Jonathan Papelbon made headlines for his outburst this past weekend. Perhaps lost in the wake of a pending suspension was the fact that Papelbon has pitched his way into the history books. His save on Monday night was the 200th of his career, making him the 42nd pitcher to crack that milestone.
He accomplished this feat in fewer chances than any other closer, except Dennis Eckersley. Take a moment and think about who he reached that number faster than. Here is a hint: A pair of them rank first and second on the career saves list and are certain Hall of Fame inductees. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
Papelbon and Rivera both were projected to be starters coming up through the minors, starting three and 10 games, respectively, to begin their careers. It didn’t take long for each of their clubs to realize they were better suited for the bullpen. Over his first four years of relief, Papelbon earned 151 saves, while Rivera only had 129. Granted Rivera spent a full year setting up John Wetteland before taking over the closer role, but that shouldn’t make Papelbon’s statistics any less impressive.
During his first year as full-time closer, Papelbon had one of the most dominant rookie campaigns on record. On his way to 35 saves, he allowed just seven earned runs in 68.1 IP. Justin Verlander edged him out for ROY honors. Perhaps deservedly so, but it would not be the first time a reliever was slighted in favor of a starter.
His emergence was a welcome sign in Boston; outside of Keith Foulke the closer role had been a revolving door. Even Foulke turned in just one season of note, but it happened to be helping the Sox to their first championship in 86 years, so I’ll discount him. Names like Ugueth Urbina and Brandon Lyon come to mind as failed experiments.
Closing games over the next three years, he established himself as one of the game’s premier relievers. Between 2006 and 2009, his ERA never topped 2.34. His SO/9 hovered right around 10 and he earned All-Star spots in each of those seasons.
Some of his most commanding outings came in the post-season. Prior to 2009, he held playoff opponents to zero runs in 25 IP. He nabbed four saves in 2007, as the Sox marched to another title, including three against the Rockies in the World Series. Arguably he could have been named WS MVP instead of Mike Lowell. Perhaps eccentric celebrations earlier cost him some votes, he outfitted himself with swimming goggles and a 30 pack box as headwear.
Considering he reached 200 saves faster than just about everyone, it is surprising he doesn’t even land in the top 100 for the single season record. His highest save total of 41 came in 2008. Just in that year, Francisco Rodriquez outpaced him by 20 saves. I was amazed to see that since 2006 his 188 saves was tops in both leagues, surpassing even Rivera’s 180 in the same span.
People tend to remember recent performances most vividly. For Papelbon, that would be a 2010 performance that was by far the worst of his career. His ERA ballooned to 3.90, almost doubling any year prior. This dip in performance denied him selection to the All-Star team for the first time in full-season play.
Poor play in 2010 prompted widespread doubt that Papelbon would land a contract with the Red Sox extending past this year. Outside of Saturday’s implosion, he was amassing a decent year thus far. He has had just one BS and accumulated 12 saves. I’d still rank him among the league’s elite closers. Due to inconsistent pitching from Josh Bard, the heir apparent for the job, for now his job appears secure. Even if he is jettisoned from Boston, I anticipate Papelbon will be one of, if not the, most sought after relief pitcher in the 2011 off-season.