The recent decision to move Jonathan Papelbon back into the closer’s role will have a major impact both on fantasy and real baseball. There are arguments to be made for both sides, but on the surface, it appears to be very bad news for the Boston Red Sox and pretty good, not great, news for fantasy owners.
Papelbon wants to close. He says he feels most comfortable in that role and that he helps the team most when pitching in the ninth inning. While the former may be of importance, the latter is egregiously inaccurate. Having a player feel “comfortable” and ultimately most happy in his role needs to be taken into account. For years, Barry Bonds demanded he occupy the cleanup spot, despite the fact he would see 20-30 fewer at-bats over the course of a season and his high OBP played better earlier in the order. What Bonds wants, Bonds gets, and I agreed with the managerial decision to side with the slugger, whose contentment was ultimately more important. Happiness aside, the problem with this reasoning, however, is that when a player such as Papelbon thinks he’s “helping his team more,” he’s often misinformed and mistaken.
No matter how hard the media try to sway our opinion, the ninth inning isn’t any more important than the first inning. Or the third inning. While the pressure of the ninth means a specific type of personality on the mound may perform better, it still doesn’t change the fact that Papelbon throwing 200 innings is more valuable to the Red Sox than him throwing 70. Hey, I have an idea; don’t start David Ortiz this year. Just wait until the ninth inning, and then use him exclusively as a pinch-hitter. After all, he’s clutch! Those 162 at-bats compared to last year’s 558 would be a similar decline (71 percent) to Papelbon’s (65 percent) projected starter innings to relief innings (200 to 70).
What about those projected innings you ask? Well, maybe the biggest factor of all here, is Papelbon’s health. Benefits of pitching in the pen or the rotation are fairly specific to the individual. While Kerry Wood struggles nowadays when he reaches the 50-60 pitch count, and he’ll have a better chance of staying healthy in the pen, John Smoltz swears the bullpen nearly ruined his arm, and the rotation is much more conducive to his overall health. Papelbon came up through the minors as a starter, and the main reason Boston wanted to move him into the rotation in the first place was because the team’s medical staff recommended it. Regular rest and a routine was best for his already tenuous shoulder and long-term health. If this decision was made because Boston was uncomfortable with their alternate closing options (despite the fact Joel Pineiro has been lights out of late), it’s truly ridiculous.
As far as fantasy is concerned, his value probably increases, as the “saves” category actually matters unlike in the real sport. However, you’ll lose 80-110 strikeouts, around 10-12 wins, and an ERA/WHIP of 3.50/1.25 in 200 innings is at least as valuable as an ERA/WHIP of 2.50/1.10 in 70 innings. Still, at minimum, his perceived fantasy value will probably shoot through the roof, so if you drafted him wanting the starter stats, I’d recommend you shop him immediately. Ultimately, the fantasy ramifications will come down to whether this decision benefits or damages his ability to stay healthy.
In my opinion, the Red Sox just relinquished their title as World Series favorites over to the Yankees.