Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/10/11

“The game speeds up on Madson sometimes. He doesn’t get to the same comfort level. There’s a little anxiety in there. The ninth inning is a little different than the eighth. There’s been a lot of solid eighth-inning guys who just haven’t been able to pitch the ninth, then one day they learn how to do it. Ryan Madson is Ryan Madson. What did he do, take a crash course in how to close or something?” – Phillies Pitching Coach Rich Dubee

Lost in the yearly hubub about whether relievers are overpaid, there’s the story of this reliever and his remarkable turnaround in the past year. Ryan Madson, specifically, has seen his stature in Philadelphia change radically, quickly. Perhaps there’s no easier way of pointing this out then providing a date for the above quote: March 29, 2011.

Over the course of this year he changed some minds, but it’s not as simple as a few successful saves in a row. There’s also been some actual underlying change in his game. Exploring the last few years might help us understand Madson better. How did he finally catch his penguin — the coveted ‘Proven Closer’ mantel?

Judge him by ERA, and Madson has been the same dude since he moved to the pen in 2007. Since that day, his worst ERA was 3.26 in 2009. His worst WHIP was 1.27. He’s struck out 8.6 batters per nine and walked a mere 2.6 per nine in 310 games since becoming a reliever, so his peripherals tell the same story. At first.

But look at his first two years as a reliever, and the peripherals look a little different than his last two years. In those first 138.2 innings, he only struck out 7.1 per nine and walked three per nine. He still had a shiny ERA — 3.05. But the story behind the story was a little different.

What happened in 2009? He switched his jersey number, from a spring-training worthy #63 to a more big-boy #46. And maybe he started an arm-strengthening program sometime late in 2008 — ironically, with Jamie Moyer — because the radar guns started flashing more impressive numbers. Check out his velocity charts for his fastball, and the change is obvious:

Sitting at 94 MPH with your fastball is very different than sitting at 92 MPH. But, as a particular golfer (or Kelly Dugan‘s father) would tell you, it’s not all about power. Madson’s also thrown his changeup more the last couple of years. After hovering around 24% in 2008 and 2009, he’s used the pitch 28.7% and 34.9% over 2009 and 2010 respectively. Not only did he add oomph to his giddyap, he also refined his game and used his cutter (-4.9 runs career by linear weights) less. That’s a recipe for success.

Still, we haven’t told the whole story. We’ve followed Madson to high school, and we’ve seen him in a muscle shirt, but the REO Speedwagon is not quite blazing from the Pontiac Firebird. He had not yet graduated — even though he was throwing 94+ MPH gas, and dropping a devastating changeup to great results (9.8 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 2.97 ERA from 2009-2010), his pitching coach still denigrated his ability to close at the beginning of this year. And Dubee’s opinion was shared by many.

Perhaps they can’t be blamed. Madson had been handed the interim closer role a couple times before, and it hadn’t really worked out. In 2009, Brad Lidge hit the DL with knee problems on June seventh. Madson put in a couple successful scoreless saves at first… and then from June 16th to the 20th, he blew three straight games. He struck out three and walked three in three innings, but also gave up six hits and five runs. The Phillies lost all three games and were happy to get Lidge back. Until they saw that Lidge was putting up the worst statistical season ever by a reliever with more than 30 opportunities. Then they wanted Madson back. Somehow, even though Madson had a fine season and converted six successful September saves, the emphasis among many was on his two late-season blown saves.

When 2010 began, Madson was back in the role, but only because Lidge was still recovering from surgery. Four saves, two blown saves, a seven ERA and a fractured toe later, Madson was on the DL and his fate was sealed. Someone that hot-headed, that he would break his toe in frustration (or punch Bob Barker) — that someone could not be a closer. At least not when there was another Proven Closer option.

So we get to this year, when it seemingly took injuries to the entire Phillies bullpen to finally give Madson another crack at closing. Luckily, this time it took more than a month for Madson to record his first loss, and by that time he had nine saves and an ERA under .50. When he finally blew his first save on July ninth, it didn’t seem like such a big deal any more, and he saved a game three days later with no problems. It’s helpful that he only gave up multiple runs once all year, but it’s also telling that Madson survived the trade deadline and the return of Lidge to the bullpen. Suddenly he is a Proven Closer.

Perhaps ironically, it looks like Madson did go to closing school. Over the past four years, he’s developed arm strength, refined his pitching mix, and learned that failure comes with the job. He probably couldn’t be the Proven Closer that he is today without the travails he went through along the way.

It’s tempting to claim that Madson could have been closing all along, but lets’ focus on this: today, tomorrow, next week, or next month, Madson will put his ink on a document that will serve as his diploma. And his graduation day will be a proud one for his fans who stuck with him.

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