He's My Closer: Looking Back On Brad Lidge's Phillies Tenure

Glory

Brad Lidge's spectacular (miraculous?) 2008 season rightly cemented his place in Phillies lore. After playing an integral role in lifting the Phillies to their second straight NL East pennant by going a perfect 41 for 41 in save opportunities during the regular season, Lidge carried the magic over to the postseason where he converted all seven of his chances. It was only appropriate that he was on the mound for the final three outs of game 5b of the World Series and it was only appropriate that he was singled out in Harry Kalas's iconic call after striking out Eric Hinske to seal it: 

The 0-2 pitch - swing and a miss, struck him out! The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball! Brad Lidge does it again, and stays perfect for the 2008 season! 48-for-48 in save opportunities, and let the city celebrate!

The Phillies' acquisition of Lidge between the 2007 and 2008 can't be understood without first recalling the horror show that was the 2007 Phillies pitching staff. It's hard to fathom now considering the total metamorphosis of the starting rotation under Ruben Amaro, but in 2007 we saw the likes of Adam Eaton, J.D. "Real Deal" Durbin, and a broken Freddy Garcia log significant innings. If it can be believed, the bullpen was even worse. Going into the season, the pen included of the likes of Geoff Geary, (pre-awesome) Ryan Madson, Clay Condrey, Tom Gordon, a man with twelve fingers, and later, the execrable Jose Mesa. Gordon, who had done a nice job as the closer in 2006 before hurting his shoulder late in the season, landed on the DL again in early May of 2007. So bad was the bullpen situation that Charlie Manuel felt compelled to weaken his already weak starting rotation by moving Brett Myers into the pen after just three starts. Myers performed well first as a setup man and then as closer in Gordon's absence, and the starting rotation was stabilized somewhat with the deadline deal for Kyle Lohse and the luck-fueled 3.87 ERA of straight-from-AA-call-up Kyle Kendrick. 

When the Phillies sent Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, and Mike Costanzo to Houston for Lidge and Eric BruntLOLtt after the 2007 season, it generally viewed as a decent deal for the Phillies. Lidge had stuff as good as any reliever in baseball (12.6 K/9 from 2002-2007) but had struggled intermittently in his last few years with the Astros and bounced in and out of the closer role. For a reasonable one-year price tag of $6.5 million, his addition to the Phillies' bullpen gave them a legitimate, Proven Closer (TM) (albeit one coming off of knee surgery) with the potential to be utterly dominant. Meanwhile, of the pieces the Phillies gave up, Bourn was the most promising. Costanzo was a 23-year-old AA third baseman with good pop and decent plate discipline but a propensity for strikeouts and serious questions about his defense. Geary was...well...Geary. The move also had the effect of adding a starting pitcher, as it allowed Myers to slot back into the rotation. 

And as we all know, 2008 Lidge was Good Lidge. It wasn't until mid-May that he allowed his first earned run. Pat Gillick was so impressed with Lidge's first few months that in early July he signed him to a whopping three year, $36 million extension with a team option for a fourth year or a $1.5 million buyout which they will certainly exercise this offseason. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and it's easy to say now that this was a bad deal, but even at the time there were reasons to be wary. First, outside of a very select group of Mariano Rivera-like freaks, relief pitchers simply aren't worth that much money. It is an extremely volatile role from year to year. Second, as I already noted, Brad Lidge himself had a recent history of year to year volatility. Third, at the time of the deal Lidge was 31 years old and his recent bill of health wasn't exactly spotless.

In any case, Lidge stockpiled enough goodwill with his performance in the second half of 2008 and in the playoffs that discussion about the merits of his contract extension was understandably tabled. It was a truly fantastic season. In 69.1 innings, he struck out 92 batters and posted a 1.95 ERA. While his DIPS suggest that he outperformed his peripherals by a fairly wide margin (2.41/3.01/2.88; FIP/xFIP/SIERA) and the save stat is almost certainly herpes in baseball form, there is something quite aesthetically pleasing about 1.95 and 41 for 41. 

But in 2009, the Devil came to collect on Dr. Faustus's debt. Lidge was historically bad. He struggled to locate his fastball, which was never a great pitch for him but was necessary to set up his devastating slider. Whenever he did come close to the zone with the fastball, hitters teed off on it. His inability to locate the pitch gave hitters the benefit of sitting on the slider. Unsurprisingly, his peripherals nosedived. His K-rate declined precipitously while his BB/9 rose to a career-high 5.22. There was some speculation that Lidge was pitching with an injury, which was confirmed when he went to the DL in June with a knee sprain. Even after his return, though, he was bad.

It was painful to watch him repeatedly fail, but what was more frustrating was Member in Good Standing of the Cult of the Closer Charlie Manuel's stubborn refusal to relieve Lidge of his ninth inning duties. His ad nauseam refrain became "He's my guy. He's my closer," which was about as soothing to fans as a death rattle. In 58.2 innings he had a much less aesthetically pleasing ERA of 7.21 with 31 saves in 42 chances. Manuel's pigheadedness ultimately cost the team dearly: with the score tied 4-4 in the top of the ninth in game four of the World Series, Lidge imploded for three runs, putting the Phillies in a three games to one hole.

By all accounts, Charlie Manuel is a great manager of people, but his loyalty to "his guys" is a double edged sword. On one hand, his managerial style often meant he got the best out of his players. After all, who wouldn't want their workplace to be free of internal strife? Who wouldn't want to work for a boss who supports and protects them? On the other hand, the commitment to "his guys" meant that he stuck with players long after it was apparent to most that their continued use was a detriment to the team. While it's easy to determine how many games have been lost thanks to Manuel's style, it's nearly impossible to determine how many games it has won them over the years. It just would have been nice to learn that the sword had two edges without having to be decapitated by it. 

Lidge underwent elbow surgery in January 2010 which, combined with his performance the previous season, cast serious doubts on his ability to ever be an effective pitcher again. He missed much of April and May while recovering from the injury, and his early returns indicated that it would be more of the agita that had become all too familiar in 2009. His fastball, which had previously sat in the mid-90s, was suddenly sitting in the 89-92 range and at the end of July his ERA was an unsightly 5.57. 

It never got any higher, however. In fact, he was quite good in August and September. Over his last 24.2 innings, Lidge struck out 25 batters, walked ten, and allowed just two earned runs while converting 17 of his 18 save opportunities. Granted, his .186 BABIP over that span suggested these results were not sustainable, but the real key was that Lidge adapted to his diminished stuff by re-learning how to pitch. It appeared that he stopped trying to overpower hitters with his fastball and instead focused on taking a bit off of it in order to hit his spots. 

The injury bug bit Lidge again prior to the 2011 season--this time his shoulder. Initial reports stated he would miss three to six weeks, but he didn't end up making his return until late July. In just 19.1 innings this season Lidge was good, but his 1.40 ERA was far better than his DIPS suggested it should have been. His fastball velocity has eroded even further as he averaged just 88.9 miles per hour with the pitch. Fortunately, Lidge's absence was mitigated by the emergence of Antonio Bastardo in a late inning role and Ryan Madson's coronation as Charlie Manuel's closer (two years too late, no doubt).

Now with the full benefit of hindsight, how do we evaluate the trade for Lidge and the subsequent contract extension? Of the players that the Phillies sent to Houston, Mike Costanzo has yet to play in the Majors and is currently in the Reds system. Geoff Geary was...well...Geary. Michael Bourn, the centerpiece of the Phillies' package, has blossomed into quite a valuable player. Still, considering Lidge's huge role in delivering the Phillies a championship, it is easy to view the trade as a clear victory for the Phillies--another case of the Phillies picking on their favorite patsy, Ed Wade. But as Taco Pal wrote back in July, this is not the case: 

[The trade] was a huge win in that it might have delivered the World Series, but it wasn't a win on a sheer objective value-for-value comparison. To this day, I don't think Phillies fans realize how good of a player Michael Bourn turned out to be. We remember him as a so-so prospect who was basically a designated pinch-runner as a rookie in 2007, and he really struggled in his first year in Houston while Lidge was having his perfect season here. But ever since then, Bourn has arguably been the best centerfielder in major league baseball. He's accumulated more WAR in that stretch than any other centerfielder - 1.2 ahead of Shane Victorino, who's in fourth place. He's an awesome defensive player, and according to Fangraphs, he's been the second-best baserunner in baseball behind only Elvis Andrus. Simply put, he's just really good.

To repeat, the Phillies would never want to reverse the trade. They had Victorino, so Bourn was expendable. Lidge filled a huge void in 2008 and performed tremendously. And the team won the World Series. All's well that ends well. Just don't go around thinking they didn't pay a price for it, or that Wade didn't make out like a bandit.

As for the $37.5 million extension, every major reservation expressed about it came true. Lidge was forced to miss large chunks of time with injuries--something that we could have reasonably expected for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30. In addition, as is so common of relief pitchers, Lidge's performance was quite volatile from year to year. When taking stock of this contract, it's important to separate his 2008 from 2009-2011--the years the contract actually covered. Simply put: he was being paid Mariano Rivera money, and he's just not Mariano Rivera. In fairness, very few are.

The Lidge extension should be an object lesson in why expensive, multi-year deals for relievers rarely work out in a team's favor. Needless to say, if after seeing how this deal panned out Ruben Amaro goes out and gives someone like Jonathan Papelbon three years and $30 million, there would be good reason to gripe. And by gripe, I mean question his qualifications to be the General Manager of a Major League team. As Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley recently argued, in 2012 Amaro should be willing to a field a low-cost patchwork bullpen consisting of pitchers from within the Phillies farm system and cheaper free agent options with good defense independent stats.

Looking back on Lidge's tenure with the Phillies, he deserves a great deal of credit for rebounding from his horrid 2009 and battling back from numerous injuries to offer solid contributions in 2010 and 2011. And of course, his otherworldly 2008 will ensure that he is remembered fondly by fans. Just as he should be.

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