Modern Day Baseball Makes Philadelphia Phillies Closer Jonathan Papelbon a $50 Million Mistake

There is no position in professional sports that I hate more than the role of closer. Nothing even comes remotely close.

I despise closers and everything that they stand for. They are the most overrated group of players in Major League Baseball, and I’ll never understand the hoopla that surrounds the position.

That being said, as a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it’s time to acknowledge that the signing of four-time All-Star Jonathan Papelbon was a $50 million mistake by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Papelbon, 31, is scheduled to earn an average of $12.5 million per year over the next four seasons. His track record suggests that he will get the job done in Philadelphia. He went to four All-Star Games in Boston and made a fifth in his first season in Philadelphia.

He’s recorded more than 20 saves in seven straight seasons now, and he’s always had an earned run average significantly better than the league average.

So this article isn’t really a criticism of Papelbon but it’s a criticism of the closer role in general.

I will never understand the fixation and obsession that America has with a pitcher who enters a game with a LEAD, pitches ONE inning, and is declared the guy who SAVED the game.

Let me give you my football analogy, and yes it has holes and it’s not a perfect example, but you’ll know what I mean.

Let’s say that Michael Vick quarterbacks the Eagles to a 27-17 lead entering the fourth quarter. With five minutes left in the game, he is replaced by Mike Kafka, who finishes the game at quarterback. The Eagles win by the same score, 27-17. The game was never really in doubt when Kafka entered and he only had to avoid a brutal outing (a big turnover to give the other team an opportunity to cut into the lead) to give the Eagles the victory. He did his job, and is the hero.

Why? The hero is the guy who played 90 percent of the game. Not the guy who finished without blowing the game.

I think you know where I’m going with this. If Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels pitches eight strong innings and leaves the game with the Phillies winning 3 to 1, the closer comes in.

Realistically, I think you could take your average Triple-A reliever and he could probably pitch one inning and allow one or fewer runs, which would be enough to win the game. You don’t need one of the best relievers in baseball to win the game. The game is already won!

I’m being serious when I say that it makes even more sense to pitch your closer in the top of the ninth inning when you’re DOWN a run than when you’re up a run, especially if you have a good offense. If the pitcher does his job, and keeps your team from a larger deficit, you have a decent chance to win or tie it in the bottom of the ninth.

Look, the point I’m trying to make is that $12.5 million a year is a lot of money. For Papelbon to be worth that much money, he needs to be pitched in the game’s most crucial situations. Seventh inning, game tied, 1st and 2nd, 0 outs. He comes in, finishes the inning, and pitches the last two innings.

The heart of the lineup is coming up in the eighth and it’ll be 7-8-9 in the ninth? You pitch him in the eighth. No questions asked. No hesitation.

THAT’S a closer. Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm. That’s what they would do.

With the exception of New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, who is virtually flawless, I can’t respect having the top relievers in baseball (because closers are almost always the top relievers in baseball) pitch one inning to preserve a two-run lead that would likely be won anyway with the team’s worst reliever pitching.

Why was Papelbon signed when the Phillies’ bullpen is a mess? Sure, for the most part I can trust Papelbon with the game on the line. But how about all the times when Papelbon hasn’t been pitched on the road in extra innings? All the times when Michael Schwimer or Chad Qualls were brought into a tie game with runners on the corners in the seventh or the eighth?

Papelbon is a good closer, one of the game’s best, but through unwritten rules of baseball that are not his fault at all, he will just never be good enough for me. Not unless his ERA is in the low to middle ones, and that’s not likely going to happen.

Experts say you can’t win the World Series without a dominant closer. What a load of bull.

You win a World Series with a great team and a great bullpen is a part of a great team. Notice I said great BULLPEN. Not great closer.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the perfect example. They’ll have a different guy lead the team in saves for the eighth straight season this year, and they’ve been very competitive in recent years.

Ignore conventional baseball wisdom. Use your closer when the outcome of the game is in jeopardy, not when the outcome of the game has basically already been decided.

A friend told me a statistic the other day. The Yankees have won 97 percent of games in the last decade that they have led going into the ninth inning. Not all of those games are save situations, but I bet more than half are. Anyway, that 97 percent is the highest total in baseball.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates have won 94 percent of games in the last decade that they have led heading into the ninth inning. That’s the lowest percentage in baseball.

Can you really tell me that the difference between 94 and 97 percent of games that you’re ALREADY WINNING is worth spending $12.5 million for a closer when you can plug in any old reliever for $2 million and have results that are not quite as good but still as acceptable?

You want to know who I would have used as the Phillies’ closer this season? I would have used nobody! I’d use a closer by committee!

One day it would be Michael Schwimer. Antonio Bastardo the next day. Then Jake Diekman. Whoever I felt like pitching.

I’d also have spent an extra six or seven million for two or three good relievers. Not closers. RELIEVERS. Guys who could help fix the whole bullpen.

And if I had signed Papelbon, he’d mostly be pitching before the ninth inning. As one of the top relievers in baseball, I’d put him in there for every sixth inning, two on, two out, clinging to a 5-4 lead situation that there was.

THAT’S what makes a reliever worth it. Not three outs when you’re already up 7-5. Give me a break, so-called baseball experts.

This article was written by Bryn Swartz, the top writer for Eagles Central and a featured NFL columnist on Rant Sports. Bryn has written more than 1000 articles in less than two years as a member of Rant Sports. His blog, Eagles Central, was named the 2010 Ballhyped Sports Blog of the Year. To read a portfolio of Bryn’s best work, click here.

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