Here's a Thought: Brad Lidge Is Still Unhittable
Much has been made of the decline of Philadelphia Phillies closer Brad Lidge.
Lidge posted a 1.95 ERA and was 41-for-41 in saves last year.
This year, he's got a 7.20 ERA and is 19-for-25 in saves.
Knowing my work, and the title of this article, you're probably expecting me to say "But his FIP is the same!"
Lidge had a 2.41 FIP last year, and sports a 6.02 mark this year. Sure, that's not quite as bad, but you probably figured anyway that the 1.95 ERA was a bit lucky and the 7.20 mark a bit unlucky.
And yet, despite all of that, Brad Lidge of 2009 is far closer to Brad Lidge of 2008 than one would think.
Let me explain.
Last year, Brad Lidge struck out 11.94 batters per nine innings. He walked 4.54, for a 2.63 K/BB ratio.
This year, his strikeout rate has fallen (10.03) and the walks have gone up (5.91), so his K/BB ratio has fallen to 1.70.
That's quite a bit worse, but that would send Lidge's 2.41 FIP to the 3.20 range by itself. There are still three missing runs of FIP to account for.
It's pretty easy to find them.
Last year, Lidge allowed 0.26 homers per nine innings. This year, he's switched up the digits of that number, allowing 2.06 homers per nine, a truly horrific figure.
It's not his fault.
Research shows that homer rate is directly correlated to flyball rate, which makes sense: flyball pitchers allow more homers than groundball pitchers.
However, research also shows that the ratio of homers to flyballs regresses to the mean. What that means is that the ratio of homers to flies is essentially luck.
The average ratio is about 10-11 percent. If a pitcher's HR/FB rate is 5%, they're getting very lucky; if it's 15%, they're getting very unlucky.
Last year, Brad Lidge's HR/FB was 3.9%.
This year, it's 18.6%.
Furthermore, Lidge is allowing more outfield flies this year (43%) than last year (32.3%).
What's essentially happening is that Lidge happened to get lucky in 2008 keeping his fly balls in the park. This season, his HR/FB has overcorrected (the fact that Citizens Bank Park is a homer-happy park contributes to that) and it's taken his ERA and FIP with it.
There's a stat called xFIP (Expected FIP) which is FIP with a normalized home run rate.
Lidge's 2008 xFIP was 3.06; his 2009 mark is 4.68.
Lidge's xFIP is more indicative of the nature of his decline than his ERA or FIP are. In fact, xFIP is really the best stat to use when evaluating pitchers in general.
So rather than a 5.25 run drop (ERA) or 3.79 run drop (FIP), Lidge's performance is actually about 1.62 earned runs per nine innings worse than it was last year.
Now, you're probably thinking "Shouldn't this article just be titled 'Brad Lidge Has Declined Slightly Less Than You Might Think' or something?"
He's still unhittable, at least about as much as he was last year.
I'll bet some of you are very skeptical of the HR/FB stuff, saying "Nope, Lidge has just gotten lit up. They're crushing the ball off of him."
Actually, they aren't.
There are two very easy ways to tell how "hittable" a pitcher is.
The first one is line-drive rate.
When a batter squares up a pitch perfectly and hits it as hard as possible, the result is a line drive. That's why batters hit about .720 on line drives, .260 on ground balls, and .160 on fly balls. The ball is hit harder and there's less time for fielders to react to it and cover ground.
Last year, Brad Lidge had a LD% (line drive percentage) of 21.5%. That's actually a bit high. For someone so dominant, Lidge gave up a lot of hard-hit balls last season.
This year, Lidge's LD% has fallen to 19.0%, which is about average. Hitters are having more trouble squaring up his pitches and hitting them hard.
Lidge's LD% improvement lends credence to my theory that he's simply getting unlucky with the HR/FB rate.
The other stat that measures "hittability" is Contact Percentage. Put simply, it is the percentage of swings against a pitcher that the batter makes contact. The higher the Contact Percentage, the more hittable the pitcher is.
This year, the MLB-average contact percentage is 80.7%, and it typically hovers around 80.
Lidge's is 65.8%, third-best in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings (behind Michael Wuertz (56.5%) and Mark DiFelice (65.7%).
So Lidge is the third-most-unhittable pitcher in baseball in 2009, despite the 7.20 ERA.
Lidge is still the Brad Lidge that Phillies fans love and hitters fear. He still generates a similar number of empty swings and does better with limiting hard contact than he did in his huge 2008.
So what's the reason for Lidge's 1.62 xFIP decline?
Lidge's command has slipped a bit, as his walk rate has increased and he's finding the strike zone at the lowest clip of his career. That's a source of concern, but a bit of a lapse in control is certainly less of an issue than some of the doomsday theories being thrown around about Lidge.
So don't worry, Phillies fans. Brad Lidge is still unhittable. A few more strikes and some average luck, and he'll be the shutdown guy you know him to be.
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