Be warned: This is a question born in the world of dramatic overreaction within the internet community. But here goes.
Is Jonathan Papelbon going to be the Red Sox closer for the rest of the season?
This is what it is -- Papelbon is not what he was two or three years ago. We've seen way too many blasts of mortality in the last year and a half, the latest coming vs. the Tigers on Sunday. His days of challenging Mariano Rivera for the top spot on the ninth-inning food chain are long gone.
Look at the numbers. He's just isn't overpowering anymore, or hasn't been for most of this season. Since he took over as closer in 2006 his worst K per nine innings ratio was 9.9 in 2006. This season? 7.7. In 2008 Papelbon averaged 9.6 strikeouts for every walk. This season? Just 2.47. From 2006-08 Papelbon had the ability to strike people out -- seemingly at will -- while walking almost nobody. In those three seasons he had a total of 36 walks in 195 innings. Since then, in 112.1 innings? 39 walks. An alarming drop from historically good to just good.
But there is zero chance -- zero -- that Terry Francona is going to install Daniel Bard as the closer and put Papelbon in the setup role. I know you'll be hearing it on EEI the next couple of days (from just callers, I hope) but forget it. Makes no sense. First, why put Bard in that spot now? He's as good as any eighth-inning guy in baseball and there is a workload concern. Let him take over the closer job when Papelbon is gone in 2011 or 2012 or whenever it happens (and it will happen-- better chance of Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino recording a remake of "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" than there is of the Sox paying someone $15 million a year to pitch 60 innings). Plus there is this: Does it make sense to risk losing Papelbon? He would go "Oil Can Boyd left off the All-Star Team" crazy if a switch ever happened. And since he's one of exactly two relief pitchers on the team that you should any faith in it might be best to leave him alone.
10.1 IP, four hits, 0 ER
That was Papelbon in July. Until Sunday he hadn't given up an earned run since June 24. June 24 is a long time ago. Mike Lowell went on the DL on June 24. If, on June 24, you had walked up to me and said "Rick Pitino 15 seconds" I would have thought you were making a Chauncey Billups joke. Point is it's been a little while. Papelbon had been very, very good for the last six weeks. So to read the level of vitriol thrown at Papelbon on Twitter and Facebook and some message boards after blowing the save Sunday was a little surprising. This is still one of the six or seven best closers in baseball. Put it another way: If Jonathan Papelbon had been traded in the offseason and the Red Sox had brought in Closer X and Closer X had the same exact numbers that Papelbon has put up so far in 2010 people would love the guy.
But that's the thing with Papelbon, of course. Fans aren't going to accept the 2010 version. The 2006 guy -- only the second time in history a pitcher had an ERA under 1.00 with more than 30 saves, an ERA+ of 515 -- made that impossible. Papelbon did it backwards. He peaked too soon. If he took over the ninth-inning job in 2006 and was a good-to-very good closer but never any better or worse I think people would be fine with him today. But the bar was set so high that it was always going to come to this. Toss in his personality (which I get can be grating after a while) and this is where we are.
And Bard is still at the new toy stage. It's still an event when he pitches, there is a buzz around the whole thing that isn't there with Papelbon anymore. (Aside: I read Bill Simmons' "The Red Sox are boring" column last week. I guess I was OK with most of it, but the idea that the Sox don't have a pitcher or hitter that -- in Simmons' words -- passes the "Remote Control Test" is way off base and reeks of a guy that lives in LA and checks in on the team once or twice a week. Bard is exactly that guy. If you know he's coming into the game are you flipping to "According to Jim" reruns? Of course not. And I'm pretty sure the same is true about a Youkilis at-bat or Lester start. The whole premise seemed a reach to me is all.) And Bard has done nothing to suggest that he isn't worth the entirety of the hype. The numbers he's putting up are insane, video game kind of stuff. Just look at what he's held right-handed hitters to this year:
.188 batting average, .228 OBP, four HR allowed in 93 plate appearances.
You see that and understand quickly why the "Make Bard the closer now" crowd get so worked up. But here's the thing -- righties have been Bard's weak spot in 2010.
Bard vs. LH: .122 BA, .234 OBP, .134 slugging, zero HR in 95 PA
Basically, left-handed hitters have been Kevin Cash (Marc Sullivan redux) against Bard in 2010. In fact Cash (.149 slugging) has been a little better than the lefties vs. Bard. Forget "one of" -- for me he's the best eighth-inning guy in baseball.
And that's where he should stay for now. Why mess with it? Does anyone really think that the ninth inning is more important than the eighth? How would switching the two have any impact at all? Is Bard going to be better in the ninth inning than he has been in the eighth? Is Papelbon going to be demoted to the eighth inning and suddenly remember how to do all the things he used to do?
No, the Red Sox problem is getting to Bard and Papelbon. Unless there is an injury or Papelbon blows four or five saves in a row nothing is going to happen. Enjoy the two, because it's more than likely that you'll never have a better duo getting the last six outs for the Red Sox. Let's put the brakes on a closer controversy. Just doesn't make sense for now.
That's why we have the offseason.