Ryan Madson had every reason to think he would be basking in the glory of a long-term, eight-figure annual deal by this point in the offseason. The 31-year-old emerged as one of the game's elite relievers since leaving behind any notions of starting in 2007, racking up at least 1.3 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement every season and setting a new career best as the Phillies' closer with 2.2 WAR in 2011. The free agent market for late-inning arms was unusually deep, but there was little reason to think that a guy who ranked in the top 15 in reliever value over the past half-decade would get the short end of the stick.
But alas, that's exactly what happened to Madson. With Jonathan Papelbon (four years, $50 million from Philly) and Heath Bell (three years, $27 million from Miami) inking lucrative long-terms deals, Joe Nathan (two years, $14.5 million) tapped to replace Neftali Feliz in Texas and the Red Sox going the trade route by getting Andrew Bailey from Oakland, Madson's market dried up. Today, reports are that he had to settle for a one-year, $8.5 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds, with possible incentives and a mutual option for 2013. That's a bitter outcome for a guy who was supposedly on the brink of a four-year, $44 million extension with the Phightin's before the Papelbon signing went down.
For Cincinnati, signing Madson goes along with the Mat Latos and Sean Marshall trades as evidence that the club is doing everything it can to achieve NL Central supremacy before perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto hits free agency and deservedly seeks $200+ million following the 2013 season. While $8.5 million isn't a bargain salary for a reliever on a per-year basis, there is far less risk for Cincy because they avoid the pitfalls of giving a leviathan multi-year commitment. They get the benefit of a top-flight closer without the headache of worrying whether his arm will still be attached in 2014 or 2015.
Madson's claim to fame is arguably the nastiest changeup in the game. He pulls the string about 10 mph slower than his fastball (84 mph last year, compared to 94 for the heater), and the pitch generates spit-take chase and miss rates. As Madson's pitch frequency over the past three years shows, he very rarely places his changeup in the strike zone..
Just 29 percent of Madson's changeups have been thrown in the strike zone since 2009, the fourth-lowest rate among MLB relievers. That's by design, as he uses the pitch to bait hitters into expanding their zones. Check out opponents' swing rate by location versus Madson's change since '09, and then the big league average:
Batters have chased nearly half of Madson's out-of-zone changeups over the past three years, second-best in the majors among relievers over that period:
Highest changeup chase rate among relievers, 2009-2011 (min. 250 thrown)
All of those chases lead to enough whiffs and wind to power the entire Rust Belt. Take a look at hitters' contact rate by pitch location against Madson's change-of-pace, versus the league average:
Madson's miss rate with his change also places second among relievers over the past three seasons:
Highest changeup miss rate among relievers, 2009-2011 (min. 250 thrown)
You might as well have a pitcher at the plate when Madson tosses a changeup: opponents have a three-year batting average of .126 (best among relievers) and a .191 slugging percentage, a mark topped by just Brandon League and Pedro Feliciano.
Paying Madson is also a far better use of resources than, say, bringing back incumbent closer Francisco Cordero. Sure, Cordero sported a 2.45 ERA last year, but the 36-year-old did it with a disintegrating strikeout rate (15.3 percent of batters faced, continuing a five-year decline) and a Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) above four. When you put the two side-by-side in some key categories, there's really no comparison:
|Player||K Pct.||Walk Pct.||HR Pct.||FIP|
|Player||K Pct.||Walk Pct.||HR Pct.||FIP|
As an added bonus, Madson doesn't cost the Reds a draft pick and they will snag a sandwich pick between rounds one and two when Cordero presumably signs elsewhere.
For Madson, signing for one year with an opt-out for 2013 is obviously far from ideal. Save for exceptions like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, the long-term health and performance of even the game's best high-leverage relievers is tenuous. Madson could be nails next year, setting himself up for another run at a Papelbon-esque deal, or he could come down with a shoulder or elbow injury or just have an off-year, depressing his value and perhaps denying him from ever truly cashing in.
This looked like Madson's time to get filthy stinking rich. He certainly could still do that by being lights-out in Cincinnati and choosing to hit the market again next winter, and in the meantime he gets a nice pay day in 2012. But a reliever is one snapped ligament or a few wall-scraping home runs away from having a drastically different value in the eyes of teams, and even someone as good as Madson is subject to the caprices of life in the 'pen. Reds GM Walt Jocketty will sign this deal with a smile, and Madson with a sigh.