Madson’s Evolution Gives Phillies Tough Decision

The following article was written with the intention of being published in the Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011. Unfortunately, it was cut for space reasons, so I am happy to re-publish it here, where you can read it free of charge.

Closers get all the glory. They are on the mound for the last out of a clinching game whether at the end of the regular season or in the post-season, ensuring their likenesses are plastered on the back pages of newspapers everywhere. The “save” statistic was created to measure, specifically, their success. Perhaps most importantly, closers are compensated significantly better than their bullpen compatriots.

In 2008, the Phillies may as well have had no one else in the bullpen behind Brad Lidge. The right-hander finished the season without a single blown save in 41 opportunities, a feat accomplished by one other pitcher in baseball history: Eric Gagne in 2003. His perfection carried into the post-season as he converted all seven of his save opportunities, helping the Phillies earn their first World Series championship since 1980.

The image of Lidge dropping to his knees, waiting to embrace catcher Carlos Ruiz will never be forgotten by Phillies fans for the rest of their lives. Ah, the perks of being a closer.

None of which means there aren’t other relievers who deserve accolades of their own. For the Phillies, the unsung hero in the bullpen has been – and will probably continue to be – Ryan Madson.

When Madson failed as a starter, the Phillies moved him to the bullpen in August 2006. Used mostly as a long reliever, he was as ineffective in the bullpen as he was in the rotation. Madson improved in ’07 but went on the disabled list at the end of July with a shoulder strain, ending his season.

He was ready to start the ’08 season on time and surprised a lot of people with how effective he was out of the ‘pen. Madson did not have awe-inspiring stuff — just a fastball that sat in the low 90’s and a change-up in the low 80’s. As Madson regained strength in his shoulder during the 2008 season, his average fastball velocity rose dramatically. In order, April through September, the average MPH of his fastballs were: 90.9, 91.5, 92.9, 93.1, 93.1 and 94.2. He threw his fastball 95 MPH or higher 23 times April through July, but 56 times in August and September.

Adding velocity made Madson’s fastball tougher to hit, but also made his change-up better. The average velocity differential between the two pitches went from 10 MPH in ’07 to 12 MPH in ’08. His strikeout rate skyrocketed as a result. The right-hander averaged 0.75 strikeouts per inning pitched in the first four months; then 0.93 in August and September. Madson finished ’08 with a 3.05 ERA, averaging 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 82 2/3 innings.

In the shadow of Lidge’s perfect season, Madson’s growth went mostly unnoticed. In fact, Madson was so under-appreciated that super-agent Scott Boras — known for his cunning ability to extract every last penny from Major League general managers — could only work out a three-year, $12 million contract, signed in January ’09 to avoid arbitration.

In relative obscurity, Madson continued to grow throughout the ’09 season. Meanwhile, it was a disastrous year for Lidge, who battled injuries and an inability to throw his slider for strikes. Madson, on the other hand, was nearly immaculate. He tossed a 1-2-3 inning 21 times out of 71 appearances in which he faced at least three batters, finished the season with a 3.26 ERA, and averaged better than a strikeout per inning.

Yet somehow, Madson came under fire. Lidge’s nightmare season forced Charlie Manuel to use Madson in the ninth inning for about a week in September. Madson got the job done, converting four saves in five opportunities. However, he allowed runs on consecutive days to the rival New York Mets: one run on September 11 with a three-run cushion, and (more alarmingly) two on the 12th with a one-run lead. Viewed as mentally incapable of handling the ninth inning, Madson returned to his eighth inning duties.

Although he took yet another stride as a reliever in 2010, an incident following a blown save on April 28 — his second blown save in eight days — in San Francisco cemented his reputation as a mentally weak reliever. Madson kicked a metal folding chair in frustration, breaking his big toe and sidelining him through July 7.

Madson rebounded from that tantrum. He averaged nearly 11 strikeouts and just over two walks per nine innings. His 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was eighth-best in the Majors, joining Doug Jones (1994) as the only Phillies relievers with a 4.9 or greater K/BB ratio. Madson’s 2010 season is arguably among the best ever by a Phillies reliever.

Since the start of the 2009 regular season, Madson’s change-up has been among baseball’s best, ranking in the 96th or better percentile in batting average, on-base percentage, weighted on-base average (wOBA), strikeout rate, and contact rate. The following chart compares the change-ups of Madson and noted change-up guru Felix Hernandez over the past two seasons.

Change-up Percentile, MLB
Madson Hernandez
AVG 97 93
OBP 98 96
SLG 90 96
wOBA 96 97
K% 99 97
Contact% 99 88

Impressively, Madson pitches better when the spotlight is on him. In high leverage situations, he held opposing hitters to a .667 OPS, about 170 points lower than the OPS allowed to hitters in medium leverage situations. More importantly, Madson’s post-season dominance has been a key to the Phillies’ success. Since 2008 — his first taste of the playoffs — he has a 2.35 ERA and 3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in over 30 innings of work.

Still, Madson plays second fiddle, even as the Phillies prepare for a relatively large turnover in the bullpen. Lidge will continue to throw the glory innings and Madson will throw the thankless innings.

The reality is that Madson, in the eighth, tends to face the heavy-hitters. In 2010, the opposing 3-6 hitters in the batting order accounted for 48 percent of all batters faced by Madson while the bottom of the order accounted for 25 percent. Lidge faced the 3-6 hitters 39 percent of the time and the 7-9 hitters 36 percent.

The contracts of Madson and Lidge both expire after the 2011 season. Most likely, the Phillies will be choosing between the two. Lidge has a $12.5 million club option for 2012. If GM Ruben Amaro is wise, he will ensure that Madson is in Phillies red for at least the next few seasons. For the first time, the Phillies will be forced to acknowledge Madson’s greatness and they should, finally, reward him.