Papel-conned!: Jonathan Papelbon and the Ridiculous Nature of MLB Suspensions

In a game against the Oakland Athletics on 4 June, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was ejected from the game after arguing with umpire Tony Randazzo over the latter’s strike zone.  The more egregious error for Papelbon was bumping into Randazzo, a major no-no in baseball.  Three days later, Major League Baseball suspended Boston’s stellar closer for three games.  As is typical for baseball suspensions, Papelbon appealed and on 17 June the suspension was reduced to two games.

The entire damn thing is a farce!  Follow me here.

Papelbon was ejected on a Saturday; suspended on a Tuesday and immediately appealed; then he continued to play for nearly two weeks before a decision was reached on his appeal; finally, the suspension was reduced to two games.  It is not surprising that the appeal allowed Boston to have their closer for always important divisional series against the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays.  The two-game suspension that began yesterday will cover part of an interleague series with the Milwaukee Brewers.  In other words, Papelbon violates MLB rules, gets to keep pitching and has two saves during that time (in which the Red Sox went 8-1), and then finally has he suspension “served” for a measly two games.

Let me be clear about two things.  First, I know that all leagues have to protect their officiating crews.  You do not want players ignoring referees or batter taking swings at home plate umpires.  But I do think that there is overprotection sometimes (like censorship on criticizing officials) and “making contact” rules when it is barely a bump.  Again, I know that you cannot allow for players to constantly question the authority of the umpires.  But Randazzo’s strike zone was inconsistent, especially at the end of that game, and Papelbon was rightly criticizing it.  Hell, he was actually arguing a “strike” (that looked outside and should have been a ball).  How often do you see a pitcher complain about a strike he threw?  So actually, I think the suspension is too severe because Randazzo was the one initiating the incident and the “bump” was barely one at all.

Second, this is not solely about Papelbon or the Red Sox.  This is more about how ridiculous it is to suspend a relief pitcher for only a couple of games.  I am not claiming that Papelbon deserves more games added to his suspension (see above).  But how effective can a three-game or two-game suspension be for a relief pitcher?

Thus, what I am calling into question is the entire suspension (and appeals) process.  Two games?  Really?  Out of 162?  So 1.2 percent of the “possible” games for Papelbon to play?  And he might not even appear in those two games.  A reliever, in particular a closer, may get into about 70 games total; he may have between 50-60 save opportunities.  That means that most closers get into less than half of his team’s games!  Thus, there is a good chance that during a two-game suspension a closer would not be used.  Thus, it is barely punishment at all, especially given that the Red Sox have capable relievers who can serve as a fill-in closer (namely Daniel Bard).

The appeals process, while necessary for “justice,” is also ridiculous.  Yes, players need to have their voices heard.  But it took three days to hand down a decision.  Could MLB not speak with Papelbon during that time?  The Red Sox even had an off-day; certainly they could have set something up.  Even without the off-day, MLB and Papelbon could have met; if corporate calls you in for a meeting, you go!  Have a meeting, hear all sides, then render a decision.  While an appeals process is good for ensuring that you get a fair shake, having it go on for two weeks is ridiculous.  Had a meeting taken place, the appeals process should be quick because most of the evidence — including the player’s “testimony” — was submitted previously.

All this goes for any player in Major League Baseball.  While I may not agree that a suspension is warranted  here, it was given and considering it was originally only three games (again, a small proportion of games played), suck it up and take your medicine.

Yet, Papelbon, like so many other baseball players, worked the system and got a minor penalty minimized even more.  That he thinks that the new penalty is “fair” and that he will accept his punishment is laughable.  Here is his quote following the sentence reduction:

I had to own up to it and I did.

No you did not!!  Just like other players, you did not “own up to it”; you complained that it was too much and you did not do anything wrong.  So you appealed, which is certainly your right but that is not “owning up to it.”  That is saying that MLB is wrong to suspend you for that long, or maybe they are even wrong for suspending you at all.  Red Sox manager Terry Francona followed up Papelbon’s quote with this:

We got one game knocked off.  I wish we would have gotten two, just because we like him pitching, but we’ll get it over with.  Take your medicine and get it over with.

Take your medicine?  The dosage was three-games and Papelbon only took two-games!!!!  Everyone is pretending that Papelbon is manning up and taking his punishment, but (1) it is much lighter than before, and (2) at this point he has not choice; he must take it.

~A no-game suspension? Hell yeah!~

Again, it is not about Papelbon so much — it could be him or San Francisco Giants’ closer Brian Wilson — but how ridiculous a two-game suspension is in baseball, especially for a pitcher.  That is was reduced from three-games is just as ridiculous.  Yes, I know that leagues will often throw out an initial number only to reduce it later.  This is done because the leagues, be it MLB or the NFL, know that an appeal is coming so they usually throw out a higher number in anticipation of the appeal; then they will get it to the number they may really want [i.e., the lower number].  Still, this suspension will hardly affect the Red Sox; hell they already won the first game of the two-game suspension and they did not even need a closer.

Allow me to use Papelbon as the example of why this suspension is virtually meaningless (and why appealing a three-game suspension is equally meaningless for a relief pitcher).

As noted above, most top-notch relieve pitchers get into less than half of his team’s games.  Thus the likelihood that Papelbon or any reliever would be called upon to pitch in three consecutive games is quite low.  So far this season, Papelbon has pitched in 28 games, but only done so in back-to-back days (i.e. no days rest) six times.*  He has only pitched three days in a row once this season.  However, he has only recorded three saves coming off of no days of rest, which interestingly enough came during the one time he pitched three days in a row.

But throughout his career, pitching on back-to-back days is not common.  Since becoming the Red Sox’s full-time closer in 2006, Papelbon has pitched on no days rest 78 times (including the postseason).  He has pitched three days in a row only 12 times in his career, with five of those occurring in 2006.  That means that he has only pitched on back-to-back days 21.5 percent of his 362 games, and back-to-back-to-back games 3.3 percent of the time.

It does not stop there as those are just appearance numbers.  As for saves on no rest, Papelbon has 56 saves in those situations, which is 15.5 percent of his appearances or 27.9 percent of his saves; a slight plurality of his saves comes off of one day’s rest.  He has only recorded back-to-back saves 35 times (or 70 saves, 34.8 percent), and closed games three days in a row 5 times (or 15 saves, 7.5 percent).  Additionally, four of those five three-in-a-row saves occurred in his first two seasons; that he had that situation occur this season is actually an anomaly.

So what does this mean?  Basically that a three-game suspension is virtually meaningless to a relief pitcher, especially a closer.  While playing on back-to-back days is not entirely uncommon for a player like Papelbon, it is not the norm either.  And coming into the game three consecutive days is extremely unlikely.  In other words, it was not likely that Papelbon was going to be called upon in all three games missed; or in the two games missed after the suspension reduction.  If it were still a three game suspension, he might have missed two games because Francona would more times than not go with someone else IF he had a save situation three games in a row.  With two games, certainly Papelbon’s role could be called upon in both games, but it is just as likely that a closer would be needed in only one of the two…and possibly in neither game.

Ergo, a two- or three-game suspension for a relief pitcher is usually in name only as it is unlikely that player would be called upon two or even three games in a row.  It is no different than MLB giving starting pitchers a five-game suspension knowing that they will only miss one start and therefore one game.  Given that a closer was not needed in last night’s game and that the one used in tonight’s game came from the Brewers’ dugout (Axford notched his 19th save), Papelbon’s initial three-game suspension is turning out to not be a suspension at all.

* – NOTE: this stat is only counting back-to-back days and therefore pitching on zero days of rest.  it is not necessarily back-to-back games and thus it is possible that Papelbon has more back-to-back saves than indicated here.

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2 thoughts on “Papel-conned!: Jonathan Papelbon and the Ridiculous Nature of MLB Suspensions

  1. Good article.
    I thought the whole call was bogus and, with emotions running high- can’t really blame Paps for reacting.
    But you’re right- the whole suspension act- does absolutely nothing.
    It was a joke in this case- but cause for immediate concern if it was something more serious. Because it would be handled the same way- appealed, not effective, etcetcetc,
    Silly, silly MLB

  2. i appreciate the read and the comment. the suspension itself was over-blown to begin with because, as you note, emotions were high and it really looked like Randazzo was antagonizing Papelbon. in the end, considering that the Red Sox did not need him, i guess it worked out in the end — he was “suspended,” but in essence missed zero games.

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