Ryan Madson ABC: Always Be Closing

Ryan Madson is the third in a trinity of Phillies players on the receiving end of unjustified criticism in the greater Philadelphia area over the past two years. The other two, as you may have gathered if you read this blog with any regularity, are Cole Hamels and Jayson Werth. The pattern seems to be that the player has a breakout year and fails to live up to it in subsequent seasons. It wasn’t that long ago when Werth was contemplating the end of his career after a wrist injury, Hamels had an ERA approaching 6 at the end of July, and Madson could barely hang in the back of the starting rotation. Note that the low bar for all three was set in ’06 and the high bar was set in ’08.

Following their ’06 struggles, Werth became one of the rare five-tool players in the game, Hamels found his niche at the top of the Phillies’ starting rotation, and Madson developed into one of the most devastating relief pitchers around. If you’re patient with talent, eventually you will be rewarded.

During the second half of ’08, Madson added some zip to his fastball. The four-seam fastball crossed 95 MPH on 83 different occasions, all of them occurring in July or later. From April through June, his fastball averaged 91.4 MPH; from July through September, his fastball averaged 93.2 MPH. Madson also harnessed his control as his BB/9 went from 2.7 in the first half to 2.2 in the second half. Overall, he went from a pitcher with a 4.23 SIERA in ’07 to 3.62 in ’08. His ERA was 3.05 in both seasons, garnering him wide mainstream praise.

Madson’s improvement earned him a reward in January ’09 — a three-year, $12 million contract extension. There were no expectations for him to usurp Brad Lidge‘s throne as the closer, especially since Lidge was coming off of a dominant perfect season in terms of saves and the Phillies had just won a World Series. He was simply expected to pitch in the eighth inning as the “bridge to Lidge”.

Madson continued to excel, finishing ’09 with a 3.18 SIERA and 3.26 ERA. His strikeout rate continued to climb (7.3 to 9.1 K/9) and his walk rate was well below-average (2.6 BB/9). The fastball averaged 95 MPH and hit 97 or higher on 32 different occasions. The average velocity gap between his fastball and change-up was 12 MPH, causing hitters to swing and miss at the change 30% of the time.

While ’09 was a prosperous time for Madson, it was quite the opposite for Lidge. His strikeout rate dropped to a career low and his walk rate increased to a career high, causing him to blow an inordinate amount of save opportunities. Lidge finished the year with a 7.21 ERA and admitted after the season that he pitched while injured. He missed time between June 7-25 and Madson was asked to fill in as the closer. In those nine innings, Madson allowed five runs total (all in three consecutive appearances) while blowing two saves and earning two losses.

Despite the small sample size, Madson was deemed as mentally incapable of closing games. This reputation prevented Charlie Manuel from officially demoting Lidge, and it cost the Phillies several games down the stretch as well as Game 4 of the ’09 World Series — the only World Series game in which Lidge appeared. Madson, meanwhile, compiled a 3.48 ERA in 10 and one-third post-season innings despite a ridiculous .467 BABIP.

Lidge had surgery in the off-season and missed the first month of the ’10 season. Madson, of course, was asked to fill in again, and again he struggled. In nine innings of work, Madson blew two saves and allowed seven runs. This was yet more evidence that Madson didn’t have a “closer’s mentality” although the reason for his struggles was more likely due to a .407 BABIP.

Madson bathed himself in gasoline and tossed himself into his own fire when he broke his toe kicking a folding chair in frustration after another poor outing in San Francisco. He missed six weeks and was fortunate that Jose Contreras filled in admirably. It was the cherry on top of what seemed to be an ice cream mountain of evidence for Phillies fans that Madson was mentally weak and incapable of handling any kind of pressure.

Since coming off of the DL on July 8, Madson has a 27-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.93 ERA in 18 and two-thirds innings. His SIERA is ninth-best in baseball at 2.19. ¬†Although Lidge has been better lately, he is simply not reliable. If and when Lidge falters, Manuel needs to be quick in assigning Lidge’s higher-leverage innings to Madson. Unlike last year, the Phillies don’t have a division lead cushion on which to sit. They are currently two games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL East lead and tied with the San Francisco Giants for the Wild Card lead. At the same point last year, the Phillies were up 4.5 games in the division.

Madson strikes out as many batters as Lidge; Lidge walks batters at nearly two and a half times the rate of Madson.

Madson still has a fastball that hits the high-90’s; Lidge didn’t hit 90 once in his appearance last night against the New York Mets.

Madson’s bread-and-butter pitch (change-up) induces swings-and-misses a whopping 42% of the time; Lidge’s (slider) only 17%. Overall, Madson induces 6.5% more whiffs.

Madson is a ground ball machine (50%); Lidge is not (37%).

There is no reason not to make a change, even now. Lidge has an average leverage index of 2.3 on the season while Madson owns a 1.7 mark. Those higher leverage innings should belong to Madson. The Phillies know from experience how close the playoff races get, having won the division on the last day in ’07 and on the last weekend in ’08. Making a change now can pay off exponentially later.

We saw Lidge’s performance in Game 4 of the World Series coming way back in June last year. Yet Manuel allowed it to happen anyway.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana