Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies, Stars In: The Return of the Slider
Last Thursday night, in the midst of the Philadelphia Phillies' comeback against Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton, Dodger manager Joe Torre came to the mound to speak with his closer.
Television cameras picked up what Torre was mouthing to Broxton. Simply put, Torre asked, "Do you trust your stuff?"
Minutes later, meltdown completed and Phillies victory in the bag, Broxton sulked from the mound. The Dodgers had just lost a seven run lead with two innings to play.
Unfortunately, it's a feeling that fans of many teams go through during a season. When the man known as the "closer" doesn't close, it's ugly.
It's a feeling many Phillies fans have experienced over the past two seasons with Brad Lidge.
Often times, there have probably been people yelling at their own television sets to Lidge, screaming, along with a few obscenities mixed in, "Do you trust your stuff?"
For Lidge, 2009 was an unmitigated disaster. Mark McGwire would be proud to know we won't be talking about the past in this article.
This is about the present, and the final month and a half of the 2010 baseball season.
While the Phillies will likely get Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back in the lineup this week, and while quality starting pitching is paramount, many teams only go as far as their bullpen allows. The Phillies experienced that first hand in 2008 when Lidge delivered perfection, 48 saves in 48 opportunities including the postseason.
Since then, things for Lidge have not gone as smoothly. As recently as two weeks ago, plenty questioned Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's decision to continue trotting Lidge out there in save situations.
On July 31, Lidge allowed a three-run walk off home run to Ryan Zimmerman as the Nationals stole a 7-5 victory from the Phillies. Suffice to say, that sinking Groundhog Day feeling was there again.
These days, with all the advancements in baseball statistics and data tracking, few things are more impressive than the PitchFX tool available on numerous websites. A few clicks here and there and you've got yourself a bunch of data about what a pitcher threw, where he threw it, what kind of break the pitch had, and so on.
A look at the chart from that fateful night in Washington D.C. paints a sad picture for Lidge, pitches scattered every which way around the strike zone. The end result looks like target practice if you gave someone a gun for the first time and then blindfolded them.
That night finished off an ugly July for Lidge, one in which he blew two saves, posted an ERA of 6.00, and walked ten while striking out ten. It also finished off a July in which Lidge threw 89 fastballs and 87 sliders.
Everyone knows the slider is Lidge's best pitch. When Lidge is on, it's usually because his slider is on.
August has been a different story for Lidge.
Thus far, in his seven August appearances, Lidge has thrown the slider 55 times and the fastball 27 times, an astounding 67.1 percent of his deliveries resulting in his nasty breaking ball.
In his August 11 appearance against the Dodgers, which looked like Lidge's best outing of the year, he threw eleven pitches. Nine of them were sliders. The end result was an easy-as-pie 9th inning and Lidge's 15th save of the season. He has since added one more.
In August alone, Lidge has struck out seven and walked none, racking up six saves.
Does Lidge's performance hinge on the success of the slider?
Last year, Lidge's worst season of his career, he threw the fastball just over 50 percent of the time. In 2008's perfect season, it was just 43.4 percent of the time. This year, he has thrown the fastball 41.6 percent of the time, which would be the lowest mark of his career if it holds through the end of the year.
As Lidge gets older, he must also become wiser. He does not have the same velocity he used to have on his fastball. Indeed, the numbers show he has averaged 92.2 MPH on his fastball this season, down from an average of 95.4 MPH just three seasons ago.
Through natural wear and tear, a few nicks here and there, and age, he just can't get the fastball to the same velocity as he used to.
However, the slider is Lidge's great equalizer. He is still an above-average strikeout pitcher, posting an 11.2 K/9 rate this season. Control has been a problem for Lidge. Maybe it was all in the over-use of the fastball which he had trouble locating.
Now, as the pennant race heats up, the Phillies must hope that Lidge can deliver down the stretch.
It's not 2008.
He won't be perfect this year.
However, a large part of the Phillies' success in September (and hopefully October) hinges on their closer.
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