Prospect Retrospective: Jonathan Papelbon
Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon is in the news today after telling reporters that he took the controversial anti-inflammatory drug Toradol during his days with the Boston Red Sox. There's nothing particularly hinky about this: Toradol is not a steroid or PED and is perfectly legal to use, although it's heavy-duty stuff and can have some quite negative side-effects that have led to usage restrictions in some countries.
In any event, I was planning on doing a Prospect Retrospective for Papelbon anyway, so this seems like a good time to bump him up the list.
Jonathan Papelbon was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round in 2003 out of Mississippi State. A reliever in college, he was seen by the Red Sox front office as a potential starter due to a three pitch, fastball/slider/changeup combination, plus a durable body. He posted a 6.34 ERA in 33 innings in the New York-Penn League, allowing 43 hits for Lowell, but his K/BB was good at 36/9 and he received some decent scouting reports. I gave him a Grade C in the 2004 book, but noted that "there is definite potential here, more than the 6.34 ERA would imply" by itself.
Moved up to High-A Sarasota in 2004, Papelbon made 24 starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and a 153/43 K/BB ratio with just 97 hits allowed in 130 innings. All of his statistics were excellent, and the scouting reports were strong too, indicating a 92-95 MPH fastball that hit 97-98 at times, along with a curveball, slider, and changeup that drew good reviews. He looked like a mid-rotation prospect to me, perhaps more. I gave him a Grade B+ and ranked him the Number 27 pitching prospect in baseball.
Papelbon began 2005 with Double-A Portland, posting a 2.48 ERA with an 83/23 K/BB in 87 innings with only 59 hits allowed. Promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, he continued to thrive with a 2.93 ERA and a 27/3 K/BB in 28 innings. Next stop was Boston, resulting in a 2.65 ERA with a 34/17 K/BB in his first 34 major league innings.
I gave him another Grade B+ entering 2006, though it was the second-highest B+ in the book and got him rated as the Number Nine pitching prospect in the game. He was showing a very strong splitter by this point, and the main question revolved around his future role, if the Sox would use him as a starter or reliever.
As you know, the Red Sox chose the bullpen and Papelbon thrived, saving 35 games with a superb 0.92 ERA in his rookie season, granted his FIP (2.14) and xFIP (3.13) were more human. He's remained an effective closer ever since, with a career 2.34 ERA, 257 saves, 601/133 K/BB ratio in 499 innings, just 378 hits allowed, and a 192 ERA+. He's a five-time All Star. Fangraphs WAR isn't a friendly stat for relievers and he currently stands at 16.5 in his career.
One can argue about whether the Phillies were wise to give him a six-year contract as a free agent, but he's clearly one of the best closers of this generation. Here are his Bill James Sim Scores through age 31:
Hoffman and Rivera lasted forever. Wetteland was effective until he hurt his elbow at age 32 and retired at 33. Wagner lasted until 38. Montgomery was great through age 31, then gradually lost effectiveness and limped along till 37. Harvey burned out at 31. Beck was out of baseball at 33, made a brief comeback at 34, then was ineffective again at 35. Quisenberry lost his touch at 35. Foulke collapsed at 32.
So as you can see, there are historical precedents for Papelbon to last for another eight or nine years, but there are also plenty of precedents for him to burn out at any point going forward.
In terms of lessons, Papelbon's major league success is not out of context with his minor league career at all. His development was fairly linear, the only real question was how the Red Sox would use him.