Should We Be Worried About Johnathan Papelbon?

C.S. MiltonContributor IJuly 9, 2009

CLEVELAND - OCTOBER 18:  Closing pitcherJonathan Papelbon #58 of the Boston Red Sox points to a fly ball against the Cleveland Indians during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Jacobs Field on October 18, 2007 in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Red Sox won the game 7-1 making the series 3-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Jonathan Papelbon pitched the 9th last night and picked up his 22nd Save.  At just over halfway through the season, that puts him on a pace to break his personal best of 41 in season.  His ERA is 1.89 which is almost half a run better than last year.  He’s thrown almost half as many innings as he did last year (37 to 69) and his Hits per 9 are almost identical (7.8 to 7.5).  So you could make a case that he’s just doing what he’s been doing for the last 3 1/2 years and everything is just dandy.  But something isn’t right, last night being a prime example.  He got the Save alright, but not without one of those 30-pitch tightrope walks he’s had so many of this year.  Coming in with a 2-run cushion, he gave up a run and had the tying run in scoring position.  He had Orlando Cabrera 0-2, almost put a tailing fastball into his sternum, but still gave up an opposite field hit when OC dove out across the plate, which was unimaginable last year.  But the biggest single difference with Papelbon has been the Walks.  Last year he gave up 1.0 BB per 9.  The two seasons before averaged out to about 2.0/9.  This year the number is up to 4.1 and last night he walked another.  As a result his WHIP is 1.324, almost double what it was in 2006-07.

So it begs the question: Should we be worried?  Or if we are, would we just be taking his 3-year level of dominance for granted?  Because honestly, how many closers ever put together streaks like Papelbon has?  Certainly no one on the Red Sox.  We’ve talked before about how the Sox haven’t been able to replace Nomar at short in 300 attempts over five years.  But how many times have they been able to get even two straight decent years out of a closer?  They spent dump trucks full of money on Keith Foulke in ‘04 and he delivered big time.  But then he succumbed to a combination of injury, drug testing and general douchebaggery and was never the same.  Derek Lowe was lights out in 2000 (42 SVs), but reverted to form the next year and by September they were converting him back into a starter.  In ‘98, Tom Gordon put together arguably the most dominant season a Red Sox closer has ever had.  But then Stephen King wrote a book about him and they both ended up in the hospital.  I could go on but without looking it up, you’d probably have to go back to Dick Radatz in the early 60’s to find anyone who’s had two consecutive good seasons at the back of the Sox bullpen.

That’s the bottom line to me.  Papelbon might not be as dominant this year as he’s been before, but that’s because very few closers ever have.  We might be seeing a slight dropoff in his numbers, but that’s only natural.  It’s what happens with virtually all of these guys.  Papelbon is like a guy who hit .350 for three years and when he hits .340 people wonder what’s wrong with him.  The question isn’t is he as good as he’s been before, it’s is he still one of the best in the game and to me the answer is absolutely.