Matt Williams to Junkies on Papelbon: "He's our closer. He's the one that closes the game."
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) September 2, 2015
A few years ago — OK, maybe more than a few years ago — Margo and I got married, and we got these really nice crystal glasses. I guess they’re called “stemware.” We like these glasses. They’re pretty. When we bring them out, people will inevitably say, “Oh, I love your glasses.”
We, like more or less every person who gets stemware for their wedding, bring out these glasses once a year. Maybe.
Traditional closers like Jonathan Papelbon — that is to say, closers who managers only use in save situations — are like wedding stemware. They are nice. They are considered valuable. If you ever broke one, you would feel really bad. And they have almost nothing to do with daily life.
Jonathan Papelbon has pitched 11 innings since the Washington Nationals turned their team upside down by trading for him. Eleven innings. He has had five save opportunities and he has saved all five — protecting a one-run lead, two two-run leads and two three-run leads. You tell me: What do you think that’s worth?
I’ve written before: Teams on average win 95% of the games they lead going into the ninth inning. That has been true for decades. It’s possible, if you happen to have a charmed year, to beat that number (the Nationals this year have won all 55 games they led going into the ninth) but there really isn’t much potential growth in ninth-inning efficiency. Closers you can’t or won’t use in tie games, when losing by a run or when the team REALLY needs to get out of jam, are luxury items. They are cruise control. They are first class seats. General managers should know that.
Of course, the Nationals expected to give him more than five save opportunities in a month, just like we expected to use our stemware for all sorts of dinner parties, fun lunches, deep book club conversations and, I don’t know, afternoon teas? Instead, we dust them off at Thanksgiving and complain afterward about what a pain they are to clean.