Papelbon, Phillies once again not clutch

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
12:39
AM ET

The Philadelphia Phillies are 27-0 when leading entering the ninth inning.

They are, however, just 1-6 when tied entering the ninth inning.

The latest of those defeats came Monday night when Jonathan Papelbon gave up a leadoff triple to Dee Gordon and an RBI single to Elian Herrera as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Phillies 4-3.

The good news for Phillies is that at least Papelbon was in the game to take the loss as opposed to one of his lesser relief comrades. That's his second loss in a tie game he entered in the ninth inning, the first one coming in a memorable loss to the New York Mets when Jordany Valdespin hit a pinch-hit three-run homer.

Papelbon is perfect in save situations, leading to the obvious question: Do closers not pitch as well in tie games because it's not a "save" situation? You hear that suggested all the time, but it's a ridiculous notion that closers get more amped up with a lead than a tie game. Certainly, the outcome of a tie game is much more in doubt than a game in which your team is ahead. They should be more locked in during a tie game -- where there is no margin for error -- than with a lead.

What it really shows is how overrated the closer position is. Yes, the Phillies are 27-0 when leading while heading into the ninth inning. But entering Monday's games, all major league teams were 700-37 when leading while entering the ninth inning, a .950 winning percentage. So the average team has lost about one game leading into the ninth. Even though he's regarded as one of baseball's best closers, Papelbon's value is pretty minimal.

Here's a better way to look at Papelbon's value:
  • The Phillies 28-6 when tied or leading heading into the ninth, an .824 winning percentage.
  • The other 29 teams (entering Monday) are 741-100 when tied or leading heading into the ninth, an .881 winning percentage.

So despite having one of the best closers in baseball, the Phillies have a worse winning percentage than the average team when leading or tied entering the ninth inning. What good is having a so-called great closer if he's not making you better?

This points to two issues which the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel fail to understand:

1. Using your best reliever in high-leverage situations is more important than using him in save situations. Papelbon has 15 saves; he hasn't allowed a run in any of those saves. But you know how many protected a one-run lead? Three. THREE. You know how many protected a three-run lead? Four. He has nearly as many losses as one-run saves. It's a joke.

2. Having a deep bullpen is more important than having a great closer. Yes, ninth-inning blown leads are heartbreaking. But so are eighth-inning leads or ninth-inning losses in tie games. But as we just showed: Teams win 95 percent of the time when they lead entering the ninth. That is why you don't spend $50 million on a closer and let Chad Qualls pitch in key situations or Michael Schwimer throw 58 pitches and lose a game in the 11th inning and not use Papelbon.

Look, Manuel used Papelbon the right way on Monday night, but that was only because there was no save situation in play since the Phillies were the home team. But it's obviously a fine line for the Phillies this year; this club isn't going to coast to 102 wins again, not with Roy Halladay out, the offense no longer a powerhouse and the rest of Papelbon's bullpen mates not exactly a stellar group (the Phillies have the second-worst bullpen ERA in the majors).

Papelbon has pitched six crucial innings all year. The Phillies need to get him into more important situations.

And they hope he actually pitches well. Because his ratio of good outings in clutch situations is 67 percent, not 100 percent.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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