Phillies hope Lidge is turning it around
Enduring tough year, closer has two straight perfect outings
PHILADELPHIA -- Brad Lidge cut his hair Friday, which might be the least newsworthy thing that has happened to him this season.
But the cut got noticed because, well, maybe a haircut could help.
"Nothing like a good fresh haircut to get on a good start and hopefully bring some magic," Lidge joked.
It has been that kind of season for Lidge, who threw perfect innings Friday and Sunday against the Braves to get people thinking he could be turning around his nightmarish campaign. A season after he went 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA and 41 saves in 41 opportunities in the regular season and 0-0 with a 0.96 ERA and seven saves in seven opportunities in the playoffs, every bounce, every blooper, every mistake seemingly has gone against him. He is 0-6 with a 7.03 ERA and has 27 saves in 36 opportunities. His ERA is the highest of any relief pitcher in baseball. His nine blown saves and his 75 percent save completion are the worst in the Majors.
Statistically, Lidge has gone from being the best relief pitcher in baseball to the worst in less than a year.
That is why there has been so much concern. The Phillies have a little more than a month to play before they try to become the first National League team to win consecutive World Series titles since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975-76.
They need Lidge to help make it happen.
"It would be a lot harder if we were not playing so well as a team," Lidge said. "That is a huge luxury we have now. Obviously, nobody is thrilled when a game doesn't go right. I haven't been thrilled the way the season has gone for me. The good thing is that we're lucky enough to be on such a good team in the first place. The way I look at myself is I need to keep doing at least good enough to be able to help our team stay where we are, and lock it in the next few weeks to make sure I'm at my absolute best at the end of the season."
If he is not, the Phillies might have a tough decision to make.
From a historical perspective
Every pitcher, like every hitter, goes through struggles. That Lidge has struggled after a perfect 2008 is not alarming. It is the severity of those struggles that have been.
MLB.com found that just six relief pitchers in baseball history have seen their ERAs jump five or more earned runs in consecutive seasons with 40 or more appearances in each season:
1. Mike Flanagan (a 5.67 ERA increase): The American League Cy Young winner with Baltimore in 1978 sported a 2.38 ERA in 64 appearances with the Orioles in 1991. He had an 8.05 ERA in 42 appearances in 1992.
2. Mike DeJean (5.38): He carried a 3.03 ERA in 59 appearances with the Rockies in 1998, but had an 8.41 ERA in 56 appearances in 1999.
3. Gene Nelson (5.27): Nelson, who won a World Series with Oakland in 1989, had a 1.57 ERA in 51 appearances with the A's in 1990, but had a 6.84 ERA in 44 appearances in 1991.
4. Vic Darensbourg (5.15): He had a 3.68 ERA in 59 appearances with Florida in 1998, but had an 8.83 ERA in 56 appearances in 1999.
5. Derrick Turnbow (5.13): He sported a 1.74 ERA in 62 appearances as Milwaukee's closer in 2005, but had a 6.87 ERA in 49 appearances in 2006, when he made the NL All-Star team.
6. Ron Davis (5.11): The 1981 American League All-Star with the Yankees carried a 3.48 ERA in 57 appearances with Minnesota in 1985, but had an 8.59 ERA in 53 appearances in 1986.
Lidge hopes to avoid that list. He also hopes to be pitching better in the postseason, when results are magnified. Twenty-four pitchers have blown two or more saves in a single postseason. Eight of those pitchers -- which include Phillies right-hander Ryan Madson, who blew saves in Games 3 and 5 of the 2008 World Series -- played for teams that won a World Series. Sixteen of those pitchers played for teams that fell short.
Blown saves certainly played a part in their demise.
The root cause
How could it get to this point?
Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee and others have maintained that Lidge's problems are mechanical, which have affected his fastball command. Lidge threw 61.9 percent of his pitches for strikes last season compared to 60.8 percent this season. That is a small discrepancy, but Lidge also threw his slider 56.5 percent of the time last season compared to just 50.3 percent this season. That is a far greater discrepancy, and that indicates Lidge is trying hard to establish his fastball. But because he has had trouble throwing his fastball for strikes, hitters have not had to worry about his slider.
|"I need to keep doing at least good enough to be able to help our team stay where we are, and lock it in the next few weeks to make sure I'm at my absolute best at the end of the season."|
|-- Brad Lidge|
Braves infielder Greg Norton has faced Lidge 11 times from 2008-09. Lidge has walked him three times in six plate appearances this season. He allowed two hits and one walk in five plate appearances last season. Norton declined to offer specifics in what he has seen from Lidge this year -- why give away state secrets to a division rival? -- but he also indicated Lidge's command has hurt him.
"What are his strike totals?" said Norton, who swung and missed at a nasty Lidge slider to end Sunday's game at Citizens Bank Park. "Has he been behind hitters more than last year?"
Lidge said recently that he has struggled working out of the stretch. Opponents have hit .261 against him when there are no runners on base. They have hit .329 against him when there are runners on base. But that could go back to fastball command. If he falls behind in the count with runners on base, he is less likely to throw his slider.
But perhaps Lidge's problems stem from a lack of confidence. Lidge has said that is not an issue, although he looked shell shocked in the visitor's clubhouse at PNC Park last Tuesday after he blew a save in a loss to the Pirates.
Success breeds confidence, and Lidge has not had much success.
Or maybe it is his health?
Lidge missed time in Spring Training because of tightness in his forearm. He then spent time on the 15-day disabled list in June because of inflammation in his right knee. It is an injury he said had bothered him since April.
Lidge, however, has said he is healthy.
Mechanics. Confidence. Health. Maybe it is a mixture of the three.
"First of all, no way he was going to duplicate last year to this year," said former Phillies pitcher Dan Plesac, who had 158 saves in 18 seasons in the Majors. "That was one of those dream years. I think he got off to a rough start. When you get to Spring Training and you're not 100 percent healthy, you're playing catchup from the get-go. As much as pitchers despise the daily routines of Spring Training, there is a purpose for it, and he missed out on a lot of that.
"So then as a manager, Charlie Manuel is trying to figure out, 'How can I use him and not extend him?' He's not working out and throwing on a regular program like the rest of the guys. You're starting off a couple steps behind to begin with. And it's hard once the season starts to play catch up. Then you mix in struggling at times. You put more pressure on yourself. You know you're playing on a good team in a high-profile market. You had the year that you had last year. He expects a lot out of himself. And if you're not quite living up to that, you start pressing. You try to do more."
It has happened before
This is not the first time Lidge has struggled like this.
He went 4-4 with a 2.29 ERA and 40 saves with the Houston Astros in 2005. He struggled in the postseason that year -- memorably allowing home runs to Albert Pujols in the NL Championship Series and Scott Podsednik in the World Series -- and he went 1-5 with a 5.28 ERA and 32 saves in 2006.
"The whole entire thing started with the command of the fastball," said Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who was Lidge's pitching coach in Houston. "If the command of the fastball was the result of mechanics or not, I really don't think so. I think it was just a fastball-command issue. Then he begins to pitch behind in the count and he isn't able to go to his money pitch, which is the slider."
"Then the confidence certainly becomes an issue," Hickey said. "When things go poorly, they tend to snowball, just as when things go well, they tend to snowball."
The Astros pulled Lidge in and out of his closer's role in 2006 and '07. Hickey thought the first time it happened it might have helped Lidge work on a few things in less pressure-packed situations.
"It's hard to work on secondary things in the ninth inning of a two-run game," Hickey said.
But looking back, Hickey and former Astros general manager Tim Purpura said it hurt Lidge more than it helped.
"In hindsight, it's probably something I would say was not the best thing for him," Purpura said. "When you do change a guy's role, it does change his mindset a little bit. Today's players are creatures of habit. They like to know what they're doing. They like to know what their role is. They like to know their organization has some confidence in them. I think he probably sensed that, organizationally, we weren't behind him as much as we could have, although some of those decisions are made in more of a global arena than just the manager and general manager. There are a lot of things that go into those decisions."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has a good feel for his players, and he is aware of what happened to Lidge in Houston. It is partially why he has reiterated that Lidge is his man.
Lidge also will make $11.5 million in 2010 and $11.5 million in '11 with a $12.5 million club option or a $1.5 million buyout in '12. Manuel, whose own contract runs through '11, not only is thinking of the present, he is thinking of the future. He needs Lidge today just as much as he needs him tomorrow, so his hope is that showing confidence in Lidge pays off in the short term and the long term.
Signs of things to come
Lidge looked great this past weekend against the Braves. He had 1-2-3 innings in saves Friday and Sunday. He threw 24 pitches -- 15 of which were sliders.
"Finally, it's getting to the point where I feel like my stuff and my control are as good as they've been all year," Lidge said.
That is good news. The Phillies need Lidge to return to form, although they have a viable option should his problems continue. Right-hander Brett Myers, who closed for the Phillies in 2007, should be rejoining the team later this week after missing most of the season recovering from surgery on his right hip. He will be returning as a reliever.
But Lidge has time. The Phillies have a little more than a month to play in the regular season and they hold an eight-game lead over the Marlins and Braves in the NL East. That comfortable lead has allowed the Phillies to remain patient and confident in him.
"Because he's good," Chase Utley explained. "He's got good stuff. He's got dominant stuff. The numbers can lie a little bit sometimes, but opposing teams do not like facing him."
Lidge has solved his problems before. Those who know him think he can solve them again in time for the playoffs.
"He has the ability to fix whatever ails him," Purpura said. "Whether it's his mechanics or state of mind or whatever. You like to say you really don't know about a player in the Minor Leagues until he gets to the Major Leagues. This guy has been successful in being able to diagnose and fix whatever ailed him. He's got that ability. He knows himself well enough."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.