It’s impossible to know if a single pitch that ends with a bad result can serve as an alarm bell for a pitcher, but ever since Brad Lidge gave up that game-winning home run to Ryan Zimmerman in Washington last weekend, he’s been almost unhittable.
Lidge has appeared in four games since serving up that homer with a one-run lead with one out in the ninth inning at Nationals Park where he has faced 11 hitters and retired 10 of them. Of those 11 hitters, Lidge notched four strikeouts, allowed one single and picked up three more saves to give him 13 this season in 17 chances.
The difference has been his command, says Manuel.
“He’s getting ahead of the hitters or when he falls behind early in the count he rebounds and catches up and he’s in a position to avoid what I call a ‘have-to’ count where he has to throw a certain pitch,” Manuel said. “He’s been getting his slider over and throwing enough fastballs inside. He’s been throwing more strikes.”
No, his season stats don’t pop off the page, but it hasn’t been awful. Though there still is that sense of impending doom when Lidge comes in from the bullpen in the ninth inning and a noticeable loss of velocity in his fastball that he doesn’t throw nearly as much as he did in the past, the results are much improved from last season. Yes, there is still talk about replacing Lidge as the Phillies’ closer amongst fans and media-types, and the $11.5 million he is owed for the 2011 season seems like one of those contracts that might be a year too long. However, when one looks inside the results the conclusion is things could be far worse with any number of closers around the league.
Moreover, when Lidge’s contract ends at the end of next season, there is a pretty good chance that he will have more saves than any anyone else in team history. Lidge needs 27 more saves to tie Jose Mesa with 112 and if he gets there he will probably do it in approximately 50 fewer innings.
So what’s the problem?
For one thing, it’s the ninth inning and it’s a close game. If it wasn’t that way, Lidge wouldn’t be in the game doing that tightrope act where the slightest slip up could end up in a crash landing.
As that goes, there are a handful of tell-all signs that determine whether or not Lidge will be trading high-fives with his teammates at the end of the game or moping off the field with his head down. For instance, if he allows a walk or a hit to the first batter he faces, things have a tendency to go bad. In 28 outings this season, Lidge has allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base eight times (seven on hits) and as those innings progress he has allowed six hits, six walks and seven runs for an ERA of 9.45.
Compared to the 20 games where Lidge gets the first guy out, he has allowed six runs. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things go much more smoothly when Lidge gets that first out quickly, though he has blown a pair saves in both instances and the Phillies are 6-2 in games where he allows the first hitter to reach base.
Plus, these splits are pretty indicative of most relief pitchers. The result of the first pitch often determines how the at-bat will go and the first hitter can sway the trajectory of the rest of the inning.
Now, quickly, a few things on Lidge…
Lidge has saved 30 games in four of his six full seasons with two years where he got more than 40 saves. For a historical perspective, Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.
Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge. Certainly that will change when guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman get in, but if he were able to get into a time machine and transport his stats to the 1970s and early ‘80s, Lidge would be on the path to a Hall-of-Fame career.
Infamously, Lidge also has the highest ERA in baseball history for a pitcher with over 20 saves when he got 31 with a 7.21 ERA last season. Manager Charlie Manuel probably would have gone with a different closer if he had one to do that tightrope act as well as Lidge. Since he didn’t (and doesn’t still), Manuel has a pretty good read on what makes for a smooth night for his closer.
Like any pitcher, if Lidge can command his pitches things are going to go well. It doesn’t matter if his fastball is 92-mph or 96 as long as he doesn’t give any free passes. In fact, this season Lidge has walked 14 hitters in 11 outings over 11 innings. In those 11 games/innings, the opposition has scored 11 runs off of Lidge and in three of his four blown saves he’s walked at least one hitter.
“The biggest thing about him is when he can stay away from walking guys or getting behind in the count, it’s almost like any other pitcher,” Manuel said. “That’s when he can get people out.”
No, it’s not a big mystery when it comes to being a successful closer. It’s simple, really… throws strikes, get outs. It couldn’t be any less complicated. But what is complicated is what happens in a game when Lidge is just one out—one pitch—away from getting out of an inning. And in more cases than not, getting out of the inning means ending the game for Lidge.
For some unknown reason, Lidge has allowed 10 of his 13 runs this season with two outs. With two outs, hitters are 12-for-38 against him with six extra-base hits (three homers) and eight walks. That comes to a .435 on-base percentage and 1.066 OPS with two outs…
In the last inning of the game.
Is this where the lack of velocity on the fastball gets Lidge? Sure, the slider is his bread-and-butter pitch, but he needs a good fastball to set it up. With two outs in the last inning of a game it seems as if hitters are waiting for that one pitch, which means now more than ever the closer needs to lean on his guile and wits.