Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Yesterday, it was made official that Brad Lidge had a rotator cuff injury that would keep him out for some time -- maybe a few weeks, maybe half the season, maybe more -- thus saving the Phillies from having to appoint one of the worst pitchers on the team to (arguably) the most important spot in the bullpen. Instead, veteran Jose Contreras, age 39 going on 60, takes over in the closer spot, with arguably the best reliever in the National League, Ryan Madson, remaining in his customary 8th-inning role.
The truth is, the decision is unlikely to make a difference. Contreras established himself as a fine reliever last season, and even if that was a fluke or he suddenly starts acting his age, the Phillies figure to have a quick trigger and swap Madson in at the first sign of a real struggle. Even more to the point, though, it doesn't really matter who's pitching the eighth and who's pitching the ninth; they're of pretty similar importance, and really, since the silly made-up "rules" applied to closers don't apply to set-up guys, you might argue this is better for the Phillies just because Madson's not being the closer will get him into the game more often and for more total innings.
But that doesn't mean that the decisionmaking makes any sense. The prevailing opinion among fans and the media -- and as far as I can tell, the Phillies' manager, pitching coach and front office have bought into it, too -- is that Madson, while he's great in the 8th inning, really struggles when you get into the 9th and into save situations, that he doesn't have the mental make-up to be a closer. And this doesn't come from anything Madson has said -- he's stated that he wants an opportunity to close -- just, apparently, from perceptions of his performance. He "has pressed when he has closed." But is there anything to that, really?
The article linked just above notes that Madson has pitched 21 times "as closer" in save situations since 2009, and converted 15 of those chances with a 4.84 ERA. But that's not really accurate, as far as I can tell. In at least a few of those instances, he entered the game as the 8th inning guy, but either gave up the lead or saw his team extend the lead beyond three runs, so was allowed to stay in and finish it.
Madson became a full-time reliever for the Phils in 2007, though he got very few closing opportunities for the first two years. I count nineteen games in that time in which he has entered in the ninth inning or later (or with two outs in the 8th, if he also went on to pitch the ninth in a save situation) with a lead of three runs or less. And his overall record is pretty lousy -- near a 6 ERA, and he converted just 13 of the 19 chances, or 68% -- although in twelve of those saves, he permitted no runs and allowed either zero or one baserunners. And even most of his blown saves (the ninth-inning ones that would actually have turned into saves had he not blown them, that is) were one-run innings. The majority of the damage -- as you'd expect, with a sample that small -- was done in just a few blowups, the kind any closer is going to have now and then. Three runs allowed in a two-homer ninth on June 20, 2009, another of the same last April 20, and a two-run homer given up to David Wright on September 12, 2009.
Take away those bad outings -- eight runs allowed in three innings -- and his ERA in the remaining 16 "closer" appearances/innings, by my count, drops from 5.68 to 2.25, his FIP from about 6.46 to about 2.83, and he's converted 13/16 (an above-average 81%) rather than 13/19. And it's not fair to just arbitrarily take away his three worst outings, of course, and that's not my intention. It's not like those three innings don't count.
The point, instead, is to point out that if you're writing off Madson as a great relief pitcher but a bad closer, that's all you've got to base it on. Other than those three bad innings, spread over two years, he's been about as good in the role as you could fairly expect anyone to be.
And three innings isn't enough to prove much of anything at all, but in this case, to me, it's really insufficient. If you're arguing that Madson doesn't have the mental toughness to close, you've got a huge burden of proof. Not only was he tough enough to outshine the competition throughout high school and the minor leagues (and my theory with regard to all things "clutch" is that guys who aren't clutch just don't make the bigs), but he frequently pitches in tie games or close games in the 8th inning or in extra innings with no problem whatsoever. In tie games in 2009-10 (virtually always appearing in the 8th or later), hitters hit .151/.229/.247 off of Madson. In "late and close" situations (7th inning or later with the score tied, within a run or the tying run on deck), they've hit .224/.287/.335.
Madson has shown many, many times that he's as good a relief pitcher as anyone out there, even when facing immense amounts of pressure. You want to argue that despite all that, he somehow clams up when he's asked to finish a game in which they're leading by three or fewer? You can argue it, and maybe you're right, but in the face of all the evidence that he's pretty much tough as nails, it's a pretty out-there position to take. You'll need a lot more evidence than three bad innings over two years.
This is the kind of thing that -- without any specific ill will toward the Phillies -- I wish was more likely to come back and bite the team than it is. By keeping Madson as the 8th inning guy, you probably get him 10-15 more high-leverage innings than Contreras or Lidge will get as the closer, and thus probably get more value out of your bullpen than you would with Madson as the closer. But if your goal is to appoint as closer the pitcher in your bullpen who is best suited to fill that role, Madson should be considered your guy until he's done a heck of a lot more to prove otherwise.