It has been fairly common around these freezing, miserable parts to assume that closer Jonathan Papelbon is just playing out the string with the Sox. The Sox, forward thinkers that they are, seem to be in the school of thought that "closers" are a myth and "saves" are one of if not the most worthless statistic in baseball.
For the most part that is true, and for the most part that is how the organization probably thinks. The closer position itself is overrated and miscast, mostly because of the turd sandwich that is a save. Saves are terrible. They cause managers to not use their bullpen properly. They allow completely mediocre players to earn salaries out of whack from their true talent and contributions. Did you know that with a 3 run, 9th inning lead, all pitchers, good and bad, on average "save" the game 99% of the time? Did you know that a pitcher, who pitched the final 3 innings and entered the game with a 14-3 lead, earned a save in this game? Did you know that Mike Williams "earned" 25 saves and an All Star birth with a 6.27 ERA?
I think you see where I'm going with this. Saves are WORTHLESS!!! But the "closer" is not. Rather, if you think of a "closer" as a "relief ace", then these masters of the end game start to gain value. If you strip the title of "closer" and the statistic "save" away from this equation it allows you to evaluate game situations a lot more clearly. Consider the following two situations:
Situation A: Bottom of the ninth, no out, no one on base, your team is up 7-4 and the 6-7-8 hitters are due up.
Situation B: Top of the seventh, no out, men on second and third, tie game and the 3-4-5 hitters are due up.
Which situation would you prefer your "closer" (who most of the time actually is a team's best reliever) to come into? I assume the answer is obvious, but if it's not or if you are Lou Piniella, the answer is Situation B. This situation has far more impact on the outcome of the game than Situation A. Anyone, save for late 2008 Eric Gagne, can handle Situation A. Few can handle Situation B.
Which brings me to the point of this ramble. Jonathan Papelbon can handle Situation B. While it felt like he made all of our buttholes pucker a little more than usual this year, he was actually one of the best three relievers in the game along with Mo and Joe Nathan, as he has been for each of the last three years.
He is definitely flawed. He is probably an entire suit short of a full deck of cards. He is outspoken to a fault. And he has a maddening love affair with his fastball, which is a really good pitch that's hard and fairly accurate, but he also has a knee buckling splitter just collecting dust in his double wide trailer. He is also very expensive.
Which is why it's become common place for fans to just assume that when Pap (isn't it sad that such a colorful and dominant player's two go to knicknames are Pap and Papelboner? what about something like Wild Boar or the Exploder?) hits free agency for the first time, the Sox will say thanks for the memories but we are trading our Papelboner for a (Daniel) Bard-on.
Well faithful Sexy Boston Sports readers, you can mark January 2o, 2010 (two days before my birthday, hint, hint) as the day I officially plead to Theo to keep the Exploder around after 2011. The Exploder is a great reliever, and great relievers, used properly, have a lot of value.
Could Bard, assuming he continues on his current path, step in and be a good closer if Pap leaves? Of course he could. He could even match some of the seasons that Pap has had. But why not keep both? Why not have a really good set up man and a great relief ace? So what if it takes a 4 year, $60M contract to keep Pap in Boston? While he may not be worth exactly $15M a year, the Sox not only have the money to afford that, but they also are in the position where every extra win (or marginal win) is worth more to them than the majority of the league (one of these days I will write a long, probably boring, post about marginal wins).
Look, what Oakland has done with finding a new elite closer seemingly every year is great, but they don't have the budget or the need to win as many games as the Sox have. And teams all over the league (except the Astros, Tigers, and Mets) are starting to become wise to the fact that you do not want to waste a whole lot of money on a guy just because he collects a lot of saves. As such, the Sox would not get proper value if they were to trade Papelbon before he hits the open market.
Papelbon is not quite a once in a lifetime reliever like Mariano Riviera, but he is consistently one of the top 3-5 relief aces in the league. And that is worth something. That is worth a lot. So please Theo, consider loosening the purse strings just a bit to keep the Exploder in the Fens for a few extra years. You won't be sorry.