Contreras or Madson? Or. . .drumroll. . .both?

Jose Contreras could close for the Phillies while Brad Lidge is on the disabled list. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

Most big Phillies news occurs when I am off, so it makes sense that Brad Lidge's new case of shoulder soreness cropped up today, when I'm supposed to be focusing my attention on writing a story for our preview section that was due yesterday. Paul Hagen will have all your nuts and bolts as the day progresses, but I thought we should check in and turn our attention back to a story that appeared in the Daily News a week ago.

Through conversations with Ruben Amaro Jr., Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee, along with some statistical analysis, we tried to present the case against the conventional wisdom surrounding the Phillies' choice for a fill-in closer.

There are several reasons why Ryan Madson makes for the logical ninth-inning guy now that Lidge is likely to miss significant time with shoulder soreness, starting with the fact that the righthander has the most pure talent of any pitcher in the bullpen.

But there is also a strong case to make for Contreras as the fill-in closer, starting with the fact that he thrived in a brief cameo in that role last May. The nuts and bolts of the situation can be found here. But let's take a deeper look at some of the key numbers and philosophies that underly this situation:

I. Is closing a game a skill?

Your view on the Madson/Contreras situation could depend a lot on whether you believe closing out the ninth inning is more difficult than closing out the eighth inning. This is a topic that has generated a lot of debate within the baseball community over the past decade. From what I have watched and the people I have talked to over the past three-plus years, I have come to believe that the correct answer varies from person to person. Being the last pitcher standing, the final link between uncertainty and victory, might not phase some guys. But it certainly phases others. Ryan Madson has admitted that closing out ballgames has affected him mentally in the past. You can't really argue with what a guy tells you about how he feels inside. So, in his case, closing a game is a skill. Contreras, on the other hand, has said that he feels like closing helps him mentally, keeps him focus, gets his adrenaline going. Maybe it isn't a surprise that Madson has had a spotty track record in ninth-inning save opportunities over the last couple of seasons. Contreras really hasn't gotten an extended opportunity, but in the brief cameo he made last May when Madson and Lidge were both hurt, he thrived.

II. Is a closer really the most important pitcher in the bullpen?

It's an abstract question, one that really can't be answered unless you define "important." But here's some fodder to suggest that, at the very least, the eighth-inning job is just as difficult as the ninth-inning job:

First, let's take a look at the level of pressure that Madson and Lidge have each experienced over the past few seasons. Obviously, this is not scientific, since Madson's duties were not limited to the eighth inning. But it should give us some idea of how much pressure each pitcher faced in his role. To make sense of this data, you'll have to accept's definition of "High-Leverage," "Medium-Leverage," and "Low-Leverage" situations. In layman's terms, High-Leverage is a situation where the outcome of the game hinges on your performance, low leverage is like pitching the late innings of a blowout, and medium leverage is somewhere in between.

Here are Brad Lidge's and Ryan Madson's plate appearances in each situation over the last three seasons.

Table: Plate Appearances in High, Medium and Low Leverage Situations

Pitcher Year         High Lev    Medium Lev     Low Lev   
Lidge 2010 99 35 59
Madson 2010 98 47 72
Lidge 2009 134 45 104
Madson 2009 135 77 72
Lidge 2008 139 58 95
Madson 2008 90 72 178

So over the last two seasons, Madson and Lidge have pitched in the same number of High-Leverage situations, while Madson has pitched in 44 more medium leverage situations. Of course, Madson has also pitched in more situations, period. But that really doesn't matter, because we are discussing roles as they are defined by the Phillies. And the fact is, in the role Madson has held over the last two seasons, he has logged far more action in high and medium leverage situations than Lidge has (and not because Lidge has missed more time with injury: Madson has spent 70 regular season days on the DL over the last two years. Lidge has spent 65 regular season days on the DL during that span).

In included stats for 2008, but those are fairly irrelevant, because Madson wasn't the primary set-up guy for the whole season that year (remember Tom Gordon?). In fact, fewer than half his appearances came in the eighth inning. So you can pretty much ignore those.

III. Who faces better hitters?

This is the section I find most interesting. Over the last two seasons, Ryan Madson has faced the heart of an opposing team's order more often than Lidge. I've broken down the line-up into three areas: Top of the order (No. 1 and No. 2), Middle (Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6) and bottom (No. 8 and No. 9). Theoretically, a team's best hitters should be located in Group No. 2.

Here are the plate appearances Lidge and Madson have logged against the heart of an opposing team's order over the last three seasons, along with the percentage of their total plate appearances that number equates to:

Table II: Madson, Lidge Plate Appearances Vs. No. 3, 4, 5, 6 hitters

Pitcher Year        TPA        PA v. Middle   Percentage
Lidge 2010 193 76 39.4
Madson 2010 217 104 47.9
Lidge 2009 283 133 47.0
Madson 2009 320 151 47.2
Lidge 2008 292 133 45.6
Madson 2008 340 141 41.5

Just like the leverage situations, Madson has actually faced a higher percentage, and a higher total, of a team's toughest hitters over the last two seasons. Again, the 2008 numbers are tough to gauge because of the uncertainty of Madson's role that year.

IV. If your set-up guy plays just as big a role in helping you win or lose a game as your closer, and in some cases even a bigger role, and Madson is already comfortable in the set-up role, why would you move him to the closer's role?

It's a question the Phillies will have to ponder seriously now that Lidge is out. You can make a strong argument that the Phillies should take a bold stand and not name a closer. The only thing the title does is bring pressure. Maybe the closer should be whatever pitcher happens to record the last out of the game. Ryan Madson has shown the ability to pitch multiple innings. Maybe one night Charlie Manuel likes the way Madson matches up against the opposing hitters due up in the eighth inning better than the way he likes the way Contreras match-ups. Maybe the next night it is the opposite. Maybe one night Madson breezes through the eighth and Manuel leaves him in for the ninth. Maybe one night Madson breezes through the eighth and records an out in the ninth, before Manuel calls on Contreras for the final two outs.

We could even come up with a cool nickname for the combonation, like M.C. Hammer. Get it? M for Madson? C for Contreras? Hammer for what they are trying to do to the victory?

You can probably tell that I don't put as much importance in the closing position as much of the rest of the world. Whatever your philosophy, a strong case can be made for Contreras closing or for both pitchers sharing the role.

V. What does Twitter think?

Of course, the most important question is what Twitter thinks. I asked everybody on Twitter to vote Madson or Contreras, and the majority said Madson.

Here are the results:

Pitcher       Madson     Contreras    Other
Votes 70 41 20
Percent 53.4 31.3 15.3

Here are some of the write-in candidates tallied under "other:"

  1. Mike Stutes: 3
  2. Both: 3
  3. Scott Mathieson: 2
  4. Undecided: 2
  5. Omar Daal
  6. Turk Wendell
  7. Give me the Gas
  8. Roy Halladay
  9. Madtreras
  10. Some guy named Masson
  11. None
  12. Luis Castillo
  13. Big Train (I assume that means Walter Johnson?) 


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