Um… About Ryan Madson
Ryan Madson appears farther away from signing a deal with the Phillies than it appeared two days ago, which for many is a good thing. Ruben Amaro Jr.’s proposed 4-year, $44 million deal was way too much to pay for a closer coming up on his 31st birthday, or really, any closer for that matter.
And with the Madson discussions seemingly on hold, Amaro now appears to be targeting Red Sox closer Jonathan Paplebon as his closer du jour.
This whole process reminds me of a middle school dance. You come to the dance with one girl you like. You dance with her for a while, have a good time, and set off some fireworks in the bathroom (not sexual fireworks mind you, real cherry bombs in the toilet… just to be clear). Then, a girl you like a little bit more suddenly starts to show interest in you for the first time that night. She’s all flirtatious and pretty, and she asks you to dance. And so you ditch the girl you brought to the dance to dance with this new girl. (By the way, this scenario never happened to me.)
Right now, Ruben Amaro is infatuated with the new girl, i.e., Paplebon. Sure the old girl, Madson, has a lot of nice qualities and in the long run may be the smarter option. But Paplebon is shinier and newer and it sure does feel good to be wanted by someone new.
There is a lot of dispute as to what has actually transpired since Monday. The Phillies say a deal with Madson was never imminent. The Madson/Boras folks say they had an oral agreement and terms written down on paper, but nothing signed because the deal needed CEO Dave Montgomery’s approval. Some league sources have even indicated that perhaps the Phils have been asked to wait on signing a big deal until the new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
Whatever the case, this has all gotten a little weird.
Of course, the bottom line is just who will be pitching the 9th inning for the Phillies in 2012 and beyond. Saber-heads were flabbergasted that Amaro would give Madson such a long-term and lucrative deal. Over the last few years, it has been the policy of the Phillies not to give pitchers contracts longer than three years. Pat Gillick started that policy and, until the Cliff Lee deal last year, it has been the law of the land inside Citizens Bank Park. Heck, even Halladay couldn’t score an extension longer than three years from Amaro.
The chief argument against a big deal for a closer is that a closer only pitches about 60-70 innings a year. Over the course of a season, a baseball team will typically play around 1500 innings. That’s about 4.7% of all the innings in which a team will play. Also, relief pitchers, and closers particularly, are an unpredictable breed. In one three-season stretch, former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne saved 152 games. He was the best in the business from age 26-28. The following season, Gagne appeared in only 14 games and saved only 8 due to injury. The year after that, he missed virtually the whole season, getting in only two games. His highest save total from that point forward was 16, done in 2007.
For every Mariano Rivera, there is a Brad Lidge. For every Dennis Eckersley, there is a Bobby Jenks. In fact, the number of one-hit-wonder closers far outnumbers the ones who are continually dominant over a 7-10 year stretch.
Not only that, the save statistic has become far too highly valued in recent years. A prime example of this can be observed in one of the more memorable Phillies playoff games of the Charlie Manuel era.
In Game 4 of the 2009 NLDS against Colorado, the Phillies were facing Rockies closer Huston Street, trailing 4-2 in the 9th inning. Street worked around a Jimmy Rollins hit to get two outs with a runner on first base and Chase Utley at the plate. Utley gave Street a very tough at-bat and drew a walk, putting two runners on with two out, and a red-hot Ryan Howard at the plate.
Remember, at the time, Howard was raking. He was in the midst of a streak of eight straight playoff games with an RBI and was seeing the ball extremely well. In 2009, Howard hit .320 with a .693 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.088 against right-handed pitchers. He had clubbed 39 HR and 108 RBI against righties during the regular season. Against lefties, Howard hit .207 with a slugging percentage of .356 and an OPS of .653. He hit only 6 HR and 33RBI against lefties.
Look at those numbers again, folks. That’s a 1.088 OPS against right-handers, and a .653 OPS against lefties.
Clearly, the Rockies should have removed Street, a right-handed pitcher, from the game for a left-handed pitcher. Against righties, Howard was among the greatest sluggers in the game. Against southpaws, he was Kevin Stocker.
We all remember what happened next. Howard hit a double that one-hopped off the wall and tied the game. The next batter, Jayson Werth, then followed with an RBI single that scored Howard and gave the Phillies a series-clinching 5-4 comeback win.
So why did Jim Tracy leave Street in the game to face Howard? Because he was “the closer.” And baseball law dictates you don’t ever remove “the closer” from a game he still has a chance to close out.
Bullpen pitchers like to have their roles spelled out for them. They like to know if they are going to be set-up guys, middle relievers, or the guy who comes in at the end of the game to shut the door. It can be difficult for a manager, because once a pitcher has been assigned 9th inning duty, that pitcher feels that is HIS 9th inning. To take that inning away from him, or to fail to give him the opportunity to finish what he started and get out of a jam, is an insult that can kill the closer’s confidence and make him question the level of trust he has in his manager.
Why? Because it’s all about “the save.” The save is what earns a relief pitcher big money. Racking up big numbers of saves is what gets you a 4-year, $44 million contract. When you start taking save opportunities away from your closer, you start depriving them of cold hard cash.
They know it, and the manager knows it.
So the smartest thing to do then, is not to have a “closer” on your team, right? The smartest thing to do is mix and match your relief pitchers, to assemble a lot of good, young, cheap arms who all miss a lot of bats, and use those pitchers according to the match-ups that are presented to a manager during a game.
For example, if St. Louis has the bases loaded with one out in the 7th inning of a tie ballgame with Albert Pujols striding to the plate, why wouldn’t a manager use his best bullpen arm in that situation? It most likely is the biggest spot in the ballgame. The game likely rests on what happens in this situation.
Why do managers refuse to use their closers in the 9th inning or extra innings of a tie game on the road? Because the manager is waiting for his team to score in the top of the inning so he can use his “closer” to “save” the game. But how many times have we seen the home team score the game-winning run off a lesser pitcher, the “non-closer,” in the bottom of an inning, without the losing team’s best bullpen pitcher ever entering the game?
On the other hand, we’ve all seen how effective a bullpen with defined roles can be. In 2008, there was J.C. Romero for the 7th inning, Ryan Madson for the 8th, and Brad Lidge for the 9th. The Bridge to Lidge. It worked beautifully. Everyone knew their roles, everyone did their job, and the Phillies bullpen was the best in the business that year. Tampa’s bullpen was a mix-and-match bullpen that failed to get the job done in ’08. The World Series basically turned because the Phils bullpen outpitched the Rays bullpen.
We’ve seen pitchers with tremendous stuff do a great job in the 7th or 8th innings of games but have all kinds of trouble dealing with the added stress and tension of closing games out in the 9th inning. Ryan Madson seemed to be exactly that type of pitcher until 2011. It was said he did not have a “closer’s mentality.”
Intellectually, it shouldn’t be any harder getting the last three outs of a game than it was getting the first three outs.
But use your eyes. Sometimes it is.
Sometimes, as was in the case of Madson, a pitcher’s head can get in the way. Madson thought he had to be perfect when closing games out, and in the process, ended up putting too much pressure on himself which led to a multitude of blown saves. It wasn’t until he changed his approach and mindset last year that he developed into a great closer. The 9th inning is a different animal than the 8th. It just is.
All of this to say, the Phillies cannot go into the 2012 season with a mix of Bastardo, Contreras, Stutes, DeFratus, Herndon and Aumont as potential closers. Not with the starting rotation the Phillies have assembled. If a bullpen is blowing 9th inning leads, the team is doomed.
I am a believer that a team needs a reliable arm in which to close games out. Do I think a four-year, $44 million contract is too much for Madson? Yes, I do. Is it too much for Paplebon? Yes, it is. But a three-year deal for either pitcher makes sense.
In a perfect world, the Phillies would have all their bullpen guys signed to one-year deals with undefined roles. But that’s not how the game is played in this day and age. And until it is, the Phillies have a championship-caliber pitching staff that needs a strong bullpen to maximize its potential.
Therefore, sign Madson or Paplebon to a three-year deal. Anything more than that, get in touch with Joe Nathan and Kerry Woods’ agent and have some discussions. Either way, you need a steady hand at the end of the ballgame, no matter who it is.