Who’s Coming Out of the Bullpen?

How weird was it to see Jonathan Papelbon pitching last week?

Not specifically pitching, but doing his head-down, crane-esque bow towards the plate before slowly, dramatically raising his eyes to see the catcher’s signal. His big frame, intimidating on the mound, looked just odd as it was draped in the maroon pinstripes of the Philadelphia Phillies. Last week’s two game series in Boston between the Sox and Phillies meant Papelbon’s return to Fenway.

Papelbon, or “Pap” to most Red Sox fans, is best remembered for his closing prowess as well as his dancing of an Irish jig, clad only in underwear, to “Shipping up to Boston” after the Red Sox clinched the division in 2007.

It cannot be contested that Papelbon did great work while with Boston – including closing out the 2007 World Series. He was very good then and he continues to be good. But how good?

Seeing him pitch in Boston and the reaction (of mostly boos) by the crowd brought back a memory from a year previous. An argument I got into with a teacher at my high school presented a dichotomy of the closer role and pitchers with two different styles.

Who was better, the question proposed, than Papebon at closing out games in the last 20 years? The gauntlet cast, I could choose any closer from the past two decades who I thought pitched better than Papelbon. All of this with the exception of Mariano Rivera, of course, who undisputedly holds the placard of “Greatest.”

The two decade cap meant that some all-time greats such as Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, and Rollie Fingers had to be excluded. (Not to fear for Rollie though, as he still had the best mustache sports have ever seen.)

I chose Trevor Hoffman, whose 18-year career spanned 1993 to 2010 and maintains his spot at second on the list of All-time save leaders. Hoffman spent most of his playing days in San Diego, pitching for the Padres.

While it’s unfair to compare the two’s careers – Hoffman owns 300 more saves and nine more years of experience – a juxtaposition of their best five-year spans in MLB suffices as a quality correlation. Plus, Hoffman’s prime of his career occurred between the ages of 27 and 31, the same age period that Papelbon concluded at the end of last season.

First, the most logical place to begin would be with saves. Saves are the essence of a closers job, coming in with the pressure at its highest and shutting down games. There Hoffman has the edge – 215 saves in 295 games finished as opposed to Papelbon’s 185 saves in nearly as many games finished (292).

Papelbon’s teams (Sox ’08-’11, Phillies ’12) even won more games per year (90) than the San Diego Padres (83) during Hoffman’s tenure, therefore save chances weren’t skewed by a losing team.

As far as accolades count, in those five years Hoffman made the All-Star team three times, and finished in the top-five for Cy Young voting three times. Papelbon was also a three-time All-Star.

Another aspect of pitching certainly includes the hitter at the plate. A pitcher could look dominating against a batter such as Pedro Martinez, who batted in the 2004 World Series, took zero cuts and sat down after a 3-pitch strikeout. In fact, Martinez had more career hits on Don Zimmer, Yankees Bench Coach, than at the plate. A pitcher could also look as helpless as the softball pitcher at the Home Run Derby during the All-Star break if they faced batters like Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto.

A possible source of Hoffman’s skill may have been that he was pitching in the National League, which without the Designated Hitter rule is often regarded as the weaker hitting league. That may have led to his superiority over Papelbon.

Thanks to the thoroughness of baseball statistics, you can find a stat for nearly every situation.

Throughout the five-year average of Hoffman’s prime, the National League hit an average of .264 while their American League counterparts hit for ten points higher at .274, which in baseball, represents a pretty large difference. During Papelbon’s five-year stretch, both leagues cooled as the NL fell to .258 and the AL plummeted to .262.

So was the decrease in power at the plate due to power pitching and therefore Papelbon would be better?

From 1996 to 2000 – Hoffman’s time – began the Era that baseball would rather forget. The summer of 1998 shone the exhibition of “The Homerun Chase” which featured Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa trading moonshots on their way to shattering Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record of 61. Hoffman played in the juiced era where names such as Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, McGwire, and Sosa were entering their groove and grooving balls out of the park.  He also pitched in the NL with McGwire and Sosa that summer.

Papelbon pitched during a period of reformation in MLB, after the Mitchell Report exposed the cheaters, Barry Bonds became synonymous with the likes of BALCO and McGwire went before Congress. During the age of Papelbon, hitters were decreasing because the amounts of steroids were decreasing and power pitching was catching up. Wouldn’t that make it easier for Pap?

In addition, the cognitive power of baseball stats also possesses a ‘sortable’ option. Each league presented how hitters did…in the seventh inning on…from the number nine slot in the batting order. There is a stat for everything. And, as it figures, they were nearly facsimiles of one another. At .249 for the NL and .250 for the AL from 2008 to 2012, pinch hitters for pitchers did much to sway the hitting charts and even the caliber of hitter being faced by Hoffman and Papelbon.

That same “seventh-inning on” statistic was unavailable for Hoffman’s time, but it must be believed that it would follow the same trend.

After presenting these facts to my teacher, he still wasn’t convinced. I decided to call in a third-party whose knowledge of baseball was on a sage level. I sent an email to long-time Boston Globe writer, Outstanding Journalist award-winner in 2006, and the Associated Press’ National Sportswriter of the Year in 2000.

I asked him to just pick between the two and his response came, “Pap because he has a better chance of a K” which he later went on to explain was the tie-breaker between the two.

Better chance of a strikeout? Hoffman averaged 10.94 punch-outs per nine innings as Papelbon garnered 10.86 during those five years. He even had to be craftier with his pitches as a succession of injuries involving Nerf football and volleyball left Hoffman with a fastball velocity hovering around 91 mph – also known as a hitter’s favorite pitch in the Majors: not too fast, straight, and in the strike-zone. Meanwhile, Papelbon torched hitters with, according to Fangraphs, a 95 mph fastball with action.

The palpability of Hoffman’s dominance is evident.

Just a recap: Hoffman struck out more batters without “power” stuff from the mound, he converted more saves in the same chances, faced quality hitters in the National League in the ninth inning. All while facing juiced hitters.

Sorry Bob Ryan and my teacher, but if I have a one-run lead in the ninth, I’m signaling for Hoffman every time.


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