Monday, April 02, 2007

Whither Lidge?

Brad Lidge's woes continued today, as he blew another save by allowing a game-tying, two-out home run to Xavier Nady. It seems everyone has their own cute explanation for his struggles since the 2005 postseason, the most common of which is that he's suffering from a loss of confidence or other mental issues. Is there statistical evidence for this theory?

Lidge's peripherals say no. In 2005, he pitched 70.2 innings with 103 strikeouts, 23 walks and 5 HR allowed. In 2006, those figures were 75.0 IP, 104 K, 36 BB, 10 HR. Though this was a decline across the board, Lidge was so good in '05 that he figured to slip some. Furthermore, rates of around 4 walks and 12 strikeouts per 9 innings put him squarely in elite closer territory. Baseball Prospectus assigned a 3.68 Peripheral ERA to Lidge last year, while Baseball HQ pegged his expected ERA at 2.72.

There is some debate about how strongly Defense-Independent Pitching Stats apply to relievers--relievers have shown the ability to maintain a low batting average on balls in play from year to year more consistently than starters--but the top closers of the past decade, from Rivera to Hoffman to Wagner, all have very solid DIPS numbers. The difference is that while their BABIPs have consistently been well below the league average of .300, Lidge's have been higher, .335 and .349 the past two years. While we might project this number to regress closer to .300, Lidge is unlikely to produce at the .270 level of Hoffman or Rivera.

Meanwhile, his BB/9 and K/9 should settle in at a level that's somewhat worse than in 2004-06, so he should settle in with a slightly higher ERA than his cumulative 3.07 over that period. This isn't a big deal. Lidge's 2004 was one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, and he wasn't far behind the next year. If your closer can post a consistent ERA in the 3.25-3.50 range, he's a tremendously valuable commodity.

Really, what we're dealing with here is largely a sample size issue. If Lidge were a starting pitcher and posted a 3.07 ERA over 240 innings in his most recent season (with 364 strikeouts!), we would perhaps be concerned at his performance over his last 75 innings, but not overly so. Even in a full season, relievers do not get enough appearances for their ERAs to even approximate their true level of skill. It will be a long time before we see a starter post an ERA like those of Jonathan Papelbon or Dennys Reyes last year.

What does all this mean? In the long run, Lidge should be fine. However, managers are prone to overreact, and if Phil Garner pulls the plug on Lidge's closer tag, his fantasy value could tank. If this does happen, he may be non-tendered after this season and become a nice low-cost closer option.

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