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Friday, August 13, 2010
Sox can't panic over Papelbon

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

Just a quick look at his season statistics tells the simple story: Jonathan Papelbon is in the midst of his worst full season in the majors, albeit one that most pitchers would take in a heartbeat.

Thursday's 6-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays underscored Papelbon's failings. Handed a two-run lead, Papelbon immediately gave up three straight hits, ultimately retiring only one of six opposing hitters.

In earning his career-high fifth loss of the season, Papelbon allowed three earned runs for just the fourth time in his career. Three of those four have come in 2010.

Jonathan Papelbon
Jonathan Papelbon's six blown saves this year are the most since his first season as a closer.

Frustrated eyes should not focus only on Papelbon. Thursday marked the 10th time in 2010 Boston has lost a game in which it led by at least three runs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that ties the Cleveland Indians for the most in the majors. It was the Red Sox's ninth walk-off loss of the season, tied with the Mariners for most in the American League.

Those numbers don't fall solely on the closer, particularly not when he has been one of the only two reliable arms in the bullpen. But after Thursday's meltdown -- and given Daniel Bard's utter dominance -- the question must at least be asked:

Would the Red Sox be better off with Bard as their closer?

Once upon a time, that was an unthinkable question. But quite simply, this isn't the Papelbon who dominated the opposition over the previous four seasons.

He's averaging fewer than a strikeout per inning for the first time in his career, while on pace for a career high in walks. He's already set a career high in home runs allowed (six), and his six blown saves are the most since his first season as closer. All of this with more than a quarter of the season left to be played.

This isn't one of those situations in which a closer's numbers are negatively skewed by non-save situations. Papelbon now has a 4.09 ERA in save situations and a 1.62 ERA otherwise.

So what's been the problem? Thursday's outing highlighted the two major issues at hand.

The first two batters Papelbon faced connected on the first pitch for a hit. Papelbon is still arguably the best pitcher in the game with two strikes. Opponents are hitting just .079 in two-strike counts, second lowest in the majors. Yet Papelbon is averaging two fewer strikeouts per nine innings than he did in 2009.

As evidenced by Vernon Wells and Adam Lind on Thursday, hitters have finally started to wise up, and aren't letting Papelbon get deeper into counts. Consider that in his first two seasons as closer, 62.2 percent of plate appearances went to two strikes. This season, that is at a career-low 55.8 percent.

Of the 38 hits he's allowed in 2010, 23 have come within the first two pitches of an at-bat. Compare that with last season, when only 13 of the 54 hits came that early in the count.

Looking at it another way, opponents are hitting .418 against Papelbon on at-bats ending in the first two pitches. That's far above the league average of .332, according to Inside Edge. But after two pitches, opponents are hitting just .118 against the Boston closer, well below the .229 league average.

Thursday's implosion also illustrated Papelbon's other Achilles' heel in 2010. The Blue Jays managed three hits in four at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Opponents are now hitting .286 with RISP against Papelbon. Entering this season, he'd held them to a .147 average in those situations. Last season, opponents hit .128 with RISP, the lowest for a Red Sox pitcher over the past 35 years. Indeed, whereas Papelbon could escape his own jams in previous seasons, that has not been the case in 2010.

Meanwhile, Bard is holding opponents to a .149 BA with RISP, sixth best in the AL.

With a 1.90 ERA and .157 opponents' batting average, Bard is already among the elite relievers in the game. In fact, no AL pitcher with 50-plus innings has a lower ERA. With a lower walk rate and higher strikeout rate, Bard eclipses Papelbon in nearly every major statistical category except saves.

Bard unquestionably has closer stuff, evidenced by a fastball that averages 97.7 miles per hour. According to Inside Edge, only Joel Zumaya's heater (99.1 mph) is faster. Next up: Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg and Cy Young hopeful Ubaldo Jimenez.

Closers typically benefit from a high strikeout rate, and Bard is no exception. Bard fanned 115 batters in his first 100 career innings, a total he just recently eclipsed. That's nearly unprecedented for a player starting his career with the Red Sox.

In 1962, Dick Radatz had 120 strikeouts in his first 100 career innings, making him the only pitcher in franchise history to top Bard's start, according to Elias.

For a bit more historical perspective, consider this: According to Elias, Bard's 1.35 ERA in his career at Fenway Park is the best since Smoky Joe Wood (minimum 45 innings).

Indeed, if the question is simply who has been the better pitcher in 2010, Bard is the clear choice over Papelbon.

However, it's certainly not that simple.

Amid the natural panic following Thursday's loss, it's easy to forget that Papelbon had been nothing short of brilliant over the last six weeks. From his previous meltdown (June 23-24 at Colorado) until Thursday, Papelbon made 17 appearances with a 0.51 ERA and 13 saves, a total topped only by Rafael Soriano over that span. Opponents were hitting just .119 against him, second only to Brian Fuentes.

Indeed, it's easy to pick on Papelbon, but the fact remains that Papelbon's career-worst season still puts him among the elite closers in the game. He's tied for third in the AL in saves. Opponents are hitting just .209 against him, lower than either of the previous two seasons.

Papelbon has proved he has the ability to thrive with the pressure of closing. Bard, though excelling in close games, has yet to do that. How they'd fare in each other's current roles is a big unknown.

As tempting as it may be to see how Bard would handle closing duties, ultimately the closer is not the problem with the Red Sox bullpen. Rather, the lack of depth outside of Bard and Papelbon has plagued Boston in the late innings.

That's exactly why Bard is most valuable in his current role. Ironically, the Red Sox can't afford to risk replacing Bard with Papelbon, rather than the other way around.

While there would be concern of how Papelbon would handle the switch mentally, the bigger questions would be how a depleted bullpen could fill the void for a pitcher currently holding it together.

Bard is not just an eighth-inning guy, though his 25 holds leads the AL. He's also Boston's only proven commodity against left-handed hitters. Opposing lefties have a .404 OPS against Bard, lowest in the AL despite the fact that Bard is right-handed. In fact, only one Red Sox pitcher (minimum 100 PA) over the last 50 years has held lefties to a lower OPS: Papelbon (.400) in 2007, when he was at his most dominant.

On top of that, Bard has emerged as the pitcher upon whom Boston relies to escape jams. Only two AL pitchers have had more inherited runners than Bard's 39. He's allowed only nine to score. Meanwhile, five of 14 inherited runners have scored against Papelbon.

The most scrutinized player on any team, it's easy to point fingers at a closer. But Thursday aside, the Bard-Papelbon one-two punch remains one of the best in baseball, and a rare constant on the 2010 Red Sox. Could Bard already be a better closer than Papelbon? Possibly. But ultimately, the Red Sox can't afford to find out. At least not in 2010.

Next season? That's a discussion that should last all winter.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.