Lidge of sighsby Geoff Young
November 11, 2009
Why so unforgiving and why so cold?
Been a long time crossing Lidge of sighs.
In the spirit of Robin Trower's meandering opus, the paragraphs that follow will pose many questions but answer few. Earlier this year, while searching for the worst closers of all time, I found some dreadful performances. Little did I realize that Philadelphia's Brad Lidge soon would put them all to shame.
Lidge, in case you hadn't noticed, struggled mightily in 2009, going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA. He also was credited with 31 saves. Lidge's ERA+ of 59 is easily the lowest among pitchers who have recorded 30 or more saves in a season.
On 16 different occasions, a pitcher has reached the 30-save mark despite an ERA+ below 100. Lidge has the honor of being the only one to accomplish the feat twice. In fact, both of his seasons rank among the five worst ever for a pitcher with at least 30 saves:
A few comments are in order:
- That rightmost column is a garbage stat, but it's kind of fun. Even though the ratio doesn't measure anything, it gives some indication of how ineffective these guys were.
- Props to Borowski and Wilson for breaking the 40-save mark despite their best efforts (and to their managers for having the, um, whatever to stick with them). Truly, I am in awe.
- I had no idea Rocky Biddle was ever a big-league closer.
- The Expos and Orioles both have two representatives on this list. Congratulations to them for that.
- All of these pitchers worked for only one team during the year in question. One wonders if their employers kept thrusting them into save situations in the hope that they might get hot and draw interest from an even more desperate team.
- Chacon, Biddle and Gott were nothing special, but the rest of these guys enjoyed considerable success (Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame) throughout their careers.
Not to belabor the point, but it's worth noting just how historic Lidge's 2009 campaign was. Only three men have broken double figures in saves while posting an ERA+ lower than 60, and one of them (Don McMahon) doesn't really count because he did it in 1960, before the save was adopted as an official statistic.
The other pitcher is Mike Perez, who in 1994 saved 12 games for the Cardinals despite a 48 ERA+ (8.71 ERA). If you're ever looking for ammo in the "anyone can close games" debate, point to Perez's '94 season. Be sure to mention that his manager was Joe Torre.
One more note on Perez, and then we'll get back on track. His splits from that '94 campaign are too delicious not to share:
Small sample or not, that is spectacular. Clearly the lack of pressure was getting to Perez.
Returning to Lidge, I don't know where to begin, so I'll throw out some questions for consideration:
- What the heck was wrong with Lidge in 2009?
- Why did the Phillies run Lidge out there often enough for him to "earn" 31 saves?
- Given that the Phillies won 93 games and gave the Yankees a run for their oodles of money in the World Series, how much did Lidge hurt his team?
- If a guy can rack up saves for a playoff club despite being completely ineffective, how important is the closer role?
- Have there been other cases where a closer dominated one season and tanked the next?
We'll tackle these one at a time. Well, some we'll tackles; others we'll deftly evade.
What the heck was wrong with Lidge in 2009?
We looked at Perez's situational splits a few paragraphs ago; here are Lidge's in 2009:
That's right, with the game on the line, Lidge turned the opposition into Edgar Martinez (career .312/.418/.515 hitter). What was wrong with Lidge? I'll tell you what was wrong: Everything.
Why did the Phillies run Lidge out there often enough for him to "earn" 31 saves?
I have no idea. Neither does David S. Cohen at The Good Phight. Loyalty, I suppose, although at some point, that should yield to common sense.
Hindsight being what it is, we can see that almost anyone on the Phillies staff would have been an improvement over Lidge. Ryan Madson, who posted a 3.26 ERA (131 ERA+), did save 10 games -- he stepped in while Lidge was hurt in June, then again in September, when Charlie Manuel evidently remembered why the ninth-inning guy is called the closer.
But of course, decisions are much easier to make after the outcome is known. Too bad they are irrelevant by then. Perhaps Manuel stuck with Lidge because he figured the veteran would come around. Lidge was a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate in 2008; that kind of recent success will buy you a pretty long rope.
There's also the issue of money. If you're paying one man $12 million and another $2.3 million, which do you give the greater responsibility? I'm not suggesting it's always right to stick with the more expensive option just because he's more expensive, but politically speaking, the choice might not be as clear cut as it appears from the outside.
Granted, these are the types of decisions managers are paid to make, but if you're Manuel and you've been given a $12 million closer by your bosses, how anxious are you to replace him with a cheaper alternative? It's not like sticking Madson in the role saves you money that's already been committed to Lidge.
Then we get into weird areas... like why is Madson (a darned good pitcher) being paid so much less than Lidge (a darned good pitcher with saves)? Seriously, look at their respective career numbers:
Lidge has the better numbers, but not by much. There's no way the difference between a 122 ERA+ and a 117 ERA+ (and to be fair, those numbers were 141 and 115 coming into the season, although that speaks to how volatile relievers are and raises the question of how wise it is to invest so heavily in such an unpredictable commodity, but I digress) in roughly the same number of innings accounts for their salary discrepancy. Maybe Lidge's dominance (12.1 K/9 vs 7.3 for Madson) plays a role, but the real issue here is that Lidge has 195 saves and Madson has 15. Lidge has gotten the opportunities, Madson has not.
In essence, Lidge is being paid more -- a lot more -- because in 2004, when Houston traded Octavio Dotel away, Lidge was handed the keys and didn't lose them. Since then, Lidge has continued to receive save opportunities and accrue exponentially more value than a comparable pitcher that hasn't racked up those precious saves. Madson, meanwhile, continues to wait for his chance to earn saves and the money they bring. (Another esteemed colleague, Steve Treder, has done a nice job of articulating the relationship between saves and money.)
Like I said, we get into weird areas here. And we don't answer the original question in any satisfying way.
Given that the Phillies won 93 games and pushed the Yankees to a Game Six in the World Series, how much did Lidge hurt his team?
Depends on whom you ask. The Dodgers and Rockies probably would say, "not enough." But really, if the Phillies get adequate production from their closer this year, we're talking maybe 98 wins? So they get home-field advantage against Los Angeles and... sweep instead of win in five?
Yes, Lidge imploded in Game Four against the Yankees. Before that, however, he was solid in the post season, winning one and saving three in five appearances against the Dodgers and Rockies.
Madson probably would have given his team a few more wins during the regular season, but I'm not seeing that those wins would have made much of a difference in the Phillies' overall performance. On the basis of Game Four, you could argue that the difference between Lidge and Madson was the difference between losing and winning the World Series. Maybe you'd be right, maybe not; we'll never know. (Corey Seidman addresses the Lidge factor in his discussion of why the Phillies lost the World Series.)
What we do know is the Phillies were National League champions and took a team that went 103-59 to six games. How is that not a wildly successful season by any reasonable standard? How much better could the Phillies have done with someone other than Lidge as their closer?
Which leads to my next question...
If a guy can rack up saves for a playoff club despite being completely ineffective, how important is the closer role?
You could write a book on this topic. How long have we had the one-inning closer? Maybe 20 years? The role ain't what it used to be (as I noted some time ago, Goose Gossage faced more batters while saving 26 games in 1975 than Trevor Hoffman and Francisco Rodriguez did while combining for 93 saves in 2006), and before that, it didn't exist. Yes, baseball has changed since the "good ol' days," but it survived for a very long time without closers.
I don't mean to denigrate anyone who is serving as a big-league closer, but good pitching is good pitching, regardless of what additional labels we may affix. Many of today's closers are excellent pitchers. Others, not so much. A good closer may make a difference, but as Lidge and the Phillies demonstrated this year (in admittedly anecdotal evidence), a bad one may not.
So, why the fuss? It gets back to the money issue. The closer role is important to players and agents because saves convert to money. And who doesn't love money?
How important is the closer role to teams? Someone should study that question (maybe they already have), but I'm inclined to agree with the assessment of ESPN's Jim Caple "that [Jerome] Holtzman's well-intentioned attempt to measure a reliever's worth has been cheapened, manipulated and bastardized to the point that the save is the most overrated stat in baseball and the closer is the most overrated and replaceable role in American sports."
A closer's usage today is dictated almost solely according to whether he has an opportunity to be credited with a save, without regard for the specific situation. In a sense, the closer role is important to teams in that it relieves the manager of any responsibility he might have when deciding which pitcher to send out for the ninth with his team leading by three runs or fewer. The rule dictates the move, and there is no second-guessing.
The downside is that if you're up, 4-3, with one on and one out in the sixth, you can't go to your closer, like Chuck Tanner did with Gossage on May 10, 1975, and ask him to get the final 11 outs to preserve the victory. Nowadays, there seems to be little room for using your best reliever in the most critical situations. Well, maybe.
Have there been other cases where a closer dominated one season and tanked the next?
Yes. There, I finally gave a definitive answer on something.
Looking back to my earlier article and the current one, we find several examples of closers alternating between dominant and useless (it's that volatility thing again). I imagine there are others as well, but this piece is already sprawling enough, so we'll concentrate on these few:
|Year 1||Year 2|
Other pitchers (e.g., Jeff Brantley, LaTroy Hawkins, Jose Mesa, Jeff Montgomery) reached severe highs and lows at various (though not contiguous) points in their career. It's what relievers do, and it's why I'm not comfortable throwing large wads of cash at such unpredictable skill sets.
Again, this list is hardly comprehensive. We aren't conducting a rigorous study on the volatility of closers; we are simply demonstrating that the "Jekyll and Hyde" phenomenon can and does occur in the wild. Lidge isn't the first closer to experience such fluctuations, and he won't be the last.
Don't worry, we're almost done. In a nutshell, here are your take-homes from this exercise:
- If I'm not firmly in the "anyone can close games" camp, I very much lean in that direction; at the very least, it's clear to me that a disproportionate amount of money is being spent on a skill set that may or may not exist.
- It's hard to stop using something you paid a lot of money for even if doesn't work as advertised.
- Saves are probably more important to players and their agents than to the teams that pay them for their services.
- Robin Trower is a fantastic guitarist.
References and Resources
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.