Of all the positives signs the Phillies have shown over the last month, from the continued excellence of their starting rotation to the resurgence of their offense, the most promising might be the performance of Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson at the back end of tight games. Take Thursday's 4-1 victory over the Diamondbacks. Although righthander David Herndon was the star of the show, pitching three scoreless innings after a lengthy rain delay ended Vance Worley's start after the third inning, Arizona homered off of Michael Stutes in the seventh to close the deficit to 4-1. A blast like the one Paul Goldschmidt sent into the bushes in center field could easily have given the D-Backs new life. But after Stutes recorded the final out of the frame, the Phillies turned things over to Bastardo and Madson.
And that meant the game was over.
Opponents had a similar feeling in 2008, when Madson was setting up Brad Lidge during the Phillies' run to the World Series.
But as good as those two were during that season, Bastardo and Madson have been even better this year, at least through 122 games.
A couple of caveats: First, Madson was not exclusively a set-up man during the first half of the 2008 season. In fact, it wasn't until the stretch run that he broke out as the dominant back-end piece that we see in the bullpen today. Second, Bastardo and Madson have logged 22 2/3 fewer innings this year than Lidge/Madson did through 122 games in 2008. That is partly due to Madson's month-long stint on the disabled list, and partly due to the 15 complete games that Phillies starters have logged. In the first 122 games of 2008, Phillies starters logged exactly two complete games.
Anyway, we'll start by comparing the two duos with some of the more common relief statistics:
Bastardo and Madson lead in most major categories. While Lidge was perfect in save opportunities in 2008, Madson was credited with one blown save. This year, Madson blew a ninth-inning save opportunity, while Bastardo has yet to blow a lead in a save situation. When you look at hold, win and save totals, Bastardo and Madson appear to have played a significant positive role in 56 appearances, while Madson and Lidge did so in just 44. Advanced statistical approximations that attempt to quantify situational importance genearally support that observation, but we'll get into that a little later. Also, keep in mind that there was a lot more run-scoring league-wide in 2008 than there currently is. The Phillies led the NL with a 3.22 bullpen ERA in 2008 and were one of only four teams with a sub-4.00 ERA. This year, their 3.30 ERA ranks fourth and there are 12 teams with a sub-3.80 ERA. Again, more on that later.
First, though, let's look at the comparison of their rate stats, all of which measure the average number of the following categories allowed per nine innings: Strikeouts, walks, home runs, hits and extra base hits. The last category is the percentage of hits they allowed that went for extra bases.
Once again, Bastardo/Madson trump Madson/Lidge. Most impressive are the home run and extra-base-hit numbers. But again, offense is down this season. Whether that is because of better pitching or worse hitters is debatable. Still, comparing players between seasons is subject to the context of said seasons.
That context is the reason for the existence of most debates about sports. And most sports fans are OK with that. You look at the quantifications of what actually happened, subject them to your natural ability to reason, and attach meaning to them.
But some folks think there is a better way to settle such arguments, and that way is through statistics that attempt to quantify the "meaning" of each hit, walk, strikeout and so on. How much were those earned runs that Madson and Lidge allowed really worth in real, present-day terms, given the deflation of offense (or the inflation of pitching) around the league? How much did those extra base hits impact the outcome of the games in which they were hit?
If you are vehemently opposed to that kind of thing, you can stop reading now, although I'd suggest that you drop your vehement opposition. Don't get me wrong, I understand it. I'm a big believer in what Charlie Manuel likes to call "the human nature part of the game," and I don't think such a thing can be definitively quantified, at least not to the point where that quantification eliminates all room for subjective evaluation. But the the metrics are based in solid math, and they can be a valuable tool when used with the proper perspective (ex: WAR is the best current mathematical formula we have to approximate the number of wins a player is worth when compared to a replacement-level, or AAAA, player; it is not the ACTUAL number of wins a player was worth to his team).
Because a relievers production is so heavily intertwined with the situations in which he pitches, I have chosen two projections that deal with performance in situations:
Win Probability Added: Long story short, statisticians use an algorithm that approximates the importance of each plate appearance in a game, and then use that to approximate how each plate appearance affected the probability that a player's team would win that game. So if Bastardo pitches a perfect eighth inning in a 2-1 game, his WPA increases (relatively) significantly. If he allows eight runs, it decreases significantly. If he pitches a scoreless ninth inning in a 15-0 game, his WPA will not change much.
RE24: Long story shorter, this is formula that projects how many runs a player's performance is worth. The higher the number, the more runs he prevented (at least for a pitcher). Higher is better. The measurement is based on runs-prevented-above-the-average-player-per-24 outs. That is a simple explanation.
You just have to accept all the number-crunching that led to these formulas. Some people swear by them. I am a born skeptic, so I need to thoroughly examine something for myself before I place any degree of faith in it. But the numbers usually end up jibing, at least generally, with the opinion I get after my brain prioritizes and assesses good old-fashioned rate statistics and combines them with the unquantifiable observations that it makes. So I find them interesting.
I've also included the NL's average relief ERA in 2008 and 2011 and comapred them to Bastardo/Madson and Madson/Lidge's from their respective years.
So WPA suggests the two duos were about even in the number of wins they were worth. Bastardo/Madson has the edge in their run-prevention ability. And when compared against the league average, their ERA is still more than a half a run better.
Of course, any way you evaluate things, both tandems are damn good.
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