Philadelphia Phillies: the Jonathan Papelbon problem

The Philadelphia Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season, making him the highest paid reliever in history.  However, Papelbon has not lived up to his contract in more ways than one.

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Papelbon had some of his worst numbers in 2013

In his first year with the team, Papelbon was named an all-star and finished the season with 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA.  He also had four blown saves, but that was easily overlooked due to his successful season.  The 2013 season was a different story for Papelbon.  He finished the season with 29 saves, the lowest total of his career, a 2.92 ERA, and 7 blown saves, the second most in his career.

Papelbon also gave up a career high 59 hits as well as the second most earned runs of his career.  His 57 strikeouts were a career low for Papelbon since he became a full-time closer, 16 less than his career average of 73 strikeouts a season.  It was especially surprising considering that he had a career high 92 strikeouts in 2012.  Needless to say, Those are not the type of numbers that a team wants to see from its closer, especially if he is the highest paid reliever in history.

The big issue with Papelbon is not his stats, but rather his mouth.  The Phillies’ closer has always been a vocal player who wears his emotions on his sleeve, often pumping his fist after recording a save.  In July, following a loss to the Detroit Tigers,  the closer shared some very negative opinions about the team as reported by Todd Zolecki of MLB.com:

“I definitely didn’t come here for this,” he said.

Papelbon carries an influential presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse as the team’s closer, a nine-year veteran and World Series champion.  Asked what he thought about the direction the organization is headed, he sighed.

“Oh, man,” he said. “We could be here all day.”

So then what about this team’s ability to turn things around, if not this season, then next season?

“It’s going to take, in my opinion, a lot,” he said.  “And in my opinion, I think it’s going to have to be something similar to what the Red Sox went through a couple years ago.  From top to bottom.”

Papelbon was a key part of Boston's 2011 collapse (Elsa/ Getty)

Papelbon was a key part of Boston’s 2011 collapse (Elsa/ Getty)

That was not the first time Papelbon criticized the Phillies, as a year ago he said,  “I haven’t seen any leadership.” in reference to the team’s clubhouse.  It is a ironic to hear that from him, because calling out the organization and teammates to the media is what a leader does, right?  It cannot be forgotten that Papelbon was a part of the 2011 Red Sox team who after collapsing in September and missing the playoffs, stories broke to the local media that several starting pitchers would eat fried chicken, drink beer, and play video games during games on days they weren’t pitching.

He knows what it is like to be on a team with leadership issues, and oddly enough he was not brought back to the Red Sox following that 2011 season.  It is also a strange coincidence that once Papelbon came to the Phillies after their 102 win season there is a leadership issue.

Earlier this offseason two of Papelbon’s teammates shared their thoughts on team chemistry.  Fellow reliever Mike Adams spoke with CSNPhilly saying,  “we have a lot of good ballplayers on this ballclub” and added, “we really do need to build a good clubhouse chemistry with each other, that lacked a lot last year.”  Meanwhile, starter Cole Hamels said that the chemistry issues had to do the players not knowing how to handle losing, rather than them not liking each other.  His teammates seemed optimistic heading into the season, whereas last month Papelbon felt the need to go on the radio and compare the cultures of the Red Sox and the Phillies.

The issue with Papelbon’s comments is not necessarily what he said, but how he said it.  Hamels pointed out that the whole team struggled, but began by criticizing himself for not pitching well. He also talked about how his teammates, who he saw recently, had no issues with previous comments he made pointing out the team’s struggles   Meanwhile Papelbon’s comments come off as though he is blaming others without taking credit for his own struggles.  It is one thing to comment that there was a lack of chemistry, but it is another to say there is no leadership.  One points out a fixable problem that Hamels would probably say he was a part of, but the other once again sounds like shifting the blame to others.

Chase Utley is the opposite of Papelbon, quiet and leads by example. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America)

Chase Utley, the opposite of Papelbon, is quiet and leads by example. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America)

The outspoken Papelbon just does not seem to be a fit with the Phillies clubhouse whose leaders often lead by example.  Players like Chase Utley are the opposite of Papelbon, as reporters are lucky to get more than a few words and cliches out of Utley who holds things close to his chest.  Utley has been seen as a key source of leadership during his tenure with the Phillies and he chooses to do his leading on the field rather than through the media.  Meanwhile, the Phillies’ closer played with outspoken characters in Boston, such as Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.

The Phillies have shown they are not happy with Papelbon, as they attempted to trade him in the offseason.  Whether that had more to do with his comments or struggles remains to be seen.  It will be hard to move the closer due to his contract, which the Phillies will most likely have to pay a lot of.  The team is likely to make a decision before the season is up.  Maybe Papelbon should worry more about regaining the 3 MPH he lost on his fastball rather than what he thinks the organization should do.

  • johnanaguski

    Send him packing,

  • john

    Phillies are going to suck again this season didn’t do a damn thing in the off season get rid of Howard/Papelbon/Utley/Cole

  • Rocky

    Papelbon is obviously not a team player. Unfortunately the Phils are stuck with him as shown by no one wanting him. Someone else will have to step up this year and take over the closers role as Paps continues to lose his stuff.