Is Jonathan Papelbon the Phillies' best closer ever?

Is Jonathan Papelbon the Phillies' best closer ever?
August 28, 2014, 12:45 pm
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It's hard to remember the last Phillie as unpopular as Jonathan Papelbon. After a veritable golden age of Phillies that were not only successful but universally well-liked -- winning big helped a lot with that, of course -- Pap has come to remind us of what it was like to have a player the fanbase could only support begrudgingly. His obnoxious demeanor on the diamond and in the locker room, his staunchly conservative views (and loud airings thereof) and his relatively exorbitant contract have combined to make him one of the hardest-to-root-for Fightins of the last decade. 

It's enough to make you forget that Jonathan Papelbon might also be the best closer the Phillies have ever had.

That statement doesn't really feel right, does it? Papelbon's only been here three years, and they haven't exactly been the three most successful seasons in Phils history. Meanwhile, when you reflect back on Pap's time thusfar in the Red and White, the memories that tend to stick out (for whatever reason) are the bad ones--his disaster outing against the Rangers at the beginning of this season, maybe, or the three straight blown saves last June. His tenure with the Phillies doesn't carry with it any particular air of all-time greatness.

But fact of the matter is, when you remove emotion and context, Papelbon's numbers in his three seasons in the Red and White are really quite excellent. In 187 appearances from 2012-2014, here are his overall stats:

188 IP, 12-9, 2.35 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 203 K, 42 BB (4.83 K/BB), 164 ERA+, 6.0 WAR

Those might not be mind-blowing numbers, but to be a three-season average in which none of those three seasons were well below the median is pretty damn impressive. And this year, of course, he's been best of all, with his lowest ERA (1.60) since 2006, his lowest WHIP (0.852) since '07 and his lowest HR/9 (0.3) ever.

And of course, a couple days ago, Papelbon picked up his 100th save as a Phillie, which ties him with Brad Lidge for fourth all-time in that category in Fightins history. Only three saves separate him from Steve Bedrosian at #2, so if he doesn't get hurt or have a complete meltdown, Papelbon should trail only Jose Mesa (114) as the Phils' all-time saves leader by season's end.

When comparing Papelbon's numbers to those of the rest of the top five saves-talliers in Phillies lore, it's pretty hard to argue that his aren't the best. The Phils have a history of closers who are dominant one season but miserable the next, and none of these guys could match Papelbon in terms of multi-season consistency. Look at this table showing the overall stats of each of the top five:

Papelbon is tops of the bunch in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/BB and WAR, and it's not particularly close for any of them. He's tied for the fewest saves, but he's also on his own for the fewest blown saves. The only thing that the others have on him is Innings Pitched, but one more year for the Phils--and for better or worse, it doesn't sound like he's going anywhere anytime soon--and Pap should pass all of them but Bedrosian. The fact that he's still been worth more in WAR than all of them in such fewer innings' work should show that the volume of his pitching shouldn't bear that much on this discussion anyway.

Really, the only argument to be made against Papelbon against any of the rest of these four is that he's never done it in the playoffs. A huge part of Brad Lidge's legacy with the Phillies comes with his staying perfect through the '08 postseason and helping them get their first Series win in 28 years, and on the whole Brad's only given up four earned runs in 20 1/3 innings of playoff work for the Fightins. Mitch Williams supporters might not want to mention his work in the '93 playoffs while making his case, but despite Wild Thing's historically miserable World Series performance, he did play a large part in getting us there in the first place, picking up two wins and two saves with a 1.69 ERA in five NLCS appearances against the Braves.

Papelbon obviously doesn't have any of that to go on his resume, though that's through no fault of his own. In fact, during his days with the Red Sox, Pap was really quite brilliant in the postseason, going his first 17 appearances across three playoffs--including one World Series run--without giving up a run. (Though it may be worth noting that in his 18th and final appearance, he gave up three runs in a series-clinching ALDS loss to the Angels.) It's a shame that in all likelihood, he'll never get the chance to do the same with the Phils, but it's hard to really hold that against him when having this discussion.

The only real competition I think Papelbon has in this argument is from one of the guys he passed on his way to the top five, Phillies legend Tug McGraw. Tugger's ERA (3.10), WHIP (1.198), K/BB (2.12) and ERA+ (117) all pale in comparisons to Pap's, but he has one very key stat over him: Innings Pitched, in which he nearly quadruples Papelbon (722 to 188). That's because McGraw pitched on the Phils for a full decade, from 1975-1984, encompassing five Philly postseason runs, including of course the 1980 championship campaign, putting up pretty consistently quality numbers throughout. Consequently, Tug also beats Pap in WAR, though only by a margin of 8.2 to 6.0, surprisingly.

So why isn't McGraw, a Philadelphia Sports Hall of Famer, the slam dunk choice for this honor? Well, largely because he wasn't always the closer for those Phillies teams. For much of his decade in the Red and White, Tug (94 saves) traded off closing duties with fellow Fightins great Ron Reed (90 saves), and consequently, despite having pitched 500+ more innings than Papelbon, he has six fewer saves than him for his career. McGraw is somewhat unquestionably the greatest Phillies reliever of all-time, and if you could combine his and Reed's closing stats from the late '70s and early '80s, they would easily make up the greatest Phillies closer of all-time, but whether you could call either McGraw or Reed that on their own...well, it depends on how strictly you want to define your terms, I suppose.

Whether or not you want to give Papelbon the final title of Greatest Phillies Closer Ever, the fact that there's even an argument to be made for him will hopefully get you to appreciate a little more what the guy has done and is doing for the Fightins. He's certainly not the cuddliest closer we've ever had, he probably wouldn't rank in the top 100 of Phillies pitchers you'd want to get a beer with, and he probably won't end up being worth $26 million over the next two seasons. But what he's done thusfar when taking the mound for us in the ninth inning has been pretty undeniable, and deserves to be acknowledged. Happy 100, Pap.