First, a little background information on Ryan Madson. Picked in the 9th round of the 1998 amateur draft, the 17-year-old was sent to the rookie-level Appalachian League with disappointing results, but some positive signs. Despite a 4.83 ERA, he struck out almost a batter per inning with a decent walk rate. In 1999, he was sent to the short-season New York-Penn League, and his strong strikeout and walk rates regressed as he faced better competition. Anecdotically, I’ve found that pitchers drafted out of high school often benefit from spending their second season in the short-season NY-Penn, which is made up mostly of college draftees, as opposed to full-season leagues. These pitchers usually struggle, but then improve substantially the following season at higher levels. That is exactly what happened to Madson.
Moving to the South Atlantic League in 2000 at age 19, Madson shined. Striking out 8.2 batters per nine innings while walking just three is something to be excited about at any age, even forgetting the fact that he was young for the level. He allowed only five home runs all season in more than 135 innings (.3 per 9), aiding his 2.59 ERA. From then on, Madson proceeded to post above-average but not spectacular seasons as a starter at every minor league stop along the way.
Madson’s stuff was seen as solid, but not overpowering, though. He owned a 89- to 90-mph fastball, a good changeup, and a “show-me” curveball. Raise your hand if you’ve heard something similar about a minor league prospect. When he was called up to the majors and placed in the bullpen, his stuff played up. His fastball gained a tick of speed, and he was able to forget about having to set hitters up. His FIP in 2004 and 2005 was 3.57 and 3.92, respectively, which is slightly above average for a reliever.
Madson the swingman
The 2006 season was a different story. The starting rotation was not kind to Madson. He was shelled to the tune of a 6.82 ERA in his first six starts of the season before moving to the bullpen for two weeks. He pitched seven innings out of the bullpen in an extra-inning affair against the Mets, giving up one run. Moved back into the rotation after that performance, he was still not up to par. His next 11 games were starts, and his 6.00 ERA in those games wasn’t much of an improvement.
His confidence presumably shaken, he returned to the bullpen for the rest of the season on Aug. 2. From that point on, opponents hit .323/.372/.474 in 33.2 innings off Madson, leading to a 4.81 ERA—a few ticks below replacement level.
The next season in 2007, the Phillies had an awful rotation, but decided to keep Madson in the bullpen after witnessing his struggles as a starter.
Relief pitchers are often categorized as the most unpredictable players in the game because of their wild swings in performance from year to year. Since his move back to the bullpen full-time in 2007, Madson has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball in several categories. His full-season ERA has sat between 3.05 and 3.18 and his WHIP has sat between 1.22 and 1.27. Despite throwing differing numbers of innings, his walk and home run totals have remained extremely steady as well (not that that’s indicative of anything, it’s just cool). In his second stint in the bullpen, he decided to scrap his curveball completely in favor of a cutter, which sits around 90 mph. While the cutter hasn’t been a great pitch for him, his fastball and changeup have remained an excellent combination. Despite his changeup getting a lot of attention, it’s his fastball this season that has done a lot of the talking.
If you remember from earlier in the article, I mentioned that his fastball hovered around 90 mph as a starter, and got up to around 92 out of the bullpen. That statement was only true until late 2008. Look at this chart below:
Those green dots are the average velocity of his fastball for each appearance, and the gray bars are the maximum and minimum fastball velocities for the same games. See how the green dots trend upward as the 2008 season goes along, and then they stay up around 95 throughout the 2009 season? That just doesn’t happen very often. Where he used to max out around 95 or 96, now he often sits at that speed, touching 98. BIS radar gun recording confirm this jump as well. His fastball velocities from 2006 to 2009 are as follows: 90.7, 91.4, 92.9, 95.0. His first season in the league out of the bullpen, his average velocity was 90.2.
It has been reported that Madson has been doing an arm-strengthening program similar to what Jamie Moyer does, after previously not having done anything of the sort. But last I checked, Moyer was still “firing” 82 mph fastballs. However he’s managed to accomplish it, Madson’s story is one worth keeping an eye on (he recorded a four-out save on Monday) as the Phillies struggle to find stability in the back end of their bullpen.