Can Jonathan Papelbon become the next Mariano Rivera?

Alex Remington
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We all have questions about the 2010 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address a few per week as Opening Day approaches.

The Situation: Jonathan Papelbon(notes) is one of the best closers in baseball and he knows it. He wants to be thought of in the same breath as Mariano Rivera(notes), both on the field and at the negotiating table, writes ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes. But his big mouth has gotten him into trouble in the past, as he got into some hot water in 2008 when he said that he wanted to finish out the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in place of Mo. With Daniel Bard(notes) waiting in the wings, Boston has been content to go year-to-year with Papelbon until he reaches free agency, leading 'Duk to wonder if 2010 will be his last jig with the Red Sox.

The difference in attitude between the two closers is extremely stark and it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that Papelbon's path looks similar to Rivera's. But there's simply no denying that Papelbon has certainly put up some historic numbers. At 1.84, he has the lowest career ERA of any reliever with more than 100 innings pitched. Rivera is unquestionably the greatest closer of all time, but, for whatever it's worth, Paps has a career ERA nearly half a run lower. It doesn't end there. Papelbon has struck out two more men per nine innings than Rivera, while maintaining a nearly identically stingy walk rate and home run rate. Their OPS and BABIP against are nearly identical — batters have a .557 OPS and .268 BABIP against Papelbon, .556 and .266 against Rivera. If it weren't for Rivera's postseason record — which is perhaps the greatest postseason resume in baseball history — it would be hard to argue that Rivera is a clearly more dominant player than Papelbon.

The Question: Is Jonathan Papelbon the next Mariano Rivera?

The Analysis: It sounds like a preposterous inquiry because Rivera's remarkable longevity and consistency out of the bullpen is nearly unprecedented. Rivera is one of just two relievers ever to have 10 seasons with at least 65 innings pitched and an ERA under 2.50. Hoyt Wilhelm, the rubber-armed knuckleballer is the other. Meanwhile, Goose Gossage has seven and no one else has more than five. (Papelbon currently has three.)

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So Papelbon will have to stay healthy to pitch another 10 years and 792 innings, the amounts by which he trails Rivera in both categories. But that will be an uphill climb. In the past 20 years — the era of the modern closer — only 16 relievers, and only eight closers, have even logged 1,000 innings. By comparison, 11 players hit their 500th homer between 1997 and 2009.

In this era, relievers tend to be abused in order to protect the team's greater investments in starting pitching. Rather than risk the health of John Lackey(notes) ($18 million), Josh Beckett(notes) ($12 million), or Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) ($8 million), Terry Francona is likely to turn to Papelbon to bail them out in late innings, because he only makes $9.35 million this year. Also, because he's on a one-year contract, the team has no incentive to protect his long-term arm health.

Though his ERA was gaudy last year — a sparkling 1.85 — Papelbon did raise a few red flags, even before his three-run meltdown against the Angels in the final game of the ALDS. His control wasn't at the levels it has been in the past. He had the second-lowest K/BB and second-lowest first-pitch strike percentage of his career, and the highest average pitches per plate appearance. His average fastball velocity was lower than in 2008 but higher than in 2007.

But all told, his numbers were terrific and there's no reason to expect that they'll continue trending down in 2010 ... if he stays healthy, of course.

The Forecast for 2010: In 2010, the Red Sox should expect another great season from their eccentric closer, though they probably won't be sorry if they follow Branch Rickey's dictum that it's better to part with a player a year too early than a year too late. Much as Yankee fans hate to admit it, Papelbon is neck and neck with Rivera as the best closer of the past half-decade and has his career off to an incredible start.

But the 40-year old Rivera has had more brilliant seasons than just about anybody ever and he's still producing at a high rate. Papelbon still has a long way to go.

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Other questions answered by Alex Remington

What can the Mariners expect from Ken Griffey Jr.?
Will Mark Reynolds hit more than 40 home runs again?
Will David Wright find his lost power in 2010?
Can Curtis Granderson solve his lefty pitcher problems?