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Much Ado About Madson

He’s never going to approach the visibility or earning power of teammates and fellow homegrown products Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels. It’s pretty unlikely anybody will ever seriously debate his Hall of Fame credentials. But Ryan Madson might have as much to do with the Phillies’ sustained success over the last four seasons as anyone outside that quartet of stars. Avoiding both the dizzying highs and crippling lows of bullpen-mates Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero, Madson has become one of baseball’s rarest creatures: a consistently excellent relief pitcher.

To assert that this seemed unlikely three-plus years into his big-league career would be a serious understatement. As TGP noted in early 2007, Madson seemed to be on a sharp downward trajectory after a great (if somewhat lucky) rookie season in 2004: strikeouts slightly down, walks and homers way up. At 26 years old, it was reasonable to believe that what we saw was what we’d get going forward, and he was getting expensive for a low-leverage reliever, earning more in ’07 ($1.1 million) than he’d made in his first three seasons combined. At that point, there wasn’t much to differentiate Madson from teammate and fellow 1998 draftee Geoff Geary.

Then something pretty unlikely happened: after two and a half middling months to start 2007, Madson was almost untouchable through his last 15 appearances that season, putting up a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings and allowing no runs over his eight outings (12.1 IP). Unfortunately, he suffered a right shoulder strain in late July that didn’t heal until October, relegating him to the sidelines as the Phillies staged their implausible rally past the Mets for the NL East title and their first playoff berth in 14 years. Still, Madson’s 3.05 ERA was his best mark since 2004.

He matched that ERA in 2008, but did it over the full season—and turned in his best work when it mattered most: over his last 27 appearances of the regular season, Madson held opposing hitters to a cumulative .248/.267/.327 line, striking out 25 against three walks in 26.1 innings with an ERA barely over 2. A fastball that had sat in the low 90s for most of his career to this point suddenly was popping the gun at 95-98 miles per hour, rendering his signature changeup that much more effective. Madson combined with Romero and Lidge to shorten games for the Phils down the stretch and through their World Series win over the Rays, during which he appeared in four games and struck out six hitters in 3.2 innings.

Though Madson was similarly effective in 2009, much of his good work was overshadowed by his struggles in save situations: he ultimately notched 10 saves, but blew six more. With Lidge suffering through arguably the worst full season ever turned in by a closer, Madson had multiple shots to seize the job but never quite managed to do so. Interestingly, Madson’s overall numbers in the 9th inning weren’t appreciably different than what he did in the 8th

 

G

IP

Opp Avg/OBP/SLG

K/BB

HR

ERA

WHIP

8th inning

53

48.1

.257/.318/.339

3.13

2

3.54

1.28

9th inning

26

23.1

.267/.313/.467

4.5

5

3.47

1.29

Give up a couple home runs in the last inning and everybody gets their panties bunched. Go figure…

Which brings us to 2010, when Madson went from temperamental goof to the new Tug McGraw seemingly faster than one could say, "lost a fight with a metal chair." In late April, at the time of that unfortunate and unnecessary injury—precipitated by another high-profile failure to save a game in San Francisco that the Phils ultimately won in 11 innings—Madson had a 7.00 ERA and had been scored upon in four of his nine appearances. After missing two months, he came back and was pretty good in July: 11 games, 10. 1 IP, 8 hits, 4 runs, 12 strikeouts, a 3.48 ERA.

Then August began, and Madson went out of his mind. Over the Phillies’ last 40 games, he’s appeared in 26 of them, and has allowed earned runs in exactly one (the infamous Michael Bourn out-of-the-baseline game against the Astros on Aug. 23). It’s possible that Charlie Manuel has ridden his best reliever so hard because Madson’s injury ensured he won’t approach his usual full-year workload pretty much no matter what; more likely, it’s that he’s been friggin’ awesome. Madson’s overall line over this stretch: 26 innings, 15 hits, 6 walks, 34 strikeouts, an 0.69 ERA and a composite opponents’ batting line of .165/.232/.187.

Think the McGraw comparison is excessive? Here’s what the Tugger did over the exact same stretch of dates (Aug. 1- Sept. 11) for the Phils in 1980: 16 games, 23.1 innings, 16 hits, 7 walks, 16 strikeouts, 1.16 ERA, .190/.266/.298 composite batting line against.

Of course, McGraw worked 11 more games over the last three weeks of that season, and didn’t allow a single earned run over 20.1 innings. (He was pretty good in the playoffs too.) Madson still has that in front of him, though if Lidge’s elbow woes are as minor as the team now claims, that should ease the pressure.

Why has Madson been better in 2010 than even his very solid 2007-2009 work? Some answers suggest themselves. His average fastball velocity is down slightly from its 2009 high of 95 miles per hour, though still plenty good enough at 93.8. But he’s also relying upon it less, throwing the pitch 50.5 percent of the time in 2010 compared to almost 62 percent last season. In its place, Madson is relying more upon his great changeup, throwing it more often than in any season since his rookie year of 2004, and a cutter that he almost never showed before 2007, used between about 13 and 15 percent of the time from 2007-09, and now throws about 20 percent of the time. With three really good pitches at his disposal, it’s that much more difficult for opposing hitters to key on any one offering. As our own FuquaManuel noted recently, it ain't luck: Madson's BABIP in 2010 is actually a bit higher than league average. 

Perhaps the biggest things Madson has given the Phillies over the last four years are consistency and value.  Check these numbers over the last four seasons:

Year

IP

ERA

WHIP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

K/BB

BABIP

ERA+

2007

56.0

3.05

1.27

6.9

3.7

0.8

1.87

.272

151

2008

82.2

3.05

1.23

7.3

2.5

0.7

2.91

.305

144

2009

77.1

3.26

1.23

9.1

2.6

0.8

3.55

.320

131

2010

45.1

2.58

0.97

11.1

1.8

0.6

6.22

.314

161

Madson is, as far as I could find over the last 35 years or so—the era of more or less modern bullpen usage—the only Phillies reliever to post four consecutive seasons of ERA-plus (a measure of performance compared to the rest of the league; 100 is average). Not even McGraw did that, though he had four good-to-great years of 130 or higher out of six seasons between 1976 and 1981.  (And, to be fair, Madson isn't likely to approach Tug's insane 260 mark from 1980.)

In terms of value, The Hardball Times finds that Madson has outperformed his compensation in every season of his career:

Season

Wins Above Replacement

Translated Value of WAR

Actual Salary

2004

1.3

$4.0m

$0.3m

2005

0.8

$2.6m

$0.35m

2006

0.9

$3.3m

$0.4m

2007

0.4

$1.5m

$1.1m

2008

1.3

$5.7m

$1.4m

2009

1.4

$6.2m

$2.33m

2010

1.4

$5.5m

$4.83m

Non-closer relief pitchers are pretty much the red-headed step-children of baseball rosters: most recognizable for what they aren’t (starters or closers), generally not even noticed until they screw up, at which point their limitations of talent and character are endlessly picked over. As noted, this has been true even of Madson; we’re still hearing about his ostensible struggles donning the Magick C (though now the frame is that, yes, probably he can in fact close).  But the Phils have something special here: a homegrown player who’s done what so many older imports—from Rheal Cormier and Tim Worrell early in his career to Danys Baez this season—could not: deliver consistent high quality bullpen innings. It doesn’t generate jersey sales or earn huge piles of money, but it fills up the win column pretty nicely.