Food For Thought: The $50 Million Closer


By Nick DiBattista

I’ve had some time to think about this mind-blowing, record-setting closer deal that the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to.  Now don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why they bailed on Madson’s alleged 4-yr, $44 million deal in favor of this 4-yr, $50 million with a vesting 5th year option for Papelbon.  Just look at the track records.  Papelbon has been closing for 6 years, and has logged 30 or more saves in each season, posting a career ERA of 2.33 and career WHIP of 1.02.  Not too shabby for a guy Sox fans have always felt “likes to make things interesting” before shutting the door down.  Madson, while very good this season, only has one full season of closing experience (two part time seasons as well), and his numbers this year compare to Papelbon’s career numbers (2.37 ERA and 1.15 WHIP), but if that’s the case, wouldn’t you pay the extra $6 million to get the guy with a much higher sample size?  You get a better indication of Papelbon’s future performance based on his lengthy track record; Madson invokes a lot more risk.  That being said, the purpose of this article is confusion—I’m entirely confused to why either of them is getting paid this obnoxious amount of money.  The value of finishing a game just is not worth as much money as relievers as a whole are being paid.

 

Let’s break down Papelbon’s contract a little—he’s being paid $50 million dollars over four years.  As the Red Sox closer, Papelbon averaged approximately 66 innings per season.  Extrapolate that by the four seasons on his contract, that’s 264 innings that he’s going to throw for that $50 million salary.  That comes out to 5.28 innings per million dollars earned.  That’s not even a quality start!  Now you can turn around and say that he’s pitching the most important inning and finishing games in pressure situations, but so are setup men, and until recently (Rafael Soriano) they weren’t getting overly expensive contracts either.

C.C. Sabathia signed the richest contract for a pitcher, at $161 million back in 2009.  He then opted out of his contract and resigned a new $122 million dollar extension with the Yankees this offseason.  That contract is going to pay him $23 million dollars in 2012.  Now since Sabathia has joined the Yankees, he has averaged 235 innings per season, and has amassed a 59-23 record in his three seasons there.  For argument’s sake, C.C Sabathia would earn $1 million of his new extension for every 10.22 innings pitched.  When’s the last time C.C. threw 10 innings in one appearance?  Exactly.

 

Papelbon is being paid $50 million for an estimated 266 innings, and C.C. Sabathia is being paid $23 million to throw 235 innings.  $27 million more money going Papelbon’s way for an extra 31 innings.  Seems absurd when you think about it that way, huh?  What if you think about it like this?  Jonathan Papelbon has 379 career appearances in his 6 seasons as closer for the Red Sox; only 248 of those were save situations; that means that 131 of his appearances, or 35% of his appearances were either in tie games or “just to get work in” during long breaks between save opportunities.  C.C. Sabathia, in his three seasons in New York, has made 101 starts, and got the decision in 82 of them.  Considering his track record of notoriously pitching deep into games, and his relatively low ERAs as a Yankee, one can reasonably assume that many of his 82 decisions (along with those 59 wins and a .720 winning percentage) did actually hinge on Sabathia’s performance and not the outpouring of run support that can be expected as a Yankee starter.

 

So who is more valuable here?  The closer who will have a direct impact in the box score 65% of the time, and the other 35% of the time either keep games alive in a tie-game situation or just come in to keep his arm loose, or the starter who has won 58% of his appearances in the past three years?  I don’t care how much value you place on the end of the game, if you don’t have someone like C.C. Sabathia throwing 6 or 7 strong innings to get the ball to Papelbon, then having a $50 million dollar closer is useless.  Luckily for the Phillies, they have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley, and Cole Hamels for that, but the blatant overpaying of closers is just sickening to me.  It’s one of the most inefficient uses of $50 million dollars a team could come up with.


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