Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Curious Comparison Between Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera

Maybe this is why Jonathan Papelbon gets no respect.  He's a catcher fondler.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Disclaimer:  I know no one compares to Mariano Rivera.  Without question, Rivera was the best closer in the history of the game.  Even we Mets fans can admit that without cringing.  But the point of this blog post is to point out a stunning similarity between the careers of Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.  I respect Rivera.  I hate Papelbon.  But those numbers tell quite a story - a story that I will share right now...

Jonathan Papelbon is 33 years old, an age when most players begin to enter their "past-their-prime" years.  Papelbon has had a solid career, but no one has ever thought of him as the best closer in the game.  Meanwhile, back in 2003, Mariano Rivera was also in his age 33 season, but by then everyone considered him the top fireman in baseball.

Papelbon doesn't have Rivera's reputation as being the dominant closer of his day, but looking at their stats through their age 33 season, we may have to think of Papelbon a little differently.

Here are the key stats for both Papelbon and Rivera, looking at Papelbon's entire career and Rivera's career through the 2003 season - the year in which he pitched as a 33-year-old.  The similarities, as you'll be able to see, are quite shocking.

  • Papelbon: 549 GP, 299 saves, 2.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 676 K, 153 BB, 185 ERA+, 2.69 FIP
  • Rivera: 512 GP, 283 saves, 2.49 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 582 K, 177 BB, 186 ERA+, 2.94 FIP

Papelbon has pitched in 37 more games through his age 33 season than Rivera did, which explains his 16 save lead over the future Hall of Fame closer.  But Papelbon has a better ERA, lower WHIP and has nearly 100 more strikeouts than Rivera did at age 33.  Papelbon also has better control than Rivera, as evidenced by the two dozen fewer walks despite pitching in more games than Rivera.  Furthermore, Papelbon has a lower FIP than Rivera and has a nearly identical ERA+.

Now let's look at postseason numbers, which is where Rivera cemented his career as a Hall of Famer.  Through 2003, Rivera had a mindboggling 0.75 ERA and a similar 0.75 WHIP.  He also recorded 30 saves and allowed opposing hitters to post a .176/.208/.241 slash line.  Papelbon has not pitched nearly as much in the postseason as Rivera did, which is more the fault of his teams than the individual, but in 18 postseason appearances, he has a 1.00 ERA and 0.815 WHIP.  And what about his slash line?  Well, that's a Rivera-esque .154/.220/.209.  Or perhaps I should say Rivera has a Papelbon-esque postseason slash line?

Before you forget that this is a Mets site, let's consider one other closer's numbers through his age 33 season.  He began his Mets career at age 34, but by that time, his pitching statistics were just as good, if not better, than both Papelbon and Rivera.  Let's look at the career numbers of Billy Wagner through 2005, the year he began as a 33-year-old.

  • Wagner: 584 GP, 284 saves, 2.40 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 840 K, 217 BB, 182 ERA+, 2.77 FIP

Now you can see why former Mets general manager Omar Minaya was adamant about bringing Wagner into the fold.  His numbers were virtually identical to what Rivera produced through his age 33 season and are right on par with what Papelbon has accomplished.  But the reason why my main comparison is between Papelbon and Rivera and not all three pitchers is because Wagner - to put it bluntly - sucked in the postseason.  Through his age 33 season, Wagner posted a 9.64 ERA in October and allowed hitters to bat .364 against him.

No one will ever confuse Jonathan Papelbon with Mariano Rivera.  Rivera posted a major league record 652 saves and was undoubtedly the best relief pitcher in postseason history.  But through age 33, Papelbon and Rivera have been virtually the same pitcher.  And although Papelbon's total postseason numbers aren't as gaudy as Rivera's because his teams have not been annual playoff participants, his October averages (ERA, WHIP, BAA, OBP, SLG) are quite comparable to the Sandman.

As Mets fans, we may hate Jonathan Papelbon.  We may also make fun of him because he gave up game-winning home runs to non-prime-time-players Omir Santos and Jordany Valdespin.  But he deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mariano Rivera, at least as far as his accomplishments through his age 33 season are concerned.

Papelbon may not continue to dominate until he's 43 like Rivera did.  And he may never appear in as many postseason games.  But as loath as I am to admit it, he's far better than most of us would like to admit, even if he does like to grope his catcher at times.

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