Brad Lidge is the Phillies' biggest weakness. There, I said it. A charter member of my 'Man Crush' list, I've supported Lidge staying in his role as the closer for the Phillies longer than many fans have.
But no more.
In 2008, Lidge was a perfect 41-41 in save opportunities in the regular season, posting an ERA of 1.95 and striking out 92 in 65.1 innings. This season he's 31-42 in save chances, with an ERA of 7.48 and one fewer walk than last year in 14 fewer innings. He's also allowed 11 home runs (compared to two last year), and for the Sabermetric minded, his ERA+ in 2008 was 225, while this year it's 57. You don't need to know a thing about ERA+ to know that a drop of 168 points in any statistic is not good.
Watching Lidge pitch at this point is painful. When he enters a game, a feeling of dread enters the air. When a runner gets on base, there's not even deliberation as to whether or not a run will score. Is his knee bothering him? Maybe. But his issues appear to be more related to what's going on between the ears than with anything else. The two intangible factors any player has to have in order to be successful are a good approach and confidence.
Lidge's approach is all screwed up. Despite his struggles, his stuff remains alright. Maybe too alright. Lidge throws a fastball and a slider, but the slider is really two pitches. There is the 'get me over' slider, which he tries to throw for a strike, and then there's the 'put away' slider, which he throws to get strike three. He knows his put away slider is pretty much unhittable when it's moving right, which is what makes it an outstanding strikeout pitch. However, last I checked, you can't strike out anyone on a 0-0 count, but Lidge continues to throw 'put away' sliders on the first pitch. Hitters simply take the pitch, which puts the count in their favor and swings control in their direction, and puts Lidge on the defensive. Robbed of the end-of-an-at-bat hammer and in a position where he has to throw a strike, Lidge is consistently getting beat on his second-tier stuff. (And yes, I know, he has had significant issues with fastball command... but he always does, even when he's good).
The other intangible that has almost become tangible with Lidge this year is his confidence. He doesn't trust that he can get the job done. You can see it in his facial expressions, his body language, even how many deep breaths he takes. All of these get more and more tense as an inning unravels for him, almost like he awaits the roof caving in on him. Closers are like cornerbacks in the NFL. You're going to get beat, not everything is going to go your way, but if you can't forget about it instantly, you're not going to be effective until you do.
Big picture wise, the big, big problem with Lidge's struggle is that the Phils have no other good options. Ryan Madson is great in the eighth inning, but has blown about as many as he's saved when it's been his turn in the ninth. Other would be contenders have been negated by injury or ineffectiveness. At this point, I would give Tyler Walker a chance. He has closed before, even saving 23 of 28 for the Giants in 2005. I'm not saying I'd go into the playoffs with him in the ninth, but I'd spend the next week and a half figuring out if I could.
As negative as my stance towards Lidge sits right now, I don't think he's done. This is what Lidge does, it's the pattern of his career. He's great, he stinks. The pendulum has never swung as wildly as it has between last year and this year, but his career stats show that he's prone to a clunker of a season every so often. So I do think Lidge will be back in the closer's role for the Phillies again, and will pitch as effectively as any closer in baseball.
Just not this season.