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.

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33 comments

  1. Brian

    March 02, 2011 10:32 AM

    I don’t really see this as a tough decision. I can’t see them picking up a $12.5M option for Lidge, especially when they can sign the younger Madson for a couple years at less per season (at least in the short term).

    The most interesting thing about this post was that opposing 3-6 hitters came up more frequently last year in the 8th inning rather than the 9th inning. Makes you wonder why managers continue to save their “best” reliever for the 9th inning, when the optimal strategy could sometimes dictate using them in the 8th inning instead.

  2. Mike B.

    March 02, 2011 10:35 AM

    Agree 100%. IMO as between Madson and Lidge, it’s not even close. And I like Lidge. But Madson is (literally and figuratively) head and shoulders above the other guys in that ‘pen.

  3. Chris G

    March 02, 2011 10:50 AM

    I completely agree but I look at Game 6 of the NLCS and he gave up that homer and I look at Game 5 of the 2008 World Series and he gave up the last run there too. It just sticks out in my head

  4. SABR

    March 02, 2011 11:04 AM

    Mariano Rivera blew the game for the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks. Just sticks out in my head. #selectivememorybias

  5. Jorge Suarez

    March 02, 2011 11:15 AM

    I say that they should let Lidge AND Madson go, and sign Alfonso Sroiano to be their closer when he hops out of the Yankees contract

  6. Phylan

    March 02, 2011 11:22 AM

    I completely agree but I look at Game 6 of the NLCS and he gave up that homer and I look at Game 5 of the 2008 World Series and he gave up the last run there too. It just sticks out in my head

    . . . and?

  7. Dave

    March 02, 2011 12:17 PM

    “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.”

    Wow. Doug Jones, huh? His off-speed stuff must’ve been dancing that year.

    I think re-signing Mad Dog and letting Lidge walk is an obvious decision. Ryan has much better control. Ideally, I want my closer (or best reliever anyway) to throw hard and have good control. Let the chips fall where they may after that.

    Madson fits the bill.

  8. FanSince09

    March 02, 2011 01:16 PM

    Should kept Myers and tried him as a closer. I don’t know why they never tried that while he was here.

  9. Pat

    March 02, 2011 01:19 PM

    You don’t understand about the closer’s spot. Having played semi-pro ball for five months in the late-90s, it’s all that separates the guys who win from the guys who lose. If Madson can’t hack it, they can re-sign Durbin.

  10. Jay B

    March 02, 2011 02:12 PM

    Phils should definitely keep Madson in red pinstripes going forward.

    With so much potential for turnover in the bullpen after this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Lidge and Madson stick around though.

  11. Scott G

    March 02, 2011 03:42 PM

    It seems like everyone on this site (so far anyway) thinks Madson should be the closer. However, are we sure that the Phillies see him as one? Are we positive they don’t question his “mental make-up” like the ridiculous fans and media?

    I mean the Phillies did give Howard $25 mil, and only offered Werth $15 mil to be a better hitter, better defender, better base runner, and play a more important/difficult position.

  12. Moose

    March 02, 2011 04:57 PM

    Scott G,

    I, too, question the Phillies’ judgement at times. Quite often actually. But for the really dumb things they do (Howard’s extension, signing Ibanez, Polanco, and Baez) they go and do some pretty good things (Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, Lee). It’s maddening how mad and happy they simultaneously make me.

  13. Scott G

    March 02, 2011 05:38 PM

    Well the Lee (x2), Halladay, and Oswalt moves were no brainers. All Phillies fans would have jumped for those deals. Many fans think Madson wouldn’t make a good closer, so maybe the FO thinks the same way.

    The casual fan thinks Howard is a premier hitter (140+ RBIs!!!!), Ibanez is better than Burrell (debatable, but age gave Burrell the edge IMO), Polanco is one of the greatest contact hitters in history, and I guess they just messed up on Baez.

  14. zfg

    March 02, 2011 08:01 PM

    @Scott G

    According to to fangraphs, Polanco put up 3.7 WAR last year while being paid ~$6M. I agree with you that the deals the Phillies gave Howard, Ibanez and Beaz weren’t good, but I can’t really knock them for Polly.

  15. Scott G

    March 02, 2011 08:13 PM

    weird. baseball-reference has Polly at 1.8 WAR. Idk, I’m just not a big fan of his bat. He hits .300, but his OBP is pretty bad considering he his AVG.

  16. J

    March 02, 2011 08:48 PM

    @Jorge, Alfonso Soriano is a closer? lmao

  17. awh

    March 03, 2011 12:34 AM

    Sign him. Period.

  18. hk

    March 03, 2011 07:09 AM

    Scott G,

    The difference between the Fangraphs and B-R versions of WAR is how they each rate Polanco’s defense. Personally, I prefer a 3B with a wOBA higer than .323, so I’ll side with the “Polanco was not a good signing” crowd.

  19. Richard

    March 03, 2011 08:54 AM

    I too prefer a 3B with a higher wOBA, but there weren’t really too many options last offseason. Obviously Beltre would have been the ideal choice, but didn’t he turn down an offer from the Phillies? I call Polanco’s offense overrated, his defense excellent. The signing is acceptable.

  20. zfg

    March 03, 2011 10:34 AM

    Yeah, I guess the crux of what I was trying to say isn’t that I think Polanco’s a particularly great hitter, but that for 3 years/$18M he’s providing a pretty solid value.

  21. Matty B.

    March 03, 2011 11:17 AM

    Dumb. EVERYONE KNOWS Madson can’t close!!

  22. Larry M

    March 03, 2011 11:34 AM

    What the Phillies WILL do I have no idea.

    What they SHOULD do is neither of the above. Madson is simply going to be way too expensive to keep. I’m not a Boras hater, and I don’t blame players who want to maximize their earnings & refuse to give a home town discount. But hiring Boras is a sign that Madson is going to demand a market rate contract. And the market for closers (and SOMEONE will pay him to close) at this point is crazy.

    The rational response is to either have a cost controlled player close, or take a chance with converting a relatively cheap failed starter to closer. Or even going with a closer by committee approach. Are those risky strategyies? Yes. But they would need to pay Madson AT LEAST 30/3, more likely 50/4, maybe even more, which IMO is way too much.

    If they can somehow sign Madson for (say) 18/2, or thereabouts, it’s still “overpaying” on a stricting WAR basis, but I’d do that given the mareket. But that kind of contract isn’t goign to happen.

  23. Larry M

    March 03, 2011 11:36 AM

    Polanco was worth his contract last year even at the lower WAR number. The problem with the contract was year 3, and maybe year 2. I would have been very happy if he had been signed for 2 years at the same yearly price, but 3 years was one year too many.

  24. hk

    March 03, 2011 12:41 PM

    I agree with Larry M’s comments about Polanco and the expected decline this year and next. Unfortunately, I also fear that Larry M may be right about Madson.

  25. Brett

    March 03, 2011 01:24 PM

    A choice between Lidge and Madson is no choice at all. It is a no-brainer than you bring back Madson. Lidge will command too much money for what he gives you. Madson may not be a great closer, but he is a great set-up man. Having a guy like Madson means that you only need to get 7 innings out of your starter instead of 8, which matters a lot over the course of a season. The Phils will be able to find Lidge’s replacement easier than they will Madson’s.

  26. CCD

    March 03, 2011 02:19 PM

    He should remain the best setup man in baseball. He isn’t a closer….yet!

  27. Matt

    March 03, 2011 04:05 PM

    I love Madson in the 8th inning. I don’t know how comfortable I am having him in the 9th. However, the Phillies absolutely need to keep him (and if I were them, I’d go after Heath Bell at the end of the season). I’d probably pay something close to what Benoit got. Contreras, Madson, Bell. That would be scary.

  28. Matt

    March 03, 2011 04:05 PM

    “I’d probably pay something close to what Benoit got.” -referring to Madson

  29. Moose

    March 03, 2011 05:32 PM

    The thing with Polanco, as been said many times before, they paid too much money for too many years. There were no indications other teams were going hard after him, so 3 years was excessive. And again, because no team was craving him, 6 mil/year was/is also excessive, regardless of how defensively widardly he may be viewed

  30. Moose

    March 03, 2011 05:35 PM

    Also, I too fear Madson will be asking for a lot. But I’m holding out hope that he may realize how great this team is and be willing to take a discount. And then hopefully the Phillies won’t be retarded and finally put him in the closers role where he belongs

  31. Steve

    March 07, 2011 09:57 AM

    This is being lazy on my part, but has anyone heard of the Phillies working on an extension for Madson before the season starts? I think its clear we’re going to see another fine season from him. It might be wise of the Phillies to explore an extension for him now before another season puts him our of their price range.

    Also, did someone really write Alfonso Soriano in reference to the Yanks new set-up man? I love some baseball fans.

  32. Tyler

    March 08, 2011 10:57 AM

    Just a quick question this article made me think about. In respect to the stats that show that Madson, as a setup man, will face a teams 3-4-5 hitters at a higher percentage, in this season is it in the phillies best interest to keep him at setup man? That way he generally faces the better hitters, and as setup man all year, that might lessen his value to other teams, giving the Phillies a better chance to resign him? If he is elevated to closer, and succeeds, that will make him more attractive to other teams, raising his value, but decreasing his value this year to the Phillies, since he won’t be facing the better hitters.

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