October 22, 2008
In a career filled with ups and downs, Brad Lidge is currently on a high note. His team is in the World Series, of course, but that's partially in thanks to his performance as the team's closer this year. This was a season in which he led the majors in WXRL and went a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities. This was somewhat of a surprise, given that just last year Lidge had lost the closer's job in Houston thanks to eight blown saves and just 19 successful conversions. In light of that recent failure, which Lidge is the real one, and how did he get to the point he is at now?
Bradley Thomas Lidge attended the University of Notre Dame after failing to sign with the Giants when they drafted him in the 42nd round of the 1995 amateur entry draft. While with the Fighting Irish, he would put up three seasons that do not impress much, if at all. He threw just 48 combined innings during his first two seasons there, mixing time as a starter and a reliever and walking far more batters than he should; despite punching out 9.3 batters per nine, he managed to post just a 1.5 K/BB ratio. Though not exactly eye-popping either, his junior year at Notre Dame at least featured better control, as Lidge struck out 10.5 per nine while walking 4.4 over 80 innings and 15 starts. That was enough to lead the Astros to select Lidge 1,150 picks earlier than his last time in the draft, as they made him the 17th overall pick in 1998.
The right-hander would sign in July, and start his professional career at Quad City in the Midwest League. He threw just 11 innings there, striking out six and walking five before the season ended. The next two seasons would be spent pitching for Kissimmee in the Florida State League, but Lidge, then a starter, would rarely take the mound due to various injuries. When he did manage to pitch, he was successful: in 1999, he struck out 19 in 21
During his three years as a pro, Lidge had multiple elbow surgeries, the last of which interrupted a stint in the Arizona Fall League in order to remove bone chips. The Astros felt that throwing his curveball was part of the reason for the persistent health issue, so that pitch was replaced in his repertoire by a slider in the hopes that he would be able to stay on the mound more often. Baseball America would rank Lidge the 11th-best prospect in the organization heading into the 2001 season, but BA warned that without a changeup or valid third pitch, Lidge's future might lie in the bullpen.
Lidge was now 24 years old, and headed above A-ball for the first time. His first season at Double-A went much like the previous years: he put up an excellent K rate (14.5 per nine) and even managed to drop his walk rate again (2.4), but he did that over the course of just five starts and 26 innings, this time heading to the DL with fraying in his shoulder that required yet another surgery to fix. At this point his ability was just taunting the Astros, as he could not keep himself on the mound, but he put up incredible numbers whenever he did. His fastball sat in the mid-90s, but he could touch 98 with it, and the slider that he replaced his old curve with had turned into an incredible pitch. He still lacked a third pitch though—although it's tough to work on one when you never get to pitch with any regularity—and the Astros had moved to the point of wanting him to be a reliever.
Despite this latest injury, Baseball America ranked Lidge the fifth-best prospect in the system, and discussed how Tim Purpura, then Houston's farm director, had given Lidge a copy of Rob Nenn's bio from the Giants media guide as a source of inspiration. Lidge's career path was much like Nenn's: the former big-league closer had been injured for six straight seasons in the minors before eventually turning into a dominating closer at the major league level. Baseball Prospectus 2002 agreed with the notion of making Lidge a pen man, saying, "Lidge is a prospect in the same way that Jeff D’Amico (the big one on the Brewers) is a Cy Young candidate, but he’s talented enough to become an outstanding reliever someday."
The 2002 season would see Lidge start the year back at Double-A Round Rock, and though he pitched just 11 innings there, this time it was due to his first in-season promotion. He spent most of his campaign pitching for Triple-A New Orleans, throwing 111
Baseball America now ranked Lidge the third overall prospect in the organization, thanks to his surviving the 2002 campaign and putting up excellent numbers. They praised his slider, which was deemed "unhittable" and was said to "have so much life it often gets mistaken for a splitter." He was healthy, so he was ready to join the Astros as a full-time reliever in the 2003 campaign. Lidge would appear in 78 games, throwing 85 innings, whiffing 10.3 per nine, and his unintentional walks were halfway decent at 3.7 per nine. He finished third on the team in WXRL, rounding out an excellent Astros bullpen behind Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 felt that Lidge was a great reliever, but warned that "Lidge will remain a risk for the rest of his career: His rough mechanics put a lot of torque on his elbow, and he's vulnerable to the kind of fatigue that plagued him in stretches last year under [manager] Jimy Williams' demanding workload. But now he stands a great chance of providing three to four years of excellent relief for a low price…" With the departure of Billy Wagner to the Phillies, Dotel would move up to become the team's closer, with Lidge taking on Dotel's former role as the primary set-up man. Lidge's success in the first half would allow the team to deal Dotel for Carlos Beltran, turning the Astros into a legitimate playoff contender. Lidge's season as a whole was extremely productive, with a relief-record 157 strikeouts over 94
Baseball Prospectus 2005 still liked Lidge, but threw out the reminder that "He's not young; remember that he basically lost three years to arm problems, making just 19 appearances from 1999 through 2001. If recent history is a guide, he'll pitch another three months at his 2004 level, then regress just a bit." While he did put up another monster campaign, it wasn't of the same quality as the one that preceded it: Lidge threw 70
That Pujols home run became something of the moment when Lidge's profile as a premium reliever jumped the shark, because it seemed that this was also when his confidence and best stuff left him behind. Though there are explanations for his struggles besides this, even Lidge has admitted that he lost a lot of confidence in his ability following that one game. He struggled badly in 2006: Lidge threw 75 innings, but with a 5.28 ERA thanks to a significant increase in his walks (3.8 per nine) and a homer rate that was nearly double what he had managed his first three years in the majors (1.2 per nine). Even with that, part of his problems had to do with poor luck, as his FIP was 3.79 and he had allowed roughly 10 percent more baserunners to score than was normal for a pitcher, and even further below what he had managed during his previous two years as a closer.
As if he didn't have enough troubles, Baseball Prospectus 2007 expressed concern about Lidge's health:
The joke goes that the ball Albert Pujols hit off Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS still hasn't landed. If so, it appears to have taken Lidge's confidence along for the ride. Sabermetric orthodoxy would suggest that anyone can close, but Lidge never seemed to recover from that shot to the ego, flailing in the closer role last year. For those looking for a physical explanation for his poor showing, Lidge has a long history of arm and specifically elbow issues (as a starter in the low minors, he appeared in just 19 games from 1999 to 2001) owing to his violent mechanics. His struggles with his control last year just might be a portent of another date with the surgeon's table.
His 2007 numbers were almost exactly the same as his 2006 ones, with a few minor exceptions. His strikeout rate dipped to 11.8, and his unintentional walk rate was 3.5 per nine while he once again allowed 1.2 homers per nine, but this time around his strand rate was a more normal 78 percent, which resulted in a 3.36 ERA and an FIP of 3.88. He did manage to blow eight saves, marring an otherwise good season, and that is the number that stuck out in the minds of those evaluating Lidge. (If you need further evidence of this, consider that Lidge was egregiously awarded the NL Comeback Player of the Year award this season, despite posting a (deserved) ERA in the mid-three range and throwing 67 innings in 2007.)
Tired of wondering about the psychological baggage, the Astros decided to send Lidge packing to Philadelphia, where the change of scenery helped him return to form as a dominant closer. Thanks to a tip in 2007 from an opposing hitter (who remains anonymous), Lidge was able to fix his homer problem in 2008, which essentially brought him back to the days when he was a force to be reckoned with on the mound, and not just a pretty good reliever. That nameless hitter let Lidge know that he was tipping his pitches, and at that point, the only people who didn't know about it were on the Astros. As David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News put it this summer, "When he held his glove high at the start of his delivery, he was throwing a fastball. When he kept the glove low at the waist, he was preparing to unleash his trademark slider." That's pretty blatant and easily recognizable, and goes a long ways towards explaining the rapid increase in his home run rate the previous two years.
Though he walked over four batters per nine this season, he managed to drop his homer rate by nearly a full home run per nine, helping to soften the blow of those walks and give him an ERA of 1.95 and a FIP mark of 2.41. He is the key to the Philly pen, which makes him one of the important figures in the series. If Lidge is able to avoid giving up the long ball, he can help the Phillies end their championship drought, and given his previous struggles on the post-season stage as well as Philadelphia's history with bullpen collapses in October, it's hard not to root for him to have some success, even if it's against the fun, upstart Rays.—Marc Normandin
Every year, we hear fans and analysts lament their team's woes in the bullpen. From reading numerous blogs and newspaper articles, it seems that just about every non-playoff team struggled due to having "the worst bullpen." This simply was not the case for the 2008 Phillies, who arguably handed the ball to the best bullpen in the major leagues, and one holding down fort in the playoffs. That's in no small part because their bullpen is anchored by Brad Lidge, who has seemingly shaken his "psychological trauma" from the 2005 postseason. Yes, I'm being sarcastic, because that incident was completely overblown.
Lidge led major league baseball with a 7.59 WXRL this past season, meaning that his appearances added over seven and a half wins to the Phillies above what a replacement-level closer would have produced. If anybody wants to point to a significant reason why the Phils were able to overtake the Mets, this would be a good place to start. Lidge's lead in WXRL was so dominant that Mariano Rivera, who essentially produced his best season to date, finished second, over one and a half wins less valuable to the Yankees than Lidge was to the Phils. Lidge was not facing poor offenses either, as his Quality of Opponents' OPS of 770 ranked second in the senior circuit amongst those with at least 50 innings pitched.
In 72 appearances, he posted a 1.95 ERA and 2.41 FIP en route to a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities. While the saves statistic itself is useless without context, that Lidge did not blow any saves is significant and a major reason why his WXRL soared so high. The 2.41 FIP is lower than his marks in 2006 and 2007, and very close to the 2.29 posted in his 2005 breakout season. Were his controllable skills back in line with 2005, though, and better than the 3.79 and 3.88 FIPs from 2006-07? Well, the 2.41 is undeniably much lower, but the contributing factors portend some smoke and mirrors.
A clip of 11.9 K/9 is fantastic, but it actually simply equals his 2007 rate, and it's lower than the rates posted from 2004-06. Additionally, his 4.0 UBB/9 is the highest in any full season of his career. Couple a declining strikeout rate with a rising walk rate and we arrive at the conclusion that his controllable skills success relied upon a career-best mark in homer prevention: from 2004-07, Lidge's HR/FB rates were 10.0 percent, 10.4 percent, 16.1 percent, and 13.2 percent. In 2008, he allowed homers on only 3.9 percent of his fly balls. With a normalized home-run rate, Lidge's FIP would be closer to 3.10, better than 2006-07, but worse than his high-water marks of 2004-05.
In terms of what he's doing on the mound, he relied more on his slider this year, throwing it 56 percent of the time, with fastballs accounting for the other 44 percent. In years past, he threw the fastball 55 percent of the time or more, even mixing in what appeared to be the occasional cutter or splitter. The interesting aspect of his slider is that he rarely throws it for a strike, meaning that in theory a patient hitter could take some pitches and force him to throw the heater. Unfortunately for hitters, putting this theory to practice is a very tough task, and while his fastball velocity was a tad reduced in the regular season, he has been dialing it up to 95-96 mph in the postseason.
Another interesting aspect of Lidge's performance worth touching on is his rates of balls in play. In 2005, he had a G/F ratio of 0.69, that jumped to 1.52 in 2006, meaning that for every fly ball he got one and a half grounders. In 2007, it dipped to 1.0, before rising back to 1.43 in 2008. Because he throws so hard and occasionally leaves balls up in the zone, he has garnered the reputation as a fly-ball pitcher, but the stats tend to contradict that characterization. Regardless, the HR/FB rate he posted in 2008 cannot possibly stay as low as it did this season, meaning he will almost certainly regress next year. The dominating Lidge from 2003-05 is gone, but even with this likely regression, he should still be a top-tier closer moving forward.—Eric Seidman
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.