Jonathan Papelbon is Not an Elite Closer

By Alastair Ingram

This statement may seem obvious to some, but to others, it’s blasphemy.

Many in Red Sox Nation still view Jonathan Papelbon as the same pitcher who clinched the 2007 World Series for Boston at Coors Field. Back then, one could have made a case that he was the most dominant closer in baseball.

But the Papelbon of 2010 took a giant step back from his once-dominant form, and the Papelbon of 2011 has yet to take a significant step forward in the right direction.

Last season, Boston’s closer blew eight saves and posted his highest ERA (3.90) and WHIP (1.27) as a full-time closer. In 2011, opponents are batting nearly .265 against the right-hander and his numbers (4.15 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) look remarkably similar to last year’s disastrous campaign.

Papelbon is in a contract year, and that motivation may lead to improvement in the second half, but it’s safe to say that he’s no longer one of the game’s elite closer.

Many felt that because of his contract status (he can become a free agent after the season), Papelbon would have a monster year. Others argued that he was saving his powerful right arm for this specific season in order to cash in on the open market.

Papelbon has 48 strikeouts in 34.2 innings, he owns the highest swinging-strike percentage among A.L. relievers (according to Yahoo! Sports), and he still features a fastball sitting in the mid-90’s.

The righty is certainly throwing like his future salary depends on the the 2011 season, and his 19-for-20 success rate in save opportunities is all that matters at the end of the day.

But the fact remains that Papelbon is becoming an increasingly hittable reliever, as the ninth inning remains an area of constant concern for the Sox against American League competition.

Papelbon very nearly blew a routine save on Tuesday night against the Blue Jays (if not for a perfect throw from Darnell McDonald and a perfect block of the plate by Jason Varitek), and many of his saves are far more adventurous than they once were.

Papelbon used to be automatic. Now, most Red Sox fans expect the worst from the free-agent-to-be in what is likely his final year with the team.

The 30-year-old will go down as one of the greatest relievers in Red Sox history. In early June, he became the fastest player in Major League history to reach 200 saves by closing the door on the Yankees in the Bronx.

Closers typically have a very brief shelf life, and Papelbon has accomplished more in six and a half seasons than the majority of relief pitchers do in their entire careers.

There’s no doubt that he’s had an elite career, but he’s not an elite closer at this point in time.

Alastair Ingram is the lead Boston Red Sox writer for the Rant Sports Network. For daily updates, follow on Twitter at @FenwayReport and join our fan page on Facebook.

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