Hall of Fame Case: Jonathan Papelbon

Hall of Fame Case: Jonathan Papelbon

by January 4, 2022 1 comment

Jonathan Papelbon makes his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. One of the most dominant closers of the 21st century, he is one of the few that had a 10-year stretch of working the end of games at an elite level. Relievers generally don’t get much love from the BBWAA, so let’s take a look at Papelbon’s case and see if he will be elected.

Make sure to check out all of our other Hall of Fame Cases.

Career Summary

Jonathan Robert Papelbon was drafted in 2003 out of Mississippi State in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox. In 2005, he was called up to make a start against the Minnesota Twins. A few weeks later he got another chance to pitch for the Sox as a starter. Five days later he would start his third and final game as his next 686 major league appearances were out of the bullpen. Papelbon didn’t record a save his first year with Boston, but that would all change.

Papelbon was the Sox closer going into 2006, and he looked the part immediately. From April 3 to June 2, the 25-year-old saved 20 games without blowing one and allowed just one earned run in 28 innings. He had 26 strikeouts to just three walks and 13 hits allowed and batters had an OPS of just .330 against him. He got the first of his six All-Star nods as well. Although a shoulder injury knocked him out for the season in September, Papelbon finished his year with a minuscule 0.92 ERA and 35 saves. He also finished second to Justin Verlander for the AL Rookie of the Year award.

Shipping Out of Boston

He closed games for the Sox until 2011. He signed up with the Philadelphia Phillies and continued pitching at an elite level. In 2012, his first year with Philly, Papelbon led the NL in games finished and threw 70+ innings for the only time in his career and set a career-high with 92 strikeouts. His next few years in Philadelphia were tumultuous including being suspended for seven games and getting into it with the Phillie faithful. He was traded to the Washington Nationals for Nick Pivetta at the trade deadline in 2015. Papelbon’s velocity had diminished at this point and the strikeout rate was declining. His surly personality boiled over when he choked Bryce Harper in September. Just a few days earlier, Papelbon threw at Manny Machado. The combined suspensions ended Papelbon’s season. He pitched for the Nats in 2016 but was released on August 13, ending his career.

Pros

It is rare for a closer to pitch at such a high level for 10 years, but that’s what Papelbon did. From 2006-2015 he had a 2.33 ERA while saving 349 games. He had a 4.82 K/BB rate and a hair under a 1.000 WHIP. That stretch also saw batters slash just .207/.262/.310 against the right-hander and they managed just 50 homers in over 2,600 plate appearances. He is 10th on the all-time list for saves at 368 and holds the Phillies (123) and Red Sox (219) franchise records in that category.

His postseason numbers are also quite impressive. Before allowing three earned runs over his final two playoff innings, Papelbon had 25 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason. Over that stretch, he had a 22-to-6 K/BB rate while only allowing 10 hits. He also never allowed a home run in the playoffs.

Cons

Closers have an uphill battle when trying to get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Unless you are historically elite, you basically have no shot. Papelbon was elite for a longer time than many, but he has lower save totals than fellow Cooperstown hopefuls Joe Nathan (377) and Billy Wagner (422). Papelbon also tossed just 725 innings and struck out 808. By comparison, Nathan and Wagner threw over 900 innings each with Wagner striking out 1,196 and Nathan at 976. Papelbon’s run-ins with umpires, fans, players, and other teammates are well-documented. While it isn’t a dealbreaker, it certainly doesn’t help his already shaky case.

Verdict

Papelbon was a dominant closer for a solid 10-year stretch and his playoff numbers are elite. However, his lack of overall counting stats, like 1,000 Ks or 400 saves, when compared to his contemporaries doesn’t bode well. Wagner is on the ballot for the seventh year and hasn’t gotten to 50 percent yet. Meanwhile, Papelbon is tracking at just 0.8 percent so far. If Papelbon had pitched a few more years in the league, he would have had a much better case. At this point, he will likely be on the ballot just this once.


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