On the surface, Jonathan Papelbon's 2012 looks OK: 3.46 ERA, 21 saves, 48 strikeouts and just nine walks in 39 innings.
When you examine his season more closely, however, I'd suggest that the Phillies have paid $11 million for irrelevant production. Bill Baer examines Papelbon's recent struggles over at Crashburn Alley, but here are few more points:
Papelbon is 21-for-24 in save chances (87.5 percent) which sounds nice, but isn't anything special. The Phillies are 39-1 when leading at the start of the ninth inning, but the average MLB team would be 38-2 when leading at the start of the ninth.
More problematic, because Papelbon is rarely used in the eighth inning or in tie games or on back-to-back days (just 11 times all season), the Phillies are just 36-8 when leading entering the eighth inning. The average MLB team would be 40-4. And when tied entering the 10th inning, the Phillies are just 3-9; the average team, of course, would be 6-6.
Yes, some of that is a result of the rest of Phillies' bullpen not being very good, but it's also an indication that Papelbon is just another pampered closer. Breaking down his saves: he's 6 for 6 when entering with a three-run lead; 9 for 11 with a two-run lead (although the Phillies won one of those blown leads); and 6 for 7 with a one-run lead (the Phillies lost that game). But here's the kicker: He's entered four times in a tie game ... and lost three of those games. He even gave up a run in the fourth outing, but the Phillies rallied to win anyway. So in tie games or one-run leads -- when the real elite closers shine -- Papelbon is just 6 for 11 in keeping the opponent off the board, with four losses.
By the way, since that's 24 save opportunities and four appearances in tie games, that means 10 of his appearances have come in games where the margin was greater than three runs or the Phillies were losing (although I'd suggest the two appearances were the Phillies were down by one run were reasonably high-leverage situation, certainly more so than three-run leads). Throw in the six three-run saves and 14 of Papelbon's 38 appearances (37 percent) have essentially been wasted.
I know I'm picking on Papelbon a bit here and Charlie Manuel isn't the only manager to use his closer like this, of course. But other teams didn't spend $50 million on a closer who's given them six good, high-leverage innings all season. And that's why he's one of baseball's least valuable players of 2012.