The Phillies’ bullpen, which was so important to their championship run in 2008, has been a source of woe for much of 2009. It was expected that, as a unit, the pen would regress, given their tremendous collective performance in 2008. Even with that in mind, things got a bit out of hand this year. They dropped from 15.251 WXRL and the second spot in the majors to 18th and just 6.804; rather than a bullpen full of options that seemed to do everything right, Charlie Manuel was reduced to picking from a few pitchers that still seemed to be able to rack up outs with regularity. Ryan Madson was one of those pitchers, as he led the team in appearances and WXRL while pitching in more high leverage situations than Brad Lidge, who was the team’s closer for much of the year. The Phillies need Madson to be in top form for this series with the Yankees, where the differences in the pen could spell disaster-after all, you can’t throw Cliff Lee out there every game.
Ryan Michael Madson was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the ninth round of the 1998 amateur entry draft and was promptly lopped into Rookie ball to start his professional career at the age of 17. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be great if, due to his middle name, he came to the mound in relief with Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” as his entrance music?) Madson was a starter back then, and he retained that role throughout his stay in the minors. He would move through the system relatively quickly, jumping from Rookie-level to Short-season A-ball in the New York-Penn League, then to Low-A in the Sally League by 2000, when he was 19 years old. The 2000 season turned out to be his best one yet, with a career high in starts, innings, and strikeouts. He also had two fewer walks than the year before, despite throwing nearly 50 additional innings.
This campaign brought Madson some serious attention-Baseball America ranked him as the fourth-best prospect in the Phillies’ organization heading into the 2001 season. At the time, he had a fastball that sat 91-93, but it had room to grow from a velocity standpoint. He also had a 12-to-6 curveball that needed to spin tighter in order to be more effective, and a changeup that, while improving, wasn’t quite there yet. He did have a few things on his side though, namely, his imposing size (Madson was already listed at his current height of 6’6″ back then) and his mechanics: his delivery worked well for him, and he was able to repeat it without any trouble.
Madson’s first taste of High-A wasn’t as successful as Low-A, though there were still some things to like. For one, he kept the ball in the park, which was important given he still needed to refine his control in order to keep walks down. Secondly, a lot of the issues stemmed from a high hit rate, which can happen a lot in the minors given the poorer defenses in play there. A bum shoulder that kept him from pitching well until July didn’t help things, but he still managed to make progress on his changeup and refine the curveball he had been working on during Instructional League. The Phillies were confident he could continue to progress, as they stuck in him Double-A for the 2002 campaign; not bad for a 21-year-old pitcher picked in the ninth round.
In many ways, Madson was a much better pitcher after the promotion: he cut down on his walks (2.8 per nine), threw 171 innings over 26 starts, once again kept the ball in the park thanks to his ground-ball tendencies, and dropped the rate at which he allowed hits substantially, from 10.5 per nine to 7.9. The one complaint is that his strikeout rate dipped again, this time down to 6.9 Ks per nine. Granted, the ground balls kept strikeouts from being a necessity, but his stock as a starter was higher when he could blow it by guys with regularity.
He redeemed himself in Baseball America’s eyes, as they bumped him back into single-digits in their esteem for him, all the way up to the sixth-best prospect in the organization. According to them, his strikeout rate dipped as he tried to pitch around hitters for the first chunk of the season, but he began to attack them more as time went on-this extra aggressiveness made his secondary stuff more effective. BA‘s language about his eventual future continued to slip though, as he went from a sure thing to a mid-rotation starter to someone that could slot in after some extra time at Triple-A.
Madson would spend all but a few innings at Triple-A in 2003, throwing 157 frames there with 7.9 strikeouts per nine and just 2.4 walks per nine-this was easily his best campaign in the minors, given the level of competition and the progress he made. The 22-year-old followed that up with his big-league debut right before the season ended, tossing two innings in relief without recording a walk, a strikeout, or allowing a run. One important thing to note is that he stopped throwing his curveball in 2003, replacing it with a slider-oddly enough, he had ditched the slider for the curve shortly into his professional career.
Baseball America rated him the fourth-best prospect in the organization, praising his changeup, which was a plus-plus offering that beat everyone in the organization-even that of top prospect Cole Hamels. Baseball Prospectus 2004 liked his development as well, and feeling that he could crack the rotation:
Madson was the model of consistency at Scranton last year: from May 7 until the end of the year, his ERA never left the threes. He’s also been the model of development, improving his numbers every year but one since 1998… After two big-league innings at the end of ’03, Madson should get another shot in ’04, and projects as the first starter in should an injury occur.
Despite his success as a starter in the minors, the Phillies used Madson as a reliever in 2004. The rotation wasn’t good, but there wasn’t anyone in it (besides Brett Myers, who was more talented than his numbers showed) that was struggling enough to be replaced by the rookie in Philadelphia’s mind, so he went where he was needed. Madson sealed his career’s fate here; he’s what you would call a victim of his own success. He threw 77 innings in 52 appearances and one start, striking out 6.4 per nine with 1.8 unintentional walks per nine, just 0.7 homers per nine, and a ground-ball rate (53 percent) that helped offset his homer-friendly home park. All of this resulted in an ERA of 2.34 and a secure gig in the Phillies’ pen.
Madson’s season was not quite as good as it looks on the surface-note the difference between his ERA and his PERA. Nevertheless, the guy can pitch, facing hitters with one nasty change-up after another, and it was surprising that he made just one start for the Phillies given their injury problems. He’ll likely get that chance in the future as he bulks up and refines his breaking pitch, though one wonders whether his success in the bullpen will doom him to it.
The Phillies answered that question for BP the next year, as Madson made 78 appearances out of the bullpen, posting an ERA of 4.14 in the process. While the ERA isn’t that pretty, he increased his strikeout rate to 8.2 per nine and kept his walk rate at two per nine-homers were a bit of a problem for the first time in his career, with Madson giving up 1.1 per nine, but overall, he was a bit unlucky and pitched better than his ERA indicated. The one worrisome sign was that his ground ball rate had dropped a bit, down to 48 percent. He threw more fastballs than he had the year before, mixing in his change a bit less, though this may have been due to his getting lesser results on his change throughout the year (+3.2 run value versus +11.1 the year before).
Madson got his shot at the rotation in 2006-sort of. He made 50 appearances total, with 17 of those coming as starts. The problem was that this was the worst season of his professional career, as he posted an ERA of 5.69, lost the whiffs he had added in 2005, added walks back in, and gave up even more homers than before. As a reliever, Madson rebounded, allowing a line of .305/.356/.485. Sure, that looks ugly, but he gave up .329/.400/.531 as a starter, so it’s improvement in a relative sense.
Madson has not made a start since, but luckily for both he and the Phils, he was able to turn his career around. He struck out nearly seven per nine in 2007, and while he couldn’t shake the walk rate, he did cut down on the number of homers he allowed (his ground ball rate jumped back up to 47 percent from a career-low of 42 percent). He was an integral part of the Phillies’ dominating bullpen from 2008 as well, posting his second straight ERA of 3.05, appearing in 76 games (82 2/3 innings), regaining even more of his lost whiffs (7.3 per nine), and finally cutting down on both the walks and the homers. He finished third on the team in WXRL, behind Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero-along with Chad Durbin, they formed the productive unit that helped lead the Phillies to a World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
While those steps forward were nice enough, Madson was not done upping his game. For the 2009 season, he brought his strikeout rate to 9.1 per nine without giving up more walks or making himself more susceptible to homers. He also seemed to complete a transition he had started prior to 2007-he cut breaking balls out of his plan entirely, instead relying on his fastball and its natural sink alongside a cutter and his fantastic changeup. To make things even more effective, the average velocity of all three pitches jumped: scouts had often felt that Madson threw too softly for a pitcher with his size and frame, but it looks as if he finally picked up those extra miles per hour. Rather than sitting in the low 90s, this season Madson averaged 95 on his fastball, 90.3 on his cutter, and 83.6 on his changeup. While the cutter wasn’t that effective for him (-1.7 runs), both the fastball and changeup worked wonders (+7.7 and +5.3).
If Madson can keep the velocity he’s picked up-remember, scouts expected this to happen, except they were thinking it would happen earlier than this-then he should be this effective in the future. He’s got two very effective pitches, keeps the ball on the ground and in the park, and has improved his control since coming up to the majors. He may never get his chance at becoming a full-time starter, but if he pitches this well out of the pen, then there’s no reason for him to make the switch.