Ryan Madson and the Arm That Was
Former Phillies reliever Ryan Madson is a free agent, a nearly forgotten man who has missed the entirety of the past two seasons, owing to some obviously serious elbow issues. That kind of time away from the game can dull memories of what once was and, in Madson’s case, that’s a special shame.
Madson was never a high-profile reliever. He became somewhat well-known as his production continued to improve after his conversion to full-time relieving in the second half of the 2006 season. From 2007-11, and especially from 2009-11, Madson made his way up the subjective ranks of relievers to borderline elite, striking out 314 against 75 unintentional walks in 329.2 IP. He was never comfortably embraced as such by Phillies fans en masse because of a low save conversion rate from 2009-10 (11 blown saves in 68 save situations, although five of said blown saves came before the ninth inning), but that small bit of bad timing hid the bigger picture of just how effective Mad Dog was on the whole.
I’ll choose to focus on Madson at his best, from 2008-11, which happily coincides with his most recent stretch of pitching. A four-year stretch of excellence is uncommon among most relievers, as a couple of unkind ball bounces can trash the ERA of a guy who doesn’t pitch the amount necessary to dilute the damage quickly.
Consider Madson’s worst individual season stats during that time: 3.26 ERA, 7 HR in 77.1 IP (0.8 per 9), 2.6 BB/9, 7.3 K/9, 2.91 K/BB. Even if those numbers were his total combined production for four years, he’d have been worth the $13.4 million – or just $400 thousand more than Jonathan Papelbon in 2013 – he was paid.
But Madson was much more than that, and his actual combined numbers from 2008-11 bear that out (with rankings among all pitchers who relieved in 80-plus percent of their appearances, 150 IP minimum for rate stats, in which 146 pitchers qualified).
- 273.2 IP (15th)
- 2.86 ERA (24th)
- 3.66 K/BB (14th)
- .639 OPS against (35th)
TruMedia’s data goes back to 2009, and among pitchers with 100-plus IP from 2009-11 (402 pitchers total, SP included), Madson looks just as excellent in some of their advanced stats.
- 26.1 K% (t-32nd; average 18.5%)
- 30.3 Whiff% (10th; average 20.6%)
- .269 wOBA against (t-30th; average .314)
Now, there’s no telling how Madson will perform after surgeries and time away from competitive throwing, but initial reports were positive, at least. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick said Madson’s fastball hit 93 MPH in a showcase environment, an encouraging development. Madson’s main weapon was always his changeup, which was among the very best in the league, rated at 31.8 runs above average from 2008-11, according to Fangraphs. That rated 8th-best among all pitchers with 100-plus IP in that timeframe, and the best of any reliever. With a good fastball to play off of, Madson and his change could very realistically be a weapon in 2014.
Clouding those prospects, obviously, is the riskiness of Madson’s health. The fact that he’ll turn 34 later this summer doesn’t necessarily turn most of those flags from red to green, either, but if the past is any indication and the present turns from mirage to reality, Ryan Madson could realistically be a relief ace all over again.