A week ago tonight, the Phillies suffered what is perhaps their worst loss of the season when the Washington Nationals scored six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Ryan Madson to erase a two-run deficit. In the grand scheme of things, the loss doesn’t really mean anything given that the Phillies are in the driver’s seat as far as the division is concerned, but a loss is a loss and people need to find something to complain about. In this instance, the object of much derision happened to be Madson, after he allowed four hits, including a game winning grand slam to Ryan Zimmerman, to ruin what was an otherwise fine effort from the Phillies.
It was his only his second blown save in 25 opportunities this season, so Brad Lidge from 2009 he isn’t. What’s more, it was his third straight day of work, so he was understandably a bit gassed, and even then, he gave up one hard hit, so it’s not as if he was throwing beach balls. However, that didn’t stop a familiar point of contention from creeping it’s way back into the conversation, causing some of us to yet again defend Ryan Madson from a silly, silly, notion.
That notion: Whether or not he has what some refer to as “a closer’s mentality,” a state of mind that is only granted to those worthy of getting three outs in the ninth inning. This talking point has existed for a good two years, and it’s used by some, at times, to explain the shortcomings of Madson when it cannot be accomplished through statistical means, where it usually cannot be accomplished, anyhow.
In reality, the “he doesn’t have a closer’s mentality” excuse is nothing more than the confirmation bias hard at work, thanks to the silly explanation that was created sometime over the last two years, because there is nothing to suggest that Ryan Madson is not the best man for the job in Philadelphia.*
*A case can be made for Antonio Bastardo, but you’d really just be splitting hairs.
Of course, this a non-argument and the fact of the matter is that I’m only taking up space by defending someone who really doesn’t need defending, because those that employ logic and reasoning in the proceedings don’t need to be convinced, and those that buy into the idea that Ryan Madson is somehow not mentally suited for the job aren’t going to be convinced, anyhow.
In a way, it’s not too dissimilar to a piece I wrote in early 2010 about the perceived shortcomings of Cole Hamels following his disastrous 2009 season. Following that campaign, a lot of people were willing to throw in the towel on the young lefty, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. Like now, I defended Hamels despite the fact that he really didn’t need defending, and those who were so eager to call for him to be run out of town weren’t about to have their minds changed by anything that I had to say.
In a way, what I wrote was needless. But that did not stop me from writing about it, just like it didn’t stop people from writing about how Cliff Lee’s struggles earlier this year were only temporary or the same thing with player x, y, and z when they dealt with whatever. Some things are just implicit and understood by the room and don’t need to be spoken aloud.
But blogging is nothing if not a lot of people giving different takes on something that is already wildly accepted. It’s not all like that, because sometimes people come up with mind blowing ideas that legitimately change the way you think about something, but usually it’s “hey this is a thing that is true so I’m going to write about it.” It’s repetitive, but it’s It’s human nature to want to be correct about stuff and everyone wants to be the alpha and sometimes the way to accomplish that is to write or say something that’s already been said, only differently.
In summation: sometimes we like to talk just to hear ourselves talk.
But enough with the preamble. We’re here to talk about Ryan Madson and whether or not his mental state is at all a cause for concern.
What is a “closer’s mentality,” anyhow? On the surface, I suppose it means that, unlike a left-handed specialist or mop up guy, a closer needs to have some innate ability or mental mindset or killer instinct that makes them more suited for the ninth inning. A closer needs to forget about the previous night’s blown save, and when they take the mound the slate must be wiped clean, as opposed to or in concert with what actually makes a good closer a good closer; that is to say “having actual talent.”
The human psyche is a strange and often misunderstood creature, and different people react to different situations in all sorts of different ways, so positing that someone might or might not have the proper mental mindset to achieve something is admittedly not that crazy. However, these aren’t just ordinary people working a 9-to-5. These are professional athletes who have undergone tremendous physical and mental tolls on their way up to The Show, and those that can’t hack it typically get weeded out sometime during the process. The ones who somehow manage to sneak through? They aren’t long for the professional baseball world, and they certainly don’t perform at an elite level.
In reality, the thing that separates a closer from every other pitcher isn’t something above the neck. It’s that a closer is just a really, really good relief pitcher, and he is more suited to be on the hill during the ultimate inning (usually the ninth), which is often viewed as the most pressure-filled moment of the game, even when that is not always demonstrably so.* If you look at a random bullpen on any given season, the closing pitcher is typically one of the best two or three relief pitchers on the team, based on empirical data like strikeouts and walks and the like. For proof of this, look at the best single seasons for closing pitchers among active players. With a few exceptions, the closing pitcher is far and away the best relief pitcher on the team. A notable exception exists in that Mike Adams, now with the Texas Rangers, was the best reliever on the San Diego Padres for the past few seasons, but was relegated to setup man in favor of Health Bell, who was, at best, Adams’ equal.
*There is often talk about how managers misuse their closing pitchers, especially when it comes to tie games on the road. More often than not, the closing pitcher is the best pitcher in the ‘pen while simultaneously being misused because the situation isn’t one where a save would be recorded. We could talk about this ad nauseum, but you’re probably already bored to death with what I have to say. For more reading, I suggest checking out this post over at Crashburn Alley, but not until after you’ve finished with this column, of course.
No one on that list jumps out and screams “closer’s mentality!” more so than anyone else. The single season saves leader, Francisco Rodriguez, is not without his share of personal problems, Joe Nathan has a reputation for being a bit of an odd bird, Carlos Marmol is as space cadety as anyone, as Chris Wheeler would say, and Brian Wilson is, well, Brian Wilson. And if you’re looking at the best closers in the game, you start and end with Mariano Rivera, who owes his success on the best cutter in the game as opposed to some sort of zen state that allows him to be the best to ever toe the rubber in the ninth inning.*
*One of the greatest single season performances by a closer in recent memory belonged to Brad Lidge, when he went a perfect 48-for-48 in 2008, including the playoffs, where he helped to deliver the first World Series to Philly since 1980. But throughout that season, Lidge vacillated between being downright nasty to terrifyingly shaky, but still managed to not blow a save, thanks to a ton of timely strikeouts and more than a couple great defensive plays behind him. I bring this up because, before he came to Philly, Lidge was a lights out closer in Houston. That is, until Albert Pujols homered off him in the 2006 National League Championship Series, which many claimed to have broken his brain. If there is ever a case to be made for a pitcher not being right in the head, it’s Lidge.
The one commonality among these pitchers share is that they are just really, really good. And that comes more from the arm and legs than from the head. That’s not to say that they don’t mentally prepare themselves for an appearance, but having a stoic look on one’s face doesn’t add more break to a splitter.
So, all this chatter about mentality? Nonsense. At least concerning Ryan Madson, who has been as good as anyone over the past few seasons.
But this talk about him had to originate somewhere, because it didn’t just appear simultaneously in the consciousness of baseball fans in the greater Philadelphia area. Someone actually had to think that thought and express it in some fashion so that it reached the masses.
Best I can figure is that this occurred in 2009, when Madson began to fill in for the injured and/or ineffective Brad Lidge as the team’s closer. This is about the same time that Twitter came into prevalence, which allowed one’s social circle to triple in size in a matter of minutes, making it much easier to circulate an opinion. The likely scenario is that Madson blew a couple of saves within a relatively short span – probably around late June, when he blew a pair of ninth inning saves and took three losses in the course of about two weeks or so. At the time, the team was struggling, and it makes sense to place a lion’s share of the blame on the guy who single handedly cost the Phillies a few wins.
Whatever it was, the reputation stuck, and came back to haunt him throughout the rest of the season and into 2010, when he once again filled in for Brad Lidge and once again was less-than-perfect, providing more opportunity for some to suggest that he wasn’t quite ready for the ninth inning.*
*Losing a fight to a chair didn’t help.
But that notion didn’t start in some random tweet, or did it? Is it possible that it began as a 140 character idea based on an entirely too small sample size due to some some unquantifiable circumstance? It’s possible, I suppose. Patient zero is out there, because this idea didn’t just crop up overnight and sneak into everyone’s brain all at once. Somewhere, a blogger or a beat writer or a columnist put words on paper about Madson’s mental ineptitude, and that someone is now laughing at us and mocking our futile attempts to stem the tide that is the growing trend of insistence from the peanut gallery that Madson is stricken with some unseen ailment. Or are they? Maybe patient zero is really patients zero, because fans are reactive, visceral beings, and they need to cling to something when the chips are down. Maybe, then, Madson is the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was unfortunately the goat one too many time in a time when the fans needed someone to come down on.
At this point, all that Madson can do is his job, and to the best of his ability. So far this season, his ability has been as good as ever, thanks to a 9.5 K/9 rate and and a nasty circle change to complement his mid-90s fastball to go along with a 3.18 ERA and 23 saves.
Will he ever be rid of this reputation? It’s hard to say. People are stubborn, and once they grab hold of something or perceive it to be true, then there isn’t much that can be done to change their mind. After all, it was only two seasons ago that people wanted to write off Cole Hamels, and that was right after he won the World Series MVP, and the reputation that he earned – that of a crybaby or a head case – didn’t get dusted off until he made the leap into one of the best pitchers in the game in 2010. It’s definitely possible to shake a public image, but I have to imagine that, for a relief pitcher, who lives and dies with one inning, it’s much harder. A starter can erase a bad inning with six shutout innings to follow, but a closer doesn’t so much have that luxury, and more than anything else, the impetus is on them more than anyone to get their job done, considering the time and place that it occurs.
As far as we, and Ryan Madson, are concerned, a “closer’s mentality” is a meaningless platitude that attempts to characterize or make sense of something that isn’t there. Because people are curious creatures, there has to be some explanation, even when you don’t need one. In the case of Madson, certain people need to reconcile just why it is that he isn’t perfect every single time out.
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