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Lessons From the Mad Dog in a New Shade of Red

The Reds picked up a top tier closer on a short deal, and there are plenty of reasons to love this in real life and in fantasy. In fact, the real life reasons inform the fantasy reasons. It’s all one big package, and Ryan “Mad Dog” Madson is the bow.

Why love it in real life? The Reds aren’t on the hook after 2012, and that probably suits them fine. Relievers are volatile from year to year, even one as nice as the Mad Dog. And the Reds are an exercise in learning from their own mistakes.

Consider the case of their last closer, who got four years and $45 million at the tender age of 34. Francisco Co-Co Cordero was already in decline — by the definition of pitcher aging curves — and of course more decline was on the way. He promptly went out and, in the last three years of that big deal, showed the three worst swinging strike and strikeout rates of his career, with each year worse than the last. (Incidentally, there will be more on this general issue coming on the front of the site later today.)

Madson will ‘only’ be 32 comparatively, but he has looked about as good as Cordero did leading up to the deal. Check out the two relievers’ three seasons before they signed their respective deals with the Reds, side by side:

K/9 BB/9 GB% swSTR%
Francisco Cordero 2005-2007 10.8 3.5 41.3 14.9
Ryan Madson 2009-2011 9.6 2.4 48.4 14.6

If Madson looks like a can’t-miss closer, all it takes is looking back at a 33-year-old Cordero to remember that age comes for everyone. In the short term, Madson should be fine — after all, even Cordero managed one good year with the Reds, and he’s coming off a season with good enough numbers that shaving a little off the top shouldn’t turn him into a pumpkin.

But give Madson three years and he’ll probably turn in a stinker.

Maybe not from the park effects. He’s moving from a bandbox that increases home runs 16% for lefties and 20% for righties to a bandbox that increases home runs 20% for lefties and 33% for righties. The Mad Dog has a decent platoon split (4.17 career FIP vs LHB, 3.27 vs RHB), but he’s smoothed that out the last couple years, probably due to that slight change in repertoire and the added oomph on his fastball that showed up in 2009. In any case, the stadium won’t be a boon, nor will it be something completely novel to the slinger.

But age will come for Madson eventually, and the Reds were right to sign him to a short-term deal. This is also very true in your ottoneu and keeper leagues — treat relievers as fungible. If you can get a cheap young position player if you throw in your stud veteran closer, do it. Of course, in ottoneu, Madson’s average cost is only $6.56 because of the uncertainty surrounding him. So he’s actually probably a pretty good keeper, but if he’s the difference between landing that young stud and not… don’t let him be that difference. (And if it’s Heath Bell and his $12 average cost, don’t think twice.)

Long story short, think short — as in short-term deals for your relievers if you are forced to keep them at all. The Reds have learned the lesson and so should you.