Since 2006--the first year Jonathan Papelbon became the closer for the Boston Red Sox--the reliever has never had fewer than 31 saves in a season. The 31 total came in 2011.
Since saving 41 games in 2008, the four-time all-star has been on an unsteady decline in production (38 in 2009, and 37 in 2010). To be fair, Papelbon did have fewer chances this year than he has ever had before--in fact, he had fewer chances than he's ever before had saves--but, he did blow three saves. Blown saves--another disturbing trend in Papelbon's short career. Over his Red Sox tenure, he had 219 saves in 249 attempts (248 since 2006). That's 29 blown saves in six seasons--an average of almost 5 blown saves per year.
Next season, the right-hander will close for the Phillies. Even if Brad Lidge does not return--as many expect he will--Papelbon will have limited save opportunities (we must remember that Lidge had a solid season last year, recording a 1.40 ERA and .225 batting average against in 25 appearances). Ryan Madson had just 34 chances to record a save last season. Based on his average of 5 blown saves per year, Papelbon will miss the 30 mark next season.
Some may argue that Papelbon managed 31 saves in spite of having the same number of opportunities last year. His worsening ERA must, however, be taken into account. In 2010, his ERA was a bloated 3.90. He brought it back down to a reasonable 2.94 in 2011, but this number is still the second highest of his career.
Papelbon's career has been similar to that of Kevin Gregg's 2010 season. He almost always gets the save--but he makes it exciting. It cannot be known whether or not NL opponents will be able to capitalize on this. Also, with Washington and Miami looking to bolster their lineups, Papelbon may have entered a division which will be filled with some of the most talented hitters in the game next year.
It will be difficult for the former Rex Sox closer to reach 30 saves next year. If he can perform as he did in the AL, the Phillies will be very happy with this pickup. But renewing ties with Brad Lidge may not be the worst idea for the NL East division winners of last season. If at any point next season Papelbon begins to struggle, it could be a long time before he finds the confidence to pitch at an all-star level again. At this point, he could well have already been replaced.
Jonathan Papelbon may have just experienced his last 30 save season.