Monday, March 3, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Closer

Next up in our position by position debate, we are going to review the closers. If you are just catching on we have been doing a debate on who has the better player at each position between the Red Sox and the Yankees. To be clear, this is not a debate on who has the better team, just the better player at each position. A debate on who has the better team would require much more than a position by position evaluation.

Red Sox Closer

Not every releiver can close, and not every starter can be converted to a closer. Many teams have tried to convert pitchers into closers and have failed more often than succeeding. However, when you have a closer on your roster, it becomes very evident. This was the case with Jonathan Papelbon. A starter by trade, Papelbon served out of the bullpen in 2005 and 2006 to help an ailing bullpen. Former closer Keith Foulke was recovering from injuries, and not able to perform at that capacity. They tried Schilling out as a closer for a while, but he was no good in that role. Then came Papelbon. With two plus pitches in his fastball and splitter, Papelbon has become a solid closer for the Sox. Last season he posted a 1.85 ERA with 37 saves and 84 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. That was his second full season closing games.

Yankees Closer

The man needs no introduction. Mariano Rivera has arguably been the most dominating closer of this era. He built a reputation with a strong cutter that has baffled hitters for more than a decade now. Last season, was his worst as a closer. He posted a 3.15 ERA with 30 saves, and 74 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Not bad by most standards, but bad for him. He had a really bad month in April, and seemed to take longer than usual to get adjusted to the season. I thought that might have put into question his spring training approach which is to go at his own pace, but it hasn't. He just signed a 3 year $45 million contract, and is 38 years old. The question will be whether he can get off to a better start this year, and will his cutter still cut.

Winner: Red Sox. A young closer entering his prime versus an aged veteran entering his twilight. Mariano has been the man for years, and I would easily pick Mariano over Papelbon if they were at the same stage of their career, but they're not. The truth is, Papelbon had a monster season last year, and Mariano stumbled. I don't think Mariano will have such a rough start this season, but he is getting older. Would I pick Mariano to close a big game over Papelbon? Absolutely. Would I pick him to out perform Papelbon over the course of an entire season? No.

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