The Red Sox press is rife with lamentation that Jonathan Papelbon has signed yet another one-year deal. While Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have committed long-term, Papelbon plays hard to get.
But how much value does a closer — even the best closer — really offer? Last year, Jonathan Papelbon was worth 1.9 additional wins to the Red Sox above and beyond what a replacement-level closer would have been worth (WAR, or wins above replacement). That’s good enough to make him fourth-most valuable pitcher on the Sox. Ahead of him are Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and — wait for it — Brad Penny. Why was Brad Penny more valuable to Boston than Papelbon? Because he pitched more innings. The simple fact is, Pap only throws up about 75 innings per season. When you’re allocating resources, who are you going to give more of the pie to? The guy who contributes more to the team, or the guy who contributes less? I’ve discussed Pap’s declining peripherals before. This time, let’s look at the big picture.
Saves are a dumb stat — and an overvalued one. The Red Sox know this; hence, they’re hesitant to overpay for a player who produces them. Yes, scoreless innings are very valuable. But why do pitchers with “saves” make more than those with “holds”? Because saves are sexier. Too many closers have been offered too much money and required too much surgery (B.J. Ryan, Billy Wagner) or have been too erratic (Brad Lidge, Kerry Wood). The Sox aren’t about to play that game.
Plus, the bottom of the ninth isn’t always the most important half-inning of the game. What matters most is the “high-leverage” inning. By definition, these innings usually do come late in the game, but it doesn’t follow that it’s always the ninth. This is why some smart teams do trot out their best relievers in the seventh and eighth, and let an older, less effective pitcher rack up “saves” in the ninth.
Last year, according to Fangraphs’ calculations, Pap was worth $8.8 million. Next year, he’ll get $9.3 million. That’s not too far apart — and the one-year deal means the Sox aren’t tied down, and that Pap gets to (probably) test free agency after 2011. Both sides profess to be happy with the deal. And fans should be, too.
– Sarah Green also writes for UmpBump.com.
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