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April 11, 2007

Prospectus Today

Blowing the Lidge Off Your Own Pen

by Joe Sheehan

One of the things you'll become tired of reading from me over the next two months is how it's important to not overreact to a week, a month, even two months of games. Baseball is harder than that. It is possible for players and teams to do things over 50 or 60 games that do not reflect the underlying talent, things that fool us into thinking we know something we don't. Look at the standings on June 1 the last two seasons; there's a lot of misinformation there.

It's more important for the teams themselves to not make the same mistake, of course, and to avoid doling out playing time according to some guy's hot streak or some other player's slump. If a guy like me overreacts, he puts bad analysis into the world; if someone in charge of a lineup or a rotation does, he's messing with a $150 million business, potentially costing his employer tens of millions in revenue.

This is my long way of saying that I'm not sure if Phil Garner knows what he's doing. I get that Brad Lidge looked bad on Sunday afternoon, coughing up three hits and a pair of walks in a mop-up situation. At the same time, I'm reasonably sure that Lidge is the first closer to ever lose his job following a bad outing in a game that his team was losing 5-1 when he walked to the mound. The people who believe in the power of the scarlet "C" are fond of talking about how a true closer doesn't pitch as well when used outside of his protected role. If this is true, how can you demote Lidge based on his get-some-work appearance?

So maybe it wasn't just Sunday's outing. The sum total of Lidge's season prior to that was a blown save on Opening Day, in a game in which he looked all right for two hitters before giving up a first-pitch homer to Xavier Nady on a fastball that wasn't that bad (it was in the lower middle of the plate). Lidge allowed a double and a walk before getting out of that inning. He didn't pitch for five days after that, then pitched poorly Sunday, then landed out of a job.

If you're going to make a change based on that sequence-an unspectacular blown save, five days off, a bad mop-up outing-why did you bother leaving Florida with Lidge as your closer? You knew essentially nothing more about Brad Lidge this Monday morning than you did on the last one. What's the motivation for the change? Lidge pitched poorly in spring training, not enough to lose his job, but just enough to make him almost lose his job? So Garner opened his season with his closer essentially on probation, based on…practice?!?

This is panic, and misplaced panic at that. The Astros had five losses when Phil Garner made this decision. One of them was arguably attributable to Lidge (who, it should be noted, left with the game tied); the other four were all about the team's lousy hitters, a group that scored 16 runs and put up a .283 OBP in the season's first week. Craig Biggio played worse than Lidge did and kept his job; so did Chris Burke. Demoting Brad Lidge was a reaction to the Astros' inability to score, a tantrum, kicking the dog because you had a bad day at work. Lidge lost his job because his teammates didn't hit for a week.

Is it the right move, anyway? Dan Wheeler isn't a bad pitcher, an agate-type pickup from 2004 who has given the Astros two very strong seasons as Lidge's set-up man and occasional replacement. He has the peripheral stats you like in a closer, nearly a strikeout per inning and nearly a 4:1 K/BB ratio (after intentional walks are pulled out of the equation) the last two seasons. For a guy who throws about half his innings at Minute Maid Park, allowing just 12 home runs in 144 2/3 innings the past two seasons is very impressive. That's his biggest edge on Lidge.

Wheeler isn't a bad pitcher. You can make an argument that he's better than Lidge right now, and as such, that he's more deserving of the perceived highest-leverage role. The problem is the process; Wheeler and Lidge are the same pitchers they were ten days ago. Flipping their roles wasn't decision making, it was reaction. It's the wrong way to run the team. Garner has said that the role change is temporary, which makes the whole thing look even sillier; you're going to temporarily demote someone based on the available information?

The postscript is the best part. Yesterday, Wheeler got knocked around a bit by the Cubs, turning a 4-0 game when he entered into a 4-2 game in short order. With two outs and two on, Wheeler got a good look at how Garner is handling things: Lidge was warming up in the bullpen.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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<< Previous Article
Starting Over Again (04/11)
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Prospectus Today: Play... (04/09)
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Premium Article Prospectus Today: Sche... (04/17)
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