Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Dreaded Vote of Confidence

Earlier today, Ian Browne tweeted some interesting information from Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein.  He stated that despite his recent signing of former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks and the continued presence of fireballing set-up man Daniel Bard, there is not a closer controversy in Boston.  Jonathan Papelbon is still the closer.  That is, of course, until blows back-to-back save opportunities...or gives up a three run lead against the Yankees...or gets traded.

All joking aside, this seems like the dreaded vote of confidence.  Do you know what I mean?  It's the same one owners or General Managers give just before someone gets the ax a week later. 

Unlike a lot of people, I don't think his struggles have anything to do with his so-called meltdown in Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS.  Papelbon is not what I would call a thinker--and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  He doesn't stew on his errors.  His ability to forget his failures is what has allowed him to be one of the most successful closers in baseball over the past five seasons.  To say that a single failure is the reason for his decline is too simplistic, not to mention inaccurate.

Papelbon's issues have to do with his "stuff."   I've often wondered if his struggles stem from the Red Sox experimenting with his mechanics early in the 2009 season.  Since the start of 2009, he's had trouble avoiding walks (especially in April when his K/BB ratio is significantly worse than the rest of the season), and consistently being able to locate his fastball and splitter over the course of the season.  As a result, he's allowed more baserunners, given up more runs, and blown more saves than he had in the past.  Of course, I don't need to tell you that each of these things can spell death for a closer.  

I still believe Papelbon can be an effective major league closer.  In fact, I still think he can be an effective, if not dominant, closer in Boston.  In order to regain his dominance, he needs to find a way to reverse this disturbing two year trend.  He needs to regain his plus-control, and be able to establish his rising fastball and diving splitter as the consistent plus-pitches they were just a few short years ago. 

Unfortunately, time may not be on his side.  Papelbon is about to enter his age-30 season.  Closer don't typically improve once they hit 30; they tend to decline.  I think Papelbon will be given every opportunity to hold down the role he's owned for five years.  If he can't, I fully expect Francona to remove him from the role (just as he replaced Keith Foulke with Papelbon in 2006), and install either Bard or Jenks in the role.  In a way, it would be poetic justice.

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