The Tenth Inning – Week 9 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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Pitchers are a strange group of athletes. Similar to goalies in hockey, drummers in a rock band, or gym teachers at school, they’re always treated a little differently than everyone else. Within that group of outcasts, however, is an even more ostracized collection of players – the closers. Since the advent of (and subsequent importance placed upon) the save statistic, every team has longed to find that “shut-down” closer, the one who causes other teams hearts to sink every time they enter the game. At any given time, there are usually only about five, maybe ten, of these players in the entire league, and that’s being a bit generous. Names like Hoffman, Rivera, Gagne, Wagner, Lidge, Percival, Papelbon, Nathan, and Rodriguez have headlined that list during the past decade, with countless others (Jenks, C. Cordero, F. Cordero, Street, Isringhausen, Gregg, etc.) following their lead. Now, a young crop of relievers like Carlos Marmol for the Cubs and Matt Lindstrom for the Marlins appear poised, with the ability and mental makeup, to make a leap as well.
A funny thing happened recently, though – the old guard, the invincible few, started getting cracked around. Percival struggled through arm troubles during the mid-00’s, and despite reviving his career in Tampa, he’s no longer at that elite level. Dave Roberts stole one base and instantaneously brought down the invincibility of Mariano (though to be fair, the other 28 teams still can’t really touch him). Gagne blew out his arm, and Wagner followed suit, and it was only a matter of time before age caught up with all of them.
This past weekend, however, should illustrate to every baseball fan alive why the fate of every team hinges upon the bullpen, and specifically the closer. In 2008, Phillies closer Brad Lidge finished the regular season 41-for-41 in save opportunities, then slammed the door on 7 more in the playoffs for a perfect 48-for-48 season. Their division rival Mets, meanwhile, saw Wagner blow 8 leads in the 9th inning before being lost for the season to an injury in August, after which things only got worse. In all, NY blew 28 save opportunities, 11 of them in the ninth inning, en route to losing the division by three games and the Wild Card by one. Suffice it to say that had Wagner and the Mets even converted at the MLB-standard rate of approximately 65-70%, they would have won the NL East, which is why to this day I still believe that the MVP of the National League in 2008 should have been Brad Lidge.
Now back to this weekend. Already with six blown saves on the season, Lidge is handed the ball in the ninth inning in Dodger Stadium Friday night and asked to protect a 1-run lead. After retiring the first two batters he faced, he jumped ahead of Casey Blake 1-2 before Blake lined a single to left-center. He then had to face left-handed hitting James Loney, who finally enacted the best game plan for any hitter wishing to have success against Lidge – he didn’t swing! Last season, Lidge excelled at getting ahead of hitters with his fastball and then forcing them to chase his extremely deceptive slider out of the zone for strikes 2 and 3. Not Loney. He earned a walk, and after Pedro Feliz booted the would-be game-ending grounder from Russell Martin to load the bases, Andre Eithier did the other thing a successful hitter does against Lidge. He drilled the first-pitch fastball down the right field line for a game winning double and Lidge’s seventh blown save.
Saturday afternoon, the Phillies led 2-1 going to the final inning and once again turned the ball over to their closer. This time Lidge retired the leadoff man to bring up Rafael Furcal. Now Furcal is not a power hitter, but as a switch hitter who tends to slap the ball a bit more from the left-hand side, he likes the ball down and in when hitting from that side. Undeterred, Lidge challenged the weak-hitting shortstop with a 2-2 slider that broke down and in, and Furcal launched it into the right field bleachers, just beyond the reach of Jayson Werth. The Phillies eventually lost the game in the 12th on a solo homerun from Andre Eithier off Chad Durbin.
All of this goes to show how difficult it can be to be so dominant from year to year. When Lidge was traded from Houston to Philly before the ’08 season, he brought with him an 82% save percentage (123/150). Had that percentage carried into 2008, he would have saved only 34 of his 41 opportunities, displaying just how good his ’08 campaign really was. Conversely, here in ’09 he’s at 68% (13/19), and would have had to have saved another three games in order to have achieved his career average in save percentage. Below are the full lines from the past two years, which should serve as the best illustration as to the difficulties in reaching and then staying at that extremely high level:
Overall, his walks and homeruns are up, his strikeouts are down, and he is clearly not as effective as he was in 2008. In fact, he’s having arguably his worst year since becoming a full-time closer in 2004. Most general managers around baseball fear a season just like this, and yet the standard track record for every reliever is to have one bad year for every two good years. The really good ones have one bad year for every three or four good years, and the great ones (Mo, Hoffman, K-Rod) never seem to have that really bad year. Phillies fans, you might want to face it – welcome to Brad Lidge’s bad year.
The Playoff “Dead” List
This week, watch for…
My apologies to those who think this week included too much “East Coast Bias.” I’ll try harder next week.
Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper
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