Why established closers are often bad free agent signings -including Papelbon

28 Jan

After a recent post about the Jonathan Papelbon signing possibly being a bad move by the Phillies, I took some heat. I’d love to have left a few of those comments up, but I have a three F-bomb per comment limit. There is a reason I think the Papelbon signing was not necessarily bad, but definitely overvalued – and why that is true of most relievers around his level. Stick with me here – there will be a point made.

Aside from Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, name a closer that has gone more than about 7 seasons as a lights out closer over the past 20 years – let’s call it since 1991. How many can you name?

John Wettland – 9 seasons as a closer and the last two were a bit rocky with 3.60+ ERA’s and a decent assortment of blown saves.

Rod Beck – 13 seasons as a closer – 6 dominant in the middle, the last 5 he only saved 46 games total – and was out of the game completely for a full season to boot.

Doug Jones – 18 season with 8 good ones, His “quality streak” ended in ’94 with 27 saves (22 saves in ’95) and it wasn’t until ’97 he put up a decent mark again. After that is was mop up work pretty much.

Robb Nen – 10 seasons closing, 8 quality seasons in a row, and then a torn muscle ended. Never pitched again in the bigs.

Roberto Hernandez had 10 solid seasons of closer work, then his last 5 years he picked up 8 total saves – and 4 came in 1 season.

Jeff Montgomery we’ll say 8 of 9 on and then he was done. When he was done, I mean he was over! He hung out a couple seasons, but it was just scrub duty mopping up.

John Franco was a bit of an anomaly. He had 11 quality closer seasons, but he was used so many different ways it’s tough to bag the guy. He closed, he went long – and he’d close multiple innings. he was more of a 70’s style closer than ’90’s style.

Frankie Rodriguez – yeah he was money for awhile, now he’s just glad to have a job.

Who else is there? Dibble, Aguilera, Bryan Harvey and almost 200 other guys have closed at some point the last twenty years. Maybe 10 of those guys can say they put together more than 7 quality seasons as a closer in a row, Fewer still can say ten total. It’s not easy to do. The odds are against the closer.

here is my take on why it is so hard to sustain as a closer. The first few seasons you close, guys see a particular closer so little they lose the edge. The closer owns them because no matter how much video you watch on a guy, live pitching is different. Closers evolve more when they are younger picking up an extra pitch, tweaking their delivery. They may seem small so far as changes go, but any change is big to the hitter. It’s a new adjustment to make. Then there is the issue of health – going full out like that over and over takes a big toll on an arm. Warm up fast and then deliver fast. it’s a different beast than starting. They have to maintain the closer mentality of confidence and not become complacent resting on their laurels. A lot of things have to go right to make it several years in a row of closing out games at a high level.

So when I say the odds are against the Phillies getting the type of performance out of Papelbon they are paying for, it’s not just bagging Paps. I watched the guy since he was a starter.  I can see his command getting iffy more often than it used to. I see him nibbling for the corner a lot more than he should rather than going straight into attack mode. I see behaviors in his approach that make his results less than you’d expect for his level of talent. He is at a point in his career where major rejuvenation is not the norm. I’m not saying the guy can’t do it, I’m just saying I don’t think he will.

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