The Rays have a penchant for signing old and potentially washed relievers and somehow getting the most out of them. It started with Troy Percival, only a marginal success, but then expanded to Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney the past two seasons. Both Farnsworth and Rodney came through with their best professional season with the Rays, Farnsworth in 2011 and Rodney in 2012, both at age 35. Well, there’s another 35 year old reliever who fits the profile that is currently available a free agent. That player is Brad Lidge, who Rays fans don’t exactly remember fondly after he closed out Game 5 of the 2008 World Series against the Rays, who has been released by the Washington Nationals. Could Lidge be a player that the Rays bring in and pull off the same magic trick with him as they did with Farnsworth and Rodney?
We remember Lidge as the clutch closer with 225 career saves. But over the years, he has been extremely inconsistent. Here’s a graph of Lidge’s ERA and FIP by season.
There’s not so much luck variability here- Lidge’s FIP has followed the exact same pattern as his ERA (albeit being lower most of the time)- just that there have been some years where Lidge has been great, and others where he has been terrible. This graph might be a little more insightful.
Lidge’s strikeout rate has steadily declined over the years, but still has never dipped below 1 per inning. The bigger problem is that Lidge’s walk rate has risen to 4.7 or more per 9 the last four years, and that coupled with his lower K rate is what has made him so inconsistent, reaching a tipping point in 2012, when he walked more batters than he struck out in 11 appearances and 9.1 IP for the Nationals. That is something that teams will have to seriously worry about. But that isn’t something that will necessarily encourage the Rays to steer clear. Remember that Rodney, who has an incredible 33-5 strikeout to walk ratio in 33.2 innings in 2012, actually also walked more than he struck out in 2011, posting a 26-28 strikeout to walk ratio in 32 IP. And while Farnsworth has never walked more than he struck out in any season of his major league career, in 2008, three years before he came to the Rays, allowed a scary 2.2 home runs per 9 innings, suffering from poor command as opposed to control, and we know that he has had his share of control problems throughout his career (although his 3.8 career BB/9 is better than we give him credit f0r). The Rays were somehow able to revitalize the careers of Farnsworth and Rodney. Could the Rays do the same thing was Brad Lidge?
Before we proceed any further, it has to be acknowledged that Lidge has not been anyone near as bad as his ERA in 2012, at least statistically. As you can see in the first graph, there’s an enormous disparity between Lidge’s 2012 ERA (9.64) and his FIP (4.38). The reason: 5 of Lidge’s 11 walks were intentional. Lidge has gotten into trouble, but his control has not all of sudden completely evaporated. Lidge has actually posted a good 51.7% groundball rate as well and he’s been incredibly unlucky to allow an insane .429 BAbip on groundballs (MLB BAbip on groundballs: .231). It was a very small sample size and Lidge never got a chance to smooth himself out.
Now that we have that clear, let’s get back to the practicality (or impracticality) of the Rays going after Lidge. A big factor in the Rays decisions to sign Farnsworth and Rodney was that both, despite their struggles, could still throw in the mid-to-high 90’s with their fastballs and featured a nasty secondary pitch, for Farnsworth his slider, and for Rodney his changeup. After getting them in the fold, they worked more with both of them to perfect sinkers (or at least fastballs with more sink), and they also continued to develop Farnsworth’s cutter that he learned in Kansas City (ironically not from Mariano Rivera and the Yankees). Could the same type of thing be possible with Lidge? Here’s a graph I made of the movement Lidge has gotten on his pitches from 2008 until the present (that’s how far back reliable Pitch F/X goes) with the data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Lidge has never been a pitcher who throws a bunch of different pitches, but with a mid-90’s fastball and a sharp slider from the same arm slot, he has been a dependable MLB closer for a long time. Every team in baseball would sign up for this pitcher. But that’s not who Lidge is anymore. Here’s his movement graph from 2012.
Brad Lidge has always been very dependent on his slider. But that has become even more the case in 2012 as his fastball velocity has dipped to just over 90 MPH. Lidge’s fastball velocity even dipped into the high-80’s at times. Lidge’s velocity has been around there since he missed most of the first half of 2011 with shoulder inflammation. His average fastball velocity was over 92 MPH as recently as 2010. One good thing is that Lidge’s fastball has more sink on it than it used to, enabling to post a groundball rate well over 50% since the start of the 2011 season. But Lidge’s fastball hasn’t been dominant for a long time and now it’s nothing but a groundball pitch, forcing just a 2.7% swing-and-miss rate compared to the 7.9% league average for fastballs from relievers in 2011. And because of the lack of velocity, when Lidge misses his location with his fastball, he gets hit hard.
Lidge’s slider remains a very good pitch, but it now has less separation from his fastball. Lidge has never done a great job hiding the ball but has gotten by thanks to good velocity on his fastball and a superlative slider. Now it stands out more that Lidge takes his hands just slightly farther behind his head. It’s an extremely subtle difference and something that could only be picked up if you saw both of his pitches multiple times. Before, Lidge had an overpowering fastball to pair with his dominant slider. Now, with only one real swing-and-miss pitch, hitters have managed longer at-bats against him and have been able to see him enough to pick up his slider and despite its great movement, square it up for hits.
Can Brad Lidge turn his career around? If he does, the formula will be different from a Farnsworth or a Rodney. As this point you have to assume that his fastball velocity will never come back and now he’s in trouble as a two-pitch pitcher with just one plus pitch. The solution for him isn’t a tweak- it’s a complete overhall. He’ll need to add a cutter or a changeup or something. Lidge did at one point throw a changeup, and whatever team signs him may try to restore it. But this is going beyond what the Rays have done in recent years. If Lidge’s price tag stays dirt-cheap and few teams desire his services, the Rays may sign him. But he’s a different case from Farnsworth and Rodney, and if his price tag is significant at all, count the Rays out of the running.