On Ryan Madson: Relax

Phillies fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Internet message boards were infuriated last night when Ryan Madson blew a three-run lead and as sure a victory as the Phillies are going to get this year. The disappointment was justified as the Phillies had a 98.7% chance of winning the game with two outs and a runner on first base in the ninth inning. Even when Troy Glaus hit the two-run home run, the Phils were 95.9% favorites.

Madson’s latest outing coupled with previous struggles in the ninth inning has led many to conclude that he is unfit psychologically to handle the responsibilities of closing out games. Really, it is no different than the criticisms of Cole Hamels being a sissy or mentally weak or what have you. It’s armchair psychoanalysis, as I like to call it.

And it’s bunk science based on small sample sizes, confirmation biases, and misinterpretation of data.

Here’s how it happened:

  • Ryan Madson quietly performed his job well last year, but prominently struggled in several notable games which stuck in the memories of many Phillies fans. Phillies fans suspect that Madson may be unfit to be a closer.
  • Madson succeeds as a closer several more times. Phillies fans don’t pay any mind because there are more interesting things to pay attention to and because most relievers, even bad ones, will convert saves every now and then.
  • Madson fails to convert a save opportunity. Coupled with Phillies fans’ previous view of Madson, this only reinforces their belief and serves as evidence.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you have been reading this blog with any regularity, you have heard me harp about small sample sizes over and over again. With a limited amount of data, we can draw almost zero conclusions with any confidence. If you’re trying to figure out if a coin may be rigged, you do not flip it twice and call it rigged if you get two heads or two tails. You flip it many times — 50  or 100 times if not more. The odds of getting peculiar results with a fair coin become much, much smaller with more trials.

The same thing applies to baseball statistics. In seven appearances, the odds of allowing two home runs with five fly balls is a lot higher than allowing 14 home runs in 35 fly balls in 49 appearances. Ryan Madson has, thus far in 2010, allowed two home runs with five induced fly balls. We know that pitchers do not have control over their home run rate aside from their ability to induce fly balls in general. A pitcher’s HR/FB% will normally hover around 10% so Madson’s 40% really sticks out.

Similarly, we know that pitchers have very little control over batted balls put in play. A pitcher’s BABIP will tend to hover around .300 and actually several points lower for relief pitchers. Ryan Madson’s current BABIP is .405. The odds of 40.5% of 22 batted balls falling in for hits is a lot higher than 40.5% of 220 batted balls.

The other statistical principle we know to be true is regression to the mean. Ryan Madson may have had 40% of his fly balls hit for home runs but that will not hold true for an entire season. Of the remaining 65-ish fly balls that Madson will likely allow over the rest of the season, 10% of them will likely be home runs.

With a little bit of logic and knowledge of statistics, we are able to write off Madson’s poor start to the 2010 season as aberrant. That should be enough for most rational people, but there will still be some out there who, upon reading this, will still claim that Madson doesn’t have the mental toughness to pitch in the ninth inning. Take a gander at Ryan Madson last year:

  • 8th inning: 48.1 IP, 47 K, 15 BB, 3.54 ERA (3.20 xFIP)
  • 9th inning: 23.1 IP, 27 K, 6 BB, 3.47 ERA (2.91 xFIP)

Ryan Madson is a relief pitcher who strikes out a lot of hitters, walks very few, and induces a lot of ground balls. I will take that pitcher every day and twice on Sunday. And so should you.

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  1. Michael

    April 21, 2010 08:14 AM

    Hey Bill,

    According to my MLB At Bat app, the pitch that resulted in Glaus’ hr was a low 80s slider. Being as that’s probably too slow to be a cutter, and Fangraphs pitch type data shows Madson hasn’t thrown a slider since 08, but has thrown a few curves this year, it seems safe to say that was a weak curve by Madson. Are you at all concerned about him (re)adding this pitch to his repetioire? It strikes me as superfluous to his already plus FB plus cu combo, especially since he’s only a reliever. Thanks for another good read.

  2. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 08:18 AM


    I’m always in favor of a pitcher adding another wrinkle to his pitch repertoire as it makes it harder to guess what’s coming.

    However, the Glaus home run came off of a 95 MPH fastball. Heyward’s home run was hit on an 83 MPH change-up.

  3. Michael

    April 21, 2010 08:18 AM

    CU=changeup, not cutter. Sorry I’m on my iPhone!

  4. Michael

    April 21, 2010 08:34 AM

    Huh. Well, I’ll take your word on it. “The Comcast Network” mysteriously doesn’t come in on a lot of TV sets, even in the same house where it does on another and after reprograming the chanels, so I was stuck watching the Flyers exclusively with my At Bat app open on the table. My mistake.

    Anyway, I understand the need to keep hitters off balance, and most importantly, to keep them swinging and missing, but I guess my intuition is that Madson was already doing a good job at that (and still is) and that adding a junk pitch will actually make him less effective because some of his would be above average pitches (FBs and CUs) will now be below average pitches (whatever sort of breaking ball or breaking balls the 7+% curveball and 15+% XX is). But it’s too early to call his breaking balls junk, especially when I incorrectly recalled the graphical reanactment of last night’s game on my phone.

  5. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 08:41 AM

    Well, in baseball, you’re constantly adjusting. Hitters will continue to adapt to Madson’s pitch selection. If he stays stagnant, he becomes easy to predict.

    Baseball is comprised of many individual applications of game theory. The player that adapts best (or gets the luckiest) succeeds.

    By adding another pitch, even one that may not necessarily be a good pitch, Madson is sacrificing some short-term gain for expected future success.

  6. Richard

    April 21, 2010 08:51 AM

    I agree with your basic point about Madson. My concern has to do with bullpen usage. Here is a question for you: was Kendrick laboring in the 8th inning? I know he’d thrown 108 pitches, but we should know by now that it’s not pitch count, per se, that matters, but pitches thrown while tired. Since I couldn’t see the game, I have no way of knowing whether he was laboring. If he wasn’t, why not just leave him in the game? And was Madson the best match-up for the batters coming up? The default go-to-closer philosophy drives me nuts.

  7. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 08:56 AM

    Going into the game, Brian McCann, Martin Prado, and Matt Diaz had hit a couple doubles off of him and only Chipper Jones had taken him deep.

    Kyle was laboring in the sixth and seventh innings. He was leaving the ball up which is why he induced three fly outs in the sixth and two fly outs in the seventh. However, he got back to grounders in the eighth but dealt with long at-bats by Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz.

  8. Mark

    April 21, 2010 09:09 AM

    2009 10 saves 6 blown saves
    career 18 saves 20 blown saves

  9. Mark

    April 21, 2010 09:46 AM

    I’ll give you saves, but blown saves exhibit a certain degree of ineptitude in “blowing” a game that you say they had an over 95% chance to win. More often than not Madson will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

  10. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 09:47 AM

    More often than not Madson will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

    Patently false. Did you not see the statistics above?

    8th inning: 48.1 IP, 47 K, 15 BB, 3.54 ERA (3.20 xFIP)
    9th inning: 23.1 IP, 27 K, 6 BB, 3.47 ERA (2.91 xFIP)

    (Again, it’s a small sample of innings. None of us can say anything definitively about Madson’s ability to close games. However, the “Madson can’t” camp is given the burden of proof since they are making the positive claim. The null hypothesis is that Madson’s performance doesn’t vary by situation.)

  11. David

    April 21, 2010 09:49 AM

    I admit. I was steaming over last night’s loss a bit. (As an aside, I made it to April 20th before cursing out loud. In prior seasons, my living room tantrum has occurred much sooner).

    But really, what else can Phillies fans say other than, “Dang. That sucks.” We got eight shutout innings from Kendrick, a fringe starter. It was easy decision. You give the ball to your best reliever and Madson is, without question, our best reliever.

    Two further points:

    1) The “Madson doesn’t have the closer mentality” train will only gain steam until Ryan can nail done a few in a row. Unfortunate, but true.

    2) Has Madson lost a tick or two on his fastball? Correct me if I’m wrong (and Bill, you may be able to answer this), but I remember Ryan throwing 97-98 in the ’08 playoffs, but last postseason, and early on this year, he seems to be topping out at 94 or so. Again, this could a product of my lousy memory or just early season rust.

    On the brighter side, we have Roy going tonight.

    A question for Bill and everyone else:

    Would you have gone with Bastardo against Heyward? The splits (sample size, sample size, I know) for the Boy Wonder are pretty drastic early on.

    Thanks for your time.

  12. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 09:56 AM


    Madson’s pitches are ever so slightly averaging less velocity than last year, but I would attribute it to the small sample size more than anything.

    He averaged 95 MPH even on his four-seamer last year and just 94.5 MPH so far in 2010.

    Would you have gone with Bastardo against Heyward?

    Since Bastardo was warming up and Madson was showing a lack of control with his walk of Chipper Jones and cookie to Troy Glaus, I would have made the switch but I may be biased since I have retrospect.

    I invite anyone else to add their own answer to that. I’d be interested to see how many would or would not make a swap there.

  13. Mediocre Madson

    April 21, 2010 12:05 PM

    As a Braves fan it warms my heart that you have no qualms about Madson in the 9th. More wins for us!

  14. Cosmo

    April 21, 2010 12:52 PM

    As a Phillies fan, I find it amusing that a Braves fan would decide to troll a Phillies blog for the 22 hours his team has a share of first place. I hope you savor it.

  15. Luke

    April 21, 2010 03:28 PM

    First off, I hate that all managers still subscribe to the notion that a team needs a “closer” as opposed to playing the matchups and treating the 9th inning like any other. It’s a dumb invention of Tony LaRussa’s that everyone mindlessly follows. But, regardless, it’s made pitchers mentally aware of their role and situation, I suppose.

    You’re right about the peripherals of Madson but it’s not a small sample size when you consider he’s blown 20 saves in his career already and only converted 18 saves. That’s a fairly decent sample size of 38 save opportunities.

  16. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 03:31 PM


    That is not a decent sample size when you consider this:

    2003: 1 appearance, not a save situation

    2004: Pitch in a save situation in the 9th 1 time, converted. Blew 1 save while pitching in the 8th inning

    2005: Blew 7 saves. By inning of appearance: 7th, 8th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 6th. 0 save opportunities in the 9th inning

    2006: Pitched mostly as a starter. 2 saves, 2 blown, 2 save opportunities in the 9th inning, recored both saves. Two blown saves by inning: 6th, 7th

    2007: Recorded 1 save by pitching the final 3 innings in an 8-4 victory. 1 blown save came, in the 8th inning

    2008: 1 save opportunity converted in the 9th. Two blown saves by inning: 7th, 8th

    2009: 14 save ops in 9th inning, 10 converted, 4 blown. Two blown saves in 8th inning

    2010: 3 saves in 4 9th inning save ops, 1 blown

    Total saves/opportunitiess as closer in 9th: 17/22
    Mop-up saves (3+ IP in blowout): 1

    Total blown saves as non-closer: 15

  17. Luke

    April 21, 2010 03:39 PM

    Fair enough; you make a solid point. It is tough because a lot of it is matter of perception because of the Lidge mess from last year. So, it’s an involuntary reflex for fans to freak out.

    However, I stand by my comment that closers are a useless manufactured idea and I wish there was ONE manager who just managed his bullpen without constantly designating the 9th inning to one guy only, no matter what happens.

  18. Bill Baer

    April 21, 2010 03:43 PM

    I agree about the closer being a poor fabrication. Just use your best reliever in higher-leverage situations.

    *wipes hands* Job done.

  19. Jamie

    April 22, 2010 10:18 AM

    Bill, why are you using 8th and 9th inning stats when you should be using Leverage stats.

    so far in his only real year of getting high leverage innings he’s been awful.

    but like you said, with any relief pitcher there is going to be sample issues. but a relief pitcher doesn’t have the luck that a starter has of getting enough innings of ‘correcting’ his small sample errors.

  20. Nick

    April 22, 2010 01:24 PM


    Sorry but your talking about confirmation biases and statistics. How about this for stats:

    Career saves to date: 18
    Career blown saves: 20

    Imagine it is game 7 of the World Series against the yankees in 2010. Doc pitches you into the 9th with 130 pitches. Phillies up 1-0 bottom of the 9th in NY. You have Jeter, Nick Johnson, Teixiera coming to bat. Your comfortable with Madson in this situation?

    Regarding your ludicrous use of stats. If your pulling the stat card regarding sample size I’m sure your well aware that stats can be manipulated to prove anything under the sun.

    Stats are a stupid way to look at a closer. You either get the job done or you don’t. Plain and simple. The only stat I need to look at to make that decision is 47% career save rate. You need a big time pitcher who can deliver in the big situations. Madson is not one of them.

  21. kmart

    April 22, 2010 02:18 PM

    Nick, did you not read Bill’s previous comment where he shows that Madson is 17/22 in 9th inning save situations? Seriously, please read everything before you call someone out.

  22. Phylan

    August 02, 2010 01:38 PM

    Stats can be made to say anything! Stats are a stupid way to analyze a closer!

    *cites the worst possible stat as proof ad nauseum*

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