In 2006, Jonathan Papelbon burst onto the scene, immediately declaring himself among the best closers in baseball. While we may never see those numbers (0.96 ERA, 0.776 WHIP) from Papelbon again, what he's doing in 2011 might be even better.
Consider this: Despite those lights-out numbers back in '06, Papelbon still blew six saves to finish the season with an 85.3 percent success rate on save opportunities. Say what you will about the frivolity of the save statistic, but for a closer, your job is to not blow saves. Despite the absurd numbers, Papelbon was just average at that task in '06.
Five years later, despite an ERA that is 2.16 points higher than the '06 mark and a WHIP that is .211 points higher, Papelbon may be at his very best.
His save in Seattle on Friday night continued a stretch that has seen Papelbon be one of the most lethal pitchers in baseball since mid-July. In his last 12 outings, all of which required one inning of work, Papelbon has struck out 13 batters while allowing just three singles and walking nobody. He's thrown 74 percent of his 151 pitches for strikes, and of those strikes, 15 percent have resulted in swings and misses.
Take it back further, and Papelbon's been pretty much lights out since early June. Since his worst outing of the year (four runs, three earned, in 1/3 of an inning against Oakland), Papelbon's allowed just 20 batters to reach base (15 hits, four walks, one HBP) in 24 2/3 innings for a 0.770 WHIP. He's struck out 31 batters in that same span for 1.26 strikeouts-per-inning, or 11.31 K/9.
Simply put, he's been almost unhittable.
And, in the simplest of all measurements for closers, he's been nearly perfect, earning saves in 27 of his 28 chances (96 percent success rate). He's just three away from recording 30 saves in six consecutive seasons. For some perspective, Mariano Rivera holds the all-time record with 30 saves in nine straight seasons.
Papelbon's overall numbers (3.08 ERA, for one) still don't reflect much dominance, but they are largely the result of a bad start. But the Red Sox, as a team, have proven over the past three months or so that you shouldn't do much judging based on the first month of the season.
Some could argue that with Papelbon feeling impending free agency for the very first time, you could have seen this coming. He is a guy who for years has said he's happy as a clam to sign one-year deals with the Sox until he reached free agency this winter. Still, given what looked to be a dramatic dip in dominance over the past couple of seasons, it would have been hard not to have had your doubts coming into the year.
The blown postseason save against Anaheim was fresh on everyone's minds throughout 2010, when Papelbon was still an effective pitcher but posted the highest ERA and WHIP numbers of his career (as a reliever). He also blew eight saves on 45 chances, allowed more homers (seven) and walks (28) than ever before, and seemed to have lost that unmeasurable edge that made him one of the most dominant finishers in the game.
This year, though, he's gotten it back. While the Red Sox can't know if he'll be doing it in a Red Sox uniform beyond 2011, they can know that as they embark on the trek to try to win the World Series this October, they'll have the fiery Papelbon who's almost unhittable closing out their games. For now, that's all that really matters.
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