks), Dice-K released a statement saying:

    “I threw a lot of walks and wasted balls and it was tough for my fielders to defend and to get into a good rhythm on offense.”

    Have you ever — in your entire life — heard a major league pitcher accept any measure of responsibility for the offense lagging? This is one of the most generous and selfless comments I have ever heard uttered by a major league player. My friends, he had a no-hitter going for five innings and he blames himself for the offense going on vacation. Am I wrong? Have you ever heard of such a thing before?


  10. dbvader

    17 years ago

    PECOTA is a projection system and does not have “Pap as more valuable than both of them, coming in at 38.6 and 7.3″(for 2006). Those figures are measures of past performance. Also, these statistics preceded and are independent of PECOTA.


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