Now, think about how many years they were great.
What you will find is that outside of a select few, even the best closers were not able to maintain a high level of success for a long period of time.
Take a look at this list:
YEARS OF “GREATNESS”
*To qualify for a “great” year, you had to have one of 20+ saves, a sub three ERA or a K/9 greater than nine in a particular season.
For those of you looking for Mariano Rivera, I intentionally excluded him from this list.
No, it was not because he was a Yankee.
I excluded Mariano, because I don’t consider him to be human. Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher of all time, bar none, and considering he is more akin to a machine than anything, his stats are the aberration to the norm, and have no relevance in this study.
The most interesting thing I learned from this research, was that despite the rather low qualifications, I found only six players who, over the last 20 years, were able to stay pitch at this level for more than six years.
The number six is important because Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies new $50 million closer, has already had six “great” years in the major leagues according to my qualifications.
My question is, just how many more “great” years does he have left?
The pitchers on this list all led their league in saves at one point over the past 20 years. They dominated the league for a period of time, but as you can see, their time at the top was relatively short lived. For some it was due to injury, for others, the decline is not as obvious, but it was most likely due to the strain of pitching so frequently in a short period of time.
B.J. Ryan is one example of how an injury can abruptly end a pitcher’s career.
During the 2005 off-season, a 30 year old BJ Ryan (Papelbon is 31), signed a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays for five years and $47 million. Despite only having one successful season as a closer, and only three “great” years under his belt, he signed the most lucrative contract for a reliever in the history of baseball.
The 2006 season, Ryan made the Blue Jays front office look like geniuses.
He saved 38 games with a 1.37 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.
The season after that however, after being “great” for only four seasons, he had to have Tommy John surgery.
He returned to form somewhat in 2008, with 32 saves and a 2.95 ERA and 1.28 WHIP, but it was obvious he was not the same pitcher. The year after that he was awful, and has been out of baseball ever since.
In 2009 and 2010, the last two years of his the contract he signed in 2005, he earned a combined $19 million despite throwing only 20 innings in the Major Leagues.
Definitely not what the Blue jays signed up for.
Another example that shows the idea of giving expensive, long-term contracts to relief pitchers is flawed, occurred recently with Francisco Rodriguez.
His debut with the Angels in their World Series run earned him the title “K-Rod”. With an electric fastball and devastating off-speed repertoire, he was unhittable. However, after some fantastic seasons with the Angels, he was not the same pitcher with the Mets.
The offseason following K-rod’s 62 save season, the Mets signed Rodriguez to a three year $37.5 million contract in 2008, with a vesting option for a fourth year at $17 million. Even in 2008, people were worried about his potential decline, pointing to his already declining skill set as a reason not to give him a long term deal.
According to fangraphs.com, in 2006, his average fastball was 94.8MPH. Over the past six seasons, it steadily declined to an average of 90.3 MPH. Hitters only used to make contact 68% of the time in 2006, that number was as high as 75% of the time in 2010. In addition, in 2004 his K/9 was 13.18, last season it was only 9.92.
While K-rod was still an effective pitcher for the Mets last season, there is a reason no team in baseball willing to trade for him to be their closer.
He was a reliever on the verge of making $17 million in 2012, had he finished 55 games. With that option within K-rod's reach, Sandy Alderson essentially gave him away to the Brewers, just to make sure the it did not vest. No organization was willing to pay a pitcher who generates around 1 WAR a year that much money, the type of money the Phillies just handed Jonathan Papelbon.
These are just two examples of closers who signed big contracts that, by the end of their deals, were overpaid and overvalued.
There are a lot of other stories about relievers who were consistently good for a number of years, but stopped producing seemingly out of nowhere.
Keith Foulke is a great example.
From 1999 – 2004, Keith Foulke saved 171 games. With a 2.43 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP over the course of those six seasons, Foulke eventually helped the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918 as their closer in 2004.
For those six seasons, he was incredibly consistent and effective.
Then, in 2005, his ERA skyrocketed to 5.91. After 2006, he was let go by the Red Sox with injury concerns and he retired from the game. After an unsuccessful comeback with the Athletics in 2008, he was out of baseball for good.
After six “great” seasons without a hitch, he went from being the closer of a World Series team, to an injured pitcher out of baseball in just two years.
Who's to say this cannot happen to Jonathan Papelbon.
Joe Nathan was an even better pitcher than Foulke was, and for a greater period of time.
From 2003-2009, Nathan saved 246 games, with a 2.04 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 601 K’s in only 497 innings.
However, in Spring Training of 2010, Nathan needed Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. This is yet another unexpected injury from a relief pitcher that did not have any reported injury problems throughout his previous seven "great" seasons.
This past year in 2011, he was nothing like the Nathan of old, posting a 4.84 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.
While Nathan has high hopes of returning to form, it goes to show that no matter how long a reliever is consistently good, he can lose it in the blink of an eye.
Here is where we begin the juicy part of our discussion; the dissection of Jonathan Papelbon and his new contract.
From 2006-2011, Papelbon has saved 219 games, with a 2.30 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP, with 475 K’s in only 395 innings.
Again, these numbers are fantastic.
Unfortunately for the Phillies front office, the point of this article is not to praise Papelbon’s previous successes, but rather to cast some doubt about his ability to maintain that level of success five years into the future.
Another problem outside of the ones mentioned above, is that Papelbon played in the pressure cooker that is Boston.
While there will be people who will say this is a good thing, as it will prepare him for the tough media environment of Philly which is true, I think they are overlooking the other troublesome aspects of pitching in Boston. Pitching for a team that is consistently battling for the World Series means every game matters from April through October. It means that those 395 innings were a lot more stressful than most, if not all of the people mentioned on our list.
When the season is on the line, even if your shoulder hurts, you throw as hard as you can, because you need to win. The act of pitching is not natural for the body to begin with, so that added pressure and strain of pitching when the arm is already in pain cannot be good on the arm moving forward. There are pitchers such as Chad Cordero and B.J. Ryan, that were unable to avoid injury despite not pitching for contenders in non-pressure markets. So when people say his experience in Boston will only help him in Philadelphia, that is where I disagree.
Another couple of statistics that bring me back to K-Rod, is that before this season, Papelbon’s peripherals had been in steady decline.
From 2007-2010, his ERA slowly crept up from 1.85 to 3.90. His WHIP rose from 0.77 to 1.29. His K/9 decreased from 12.96 to 10.21 and his BB/9 went up from 2.31 to 3.76.
All signs of a pitcher in decline.
Then, this past season, he reversed all these trends and had one of the best seasons of his career.
His ERA came back down to 2.94 and his FIP, which is a statistic similar to ERA but it neutralizes the effects of the defense played behind the pitcher, was 1.53, easily the best of his career. On top of that, his strike outs were back up, with a 12.14 K/9, and he also trimmed his walk rate to 1.4 BB/9, which is very impressive.
Here are his stats over the five year period:
Which pitcher is he? I do not know, but even with his great season last year, history has shown us that outside of Mariano Rivera, relievers cannot be relied upon for long stretches of time.
Is Papelbon the next Rivera?
Would I be willing to bet $50-$60 million on that? No chance.
As I wrote about here, the Phillies are already a team with a questionable future, loaded with dubious long term contracts.
Signing a closer with a World Series pedigree for a team with World Series aspirations may look good for now, but what happens after 2013, when Chase Utley is a free agent?
The Phillies will already have $81 million committed to four players in Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and now Papelbon, and by then, who knows how good these guys will be. Even if they are all still performing at their 2011 levels, that is a lot of money to give to only 16% of your 25 man roster.
For the cherry on top, because Papelbon was a type A free agent, the Phillies lose their first round draft pick in the 2012 draft. For a team with a depleted farm system after trading for Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence these past couple of seasons, every high round draft pick becomes even more valuable.
At the end of the day, giving any reliever a long term contract, especially at $12 million a year for potentially five seasons is a questionable decision at best.
For the next season or two, Papelbon could be a great addition for the Phillies. After that however, as history has proven, he becomes a question mark because relievers simply do not last. I do not foresee him being an effective pitcher down the line, so while the Phillies should still be better for 2012 and 2013, by 2014 and beyond, they will be an old team loaded with overpaid players on the downswing, and the Mets will be a team full of young talent, ready to make their run.
For more news and stats on the Mets, follow Zach on Twitter @MetsVibe!