After all the chaos that unfolded this week for the Philadelphia Phillies, first agreeing but not agreeing with Ryan Madson, and then signing Jonathan Papelbon, there was a general consensus opinion online among Phillies fans and non-Phillies fans alike: that the team would have overpaid for either player. There are just as many critics of the Papelbon deal as there were for the Madson deal. But at the end of the day, it appears that the team was determined to sign a top of the line closer this offseason. Who would have been the better fit for them: Madson or Papelbon?
Looking just at their reputations and history, Papelbon is clearly the better choice. He’s been in the league for six years, all spent in Boston, and he was a closer in each season. Papelbon is used to the major market pressure cooker that he’ll be faced with in Philly, as a fomer member of the Red Sox. If you’re into total saves as a metric to determine how good a closer is (which I am clearly not), Papelbon’s total of 219 crushes Madson’s 52, a majority of which were accrued in 2011.
Papelbon has superior strikeout and walk rates in comparison to Madson as well, with marks of 10.67 and 2.41 per nine innings topping Madson’s 7.81 and 2.73 marks per nine innings. But Madson’s rates include failed runs as a starting pitcher. If you compare the two pitchers over the last four years (when Madson became a full-time one inning guy), Papelbon’s advantage dims. Madson’s strikeout rate rises to 8.91, and his walk rate falls to a rate nearly identical to Papelbon’s, at 2.43.
The two pitchers also have a different style, one that favors Madson. Papelbon has thrown his fastball 76.3% of the time over the course of his career, also using a slider and a splitter. Madson has a style primarily less reliant on his fastball, throwing it just 56.7% of the time. He also mixes in a cutter and a changeup. As both pitchers continue to age and lose velocity, Papelbon is in worse shape than Madson due to his reliance on the fastball.
Over his career, Papelbon has been the better pitcher than Madson. I don’t think anyone would argue with that point. But when you’re talking four years (or five, if Papelbon’s option vests) down the road, who will be the better pitcher? I’d probably lean towards Madson, just because of that final point I made about Papelbon’s reliance on his fastball. Once the velocity disappears, Papelbon is going to have to reinvent himself as a pitcher. Madson would be able to thrive without the blistering mid-90s fastball in his arsenal. One point I failed to make: by signing Papelbon, the Phillies will also lose their first round pick in the 2012 amateur draft. For a team that has a farm system weakened by the midseason trade for Hunter Pence, the extra pick would have been really nice.
I don’t think Philadelphia would have been best served to pay either pitcher eight figures in 2014 and beyond. They probably could have gotten Madson for cheaper than that if they didn’t give him such a high offer to start. Madson on a lower contract will perform much better than Papelbon at the price that the Phillies are going to be paying for the next four or five years.