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Papelbon's the Choice

The Phillies signed RHP Jonathan Papelbon to a 4 year, $50 million deal after a reported 4 year, $44 million agreement with RHP Ryan Madson fell through. Madson was the Phillies closer last year, and it is interesting that things did not work out for whatever reason. It will be even more interesting if Madson ends up with another NL East team, like the Nationals, who are rumored to be a suitor for his services.

I'm not sure if either Papelbon or Madson are worth long-term contracts at the price tags they demand, but I'm not about to chastise the Phillies. Their window of opportunity is right now, and their roster isn't getting any younger. They are a better team right now with a guy like Papelbon closing for them. This is a team worth buying talent for right now, even if it means dealing with some unsavory consequences later.

Plus, signing Papelbon instead of Madson is clearly a better decision.

It's easy to see the risk in signing Papelbon to a big contract. He's a 31-year-old reliever that has already closed out a ton of games. Relievers are the most volatile asset in baseball, and on top of that, Jonathan is at that point in his career where many players leave their primes. Plus, even if Papelbon stays as good as he has been over the years, he is a fly ball pitcher, and Citizens Bank Park is a bit of a band box. His home run rate is bound to go up, particularly since his HR/FB was an unsustainably low 4.8% in 2011 (his career rate is 6.6%). Papelbon also posted the second-best strikeout rate of his career, and his lowest walk rate ever in 2011. Given Jonathan's age, and all sorts of stats that seem unsustainably beyond his career rates, it would be very surprising if his production matched what got him $50 million over 4 years.

However, it also would have been risky to sign Ryan Madson to a big contract as well. He's a 31-year-old reliever too, even though he has closed out much fewer games. I know I made the mistake of assuming Madson was younger than Papelbon, because he's been a late-inning reliever for less time. That's simply not true. In fact, Madson made his MLB debut two years before Papelbon.

Similar to Papelbon, Madson had an unsustainably good year. While his strikeout and walk rates were around his production level in recent years, his home run rate plummeted - all the way down to 3.7% HR/FB (and his career average is 10.4%). It would be smart to assume that Madson will give up double, if not triple, the amount of home runs he did in 2011. Home runs are probably the easiest way to blow saves.

As overly simple as this sounds, Jonathan Papelbon is simply better than Madson, and by quite a bit. In 2011, Madson posted a 1.7 WAR, which is great for a reliever, and a new career high. Papelbon accumulated 3.0 WAR though, which is phenomenal. In fact, over the last 6 seasons, Papelbon has only had 1 season below a 1.7 WAR. Not surprisingly, Papelbon's career WAR (15.1) dwarfs Madson's (8.8).

On top of that, Papelbon likely has more life left in his arm. He has thrown 6,930 pitches in his MLB career, whereas Madson has thrown 9,930. Madson has thrown exactly 3,000 more pitches than Papelbon in his career, which is nearly 50% more. That's slightly misleading, because Madson has logged two more years in the majors, and it's not like Papelbon threw no pitches in those seasons (he simply threw them in the minors). Still, even if we throw out Madson's first two seasons, that's only 1,230 pitches. The difference is still noteworthy - 1,770 pitches. For perspective, Papelbon threw 1,002 pitches last year, and Madson 966. 1,770 pitches is the equivalent of a season and a half to two seasons.*

*The gap can mainly be attributed to 17 starts Madson made in 2006. Starters don't put maximum effort in all their pitches, so even the 1,770-pitch gap is misleading, especially because Papelbon started in the minor leagues while Madson relieved in the majors. Maybe their arms are equally worn after all, but I still think the gap is worth noting.

So, to recap, Papelbon and Madson are the same age, but Papelbon has much more experience closing, a sustained higher level of success, and maybe even less mileage on his arm. I'm not sure that Papelbon is worth the big money that he just got, but I'd certainly be willing to pay him $6 million more over 4 years than Madson.