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September 3, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Lidge and the Matter of Historic Horror

by Eric Seidman

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Yesterday, we broke down Brad Lidge's poor 2009 campaign in an attempt to diagnose and pinpoint the reasons behind his drastic decline in performance. And boy howdy has that decline been drastic, as Lidge went from the top reliever in the game last season with a league-best 7.61 WXRL, a 1.95 ERA, and an 82.9 percent strand rate to marks of -1.93, 7.03, and 62.9 percent, respectively. After examining various facets of his game in relation to years past, it seemed that the larger issue of his approach proved problematic, with Lidge currently averaging around 93 mph-likely as a result of his prior knee injuries-yet continuing to pitch as if he regularly pumps gas at 96-97 mph. Today, however, we will answer the question of where Lidge's terrible 2009 season ranks historically amongst the worst relief and/or closer seasons of all time.

Right off the bat, the investigation becomes tricky because very few relievers performing as poorly as our subject have been able to hold down steady high-leverage work into the final month of the season. Lidge's -1.93 WXRL currently ranks dead last in baseball, approximately seven-tenths of a win worse than runner-up Kyle Farnsworth. Perhaps a repeat of last season's dominance should not have been expected in any way, shape or form, but if Lidge had performed similarly to, say, John Grabow during his run with the Pirates this season, the swing from -1.9 to 3.5 wins would likely have the Phillies leading the senior circuit's potential playoff pack for home-field advantage.

In looking at WXRL from a historical standpoint (1954-2009), I used 40 innings pitched as a minimum. The ten seasons below constitute the worst relieved seasons ever meeting this criteria:

Year  Pitcher              IP    SV   BS    WXRL
1992  Steve Wilson        66.2    0    5   -2.86
1988  Goose Gossage       43.2   13   10   -2.74
1984  Pete Ladd           91.0    3    7   -2.64
1998  Bobby Ayala         75.1    8    9   -2.57
2001  Juan Acevedo        60.1    0    5   -2.49
1971  Lindy McDaniel      69.2    4    7   -2.45
1971  Ron Perranoski      60.2    7    7   -2.36
1986  Ron Davis           58.2    2    4   -2.35
2008  Jason Isringhausen  42.2   12    7   -2.34
1965  Jack Baldschun      99.0    6    6   -2.31

Lidge's current season, obviously still in progress, ranks 32nd from the bottom. While his numbers are certainly awful, a fair share of relievers have performed worse, which is an interesting concept to fathom, as it becomes particularly difficult to imagine a reliever less effective and with similar playing time than he has been this season. However, one aspect of that table should stick out like a sore thumb: very few of the players were full-time closers, and those few who were did not keep the job for the entire season.

In 1988, Goose Gossage led the Cubs with his 13 saves, but would ultimately lose his job in the middle of the season; Frank DiPino saved six games, and Les Lancaster chipped in with five more. Of course, not all of Gossage's 10 blown saves came in the final frame, but breaking up legitimate save opportunities is a topic for another day. Jason Isringhausen's ineffectiveness last season led to a brief Tony La Russa experiment with Chris Perez before the out-of-nowhere emergence of Ryan Franklin began to captivate audiences. In spite of the awful numbers he has posted this season, Lidge has yet to be demoted from the role of closer, and he has racked up 27 saves in 36 opportunities, a staggering number of chances given his league-worst WXRL while giving little indication of turning things around.

After all, relievers performing as poorly as those in the table above are going to struggle to remain on a major league roster, let alone continue to be the go-to hurlers in the most crucial situations. With that in mind, what, then, is the worst WXRL amongst those pitchers with 40 or more innings pitched who also managed at least 30 save opportunities? A quick addition of a filter to the coding and… well, ain't that dandy? Such a list happens to be topped by none other than Brad Lidge himself. In second place, a full quarter of a win better is Shawn Chacon, who, in 2004 saved 35 of 44 games while posting an ugly 7.11 ERA and -1.79 WXRL. The full list comprising the all-time bottom ten:

Year  Pitcher              IP    SV   BS    WXRL
2009  Brad Lidge          48.2   27    9   -1.93
2004  Shawn Chacon        63.1   35    9   -1.79
2001  LaTroy Hawkins      51.1   28    9   -1.52
1984  Ron Davis           83.0   29   14   -1.49
2003  Mike Williams       63.0   28    7   -1.47
2006  Ryan Dempster       75.0   24    9   -1.27
2006  Derrick Turnbow     56.1   24    8   -1.24
2006  Ambiorix Burgos     73.1   18   12   -1.21
2005  Jose Mesa           56.2   27    7   -1.16
1995  Dennis Eckersley    50.1   29    9   -0.97

Essentially, only nine regular closers since 1954 have had 30 or more save opportunities with a WXRL mark south of the -1.00 win border. Through August, Lidge has already soared to the top of the chart, in one way putting him on the fast track to the worst closer season in history. But what happens if we incorporate ERA into the mix? Upon re-sorting, the top five consists of names from the prior table in jumbled fashion, but interestingly enough, Lidge appears twice in that particular trailerboard: second, with his 7.03 ERA right now, and ninth, with a 5.28 mark back in his supposed psyche-affected-by-Pujols 2006 season. How about if we add in the ERA stipulation of greater than or equal to 6.00? That query produces a measly four names:

Year  Pitcher            ERA    WXRL
2004  Shawn Chacon      7.11   -1.79
2009  Brad Lidge        7.03   -1.93
2006  Derrick Turnbow   6.87   -1.24
2003  Mike Williams     6.13   -1.47

Following his awful 2004 campaign, the Rockies pressed Chacon into starting duty the next season, and after a mid-season trade to the Yankees he managed to put up a 2.85 ERA and 1.21 WHIP as a member of the Bombers' rotation. Turnbow's career is likely done at this point, although it would not shock me in the least to see some team take a flier on his services. Mike Williams saved 46 games with a sparkly sub-3.00 ERA in 2002, earning a spot on the All-Star team that made sense at the time, unlike his All-Star berth the very next season, when he had an ERA over 6.00 at the break. After dialing up the putridity to 6.27, Williams was traded to the Phillies, where he finished the campaign by posting a 5.96 ERA and 1.00 K/BB. Suffice to say, the offers for his skills did not exactly roll in the next season, and Williams found himself forced into early retirement.

Of the four pitchers listed above, only Lidge remains a major league pitcher. Still, I find it incredibly remarkable that, especially with the pertinent time span extending back 55 seasons, Lidge still finds himself in uncharted territory. In fact, even his teammate, the unprojectable Jamie Moyer, has more comparisons as a 92-year-old starting pitcher than Lidge does as a closer given consistent and regular playing time with atrocious statistics.

The next area to pique my interest in this regard involved yearly swings in WXRL; Lidge has gone from a 7.61 to a -1.93, a swing of -9.54 wins from one year to the next. Running a query on those with 40 or more innings but without the save opportunities filter produces the following results:

Years    Pitcher            WXRL 1  WXRL 2  DELTA
1970-71  Lindy McDaniel      7.55   -2.45  -10.00
2008-09  Brad Lidge          7.61   -1.93   -9.54
1977-78  Bill Campbell       6.45   -1.64   -8.09
1989-90  Mark Davis          6.32   -1.57   -7.89
2007-08  J.J. Putz           7.39   -0.49   -7.88
1979-80  Jim Kern            7.28   -0.57   -7.85
1980-81  Doug Corbett        7.84    0.03   -7.81
1973-74  John Hiller         9.58    1.89   -7.69
1978-79  Rollie Fingers      5.22   -2.30   -7.52
1970-71  Mudcat Grant        7.59    0.25   -7.34

An interesting facet of this swing table is that a few of the guys at the bottom of the list remained positive in the second season, but had performed so admirably in the initial year that the delta found its way onto the trailerboard. The cases of Lidge and Lindy McDaniel stand out as far and away worse than all competitors, with Lidge just about 1.5 wins worse than third place finisher Bill Campbell. Looking solely at Lidge's career, here is the same table:

Years    Team(s)  WXRL 1  WXRL 2  DELTA
2008-09  Phillies  7.61   -1.93   -9.54
2005-06  Astros    4.63    0.80   -3.83
2004-05  Astros    8.14    4.63   -3.51
2006-07  Astros    0.80    2.05    1.25
2003-04  Astros    3.58    8.14    4.56
2007-08  HOU/PHI   2.05    7.61    5.56

An entire month remains for Lidge to beautify his current beast-like numbers, but we cannot ignore the possibility that the numbers may continue to slide. Even with confirmation biases in full force having even taken hold of skipper Charlie Manuel, forcing many fans and Phillies personnel to treat any teeny, tiny sign as an indication that Lidge has turned his season around, the thought must be lurking in the back of their minds that they could theoretically get home-field advantage up until the World Series, and yet not have a reliable closer. Many have pointed to Lidge's last couple of weeks as evidence that he has improved, but the stretch of five saves in six opportunities is marred by a 5.06 ERA, still unacceptable for a closer on a championship contender. If Lidge's numbers continue to worsen, Charlie Manuel will undergo intense scrutiny and be forced to make a very tough decision, but that is what baseball is all about. We hear so much that baseball is a business, yet that only seems to apply to trades and free agency; if Lidge continues to blow leads and pitch below replacement level, the Phillies will not be maximizing the results of their on-field product.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Phillies have a comfortable lead in the NL East with a 7½ game lead over the Braves, and a 8½ game lead over the Marlins entering Thursday's action, meaning that the ramifications of his poor performance are not nearly as vast as they would be if the Phillies held just a three- or four-game lead. If Lidge can string together a slew of solid outings-and by solid I am not referring to converted saves involving the surrender of two runs with a three-run lead upon entry-then maybe he has turned the proverbial corner, but the odds are certainly not in his favor. On top of that, any corner-turning will only occur and cement itself if Lidge, as we discussed yesterday, alters his approach and begins to pitch to his current skill level-throwing a 93 mph heater-and not as if he still averages 96-97 mph.

Add in that Chan Ho Park has been dominant since joining the pen and that Brett Myers, their closer in 2007, is on his way back from the DL, and Lidge should in no way be secure in his role at this point. Nevertheless, he appears to have an ample supply of job security. Second and third chances are one thing, but ninth or tenth chances are an entirely different animal. He will probably continue to close games for the Phillies in September and into the postseason, doing just enough to convince those with decision-making power that he has figured things out while performing poorly enough in the other outings to raise questions, but the Phillies cannot afford to put loyalty ahead of winning, as the fan base would much rather have a second straight championship than the knowledge that, hey, at least Brad Lidge's feelings were not hurt.

As the data in this article suggests, this is not merely a poorly closed season, but rather one of the worst two or three closed seasons in major league history, if not the worst-closed season ever. Only four closers since 1954 have been given the opportunity to save games while posting ERAs north of 6.00, a list on which Lidge currently sports the second-worst mark. There have also only been nine pitcher-seasons in the same span throughout which a reliever had the opportunity to save 30 or more games with a WXRL below -1.00 wins, a list that Lidge's current -1.93 mark tops. That the Phillies have managed to come this far in spite of such an awful season not only speaks to the quality of their team, but also subtly hints at the idea that a closer might not be all that important if the unit can fire on all other cylinders. Then again, as the secret sauce dictates, strong closers are necessities in recipes for post-season success. If Lidge cannot figure things out, the Phillies cannot continue to sit around, waiting for last season's magic to return.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Shawn Chacon,  Worst Seasons,  The Who,  Mark Grant

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