I was running on the treadmill yesterday when I felt something in my left shoe rubbing against my small left toe. It felt like a small pebble might have been stuck in there. Turns out, it was just an awkward positioning of my sock. It was more annoying than painful, and once I stop running I tend to have a hard time starting back up again -- it's like a Band-Aid, get it out of the way as fast as possible and it is less painful -- so I ignored the pebble-type sensation and continued to run. But when I stopped running 18 miles later -- OK, so it wasn't 18 -- the top right side of my left ankle hurt.
Now, you may be asking yourself one of two things:
1) Is this a subtle plea for prescription pain meds?
2) What in the name of Sancho Panza's donkey does this have to do with Brad Lidge?
To any Federal Agents who happen to be reading this blog, the answer to the first question is: Um, no. I tell this little anecdote because it is the first thing I thought of when I listened to Lidge talk about his knee and elbow problems at a press conference yesterday. The human body is an intricate machine, one that has a remarkable ability to compensate for shortcomings in one area by instinctively transfering energy to another area; or, as Subaru would say, from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip. When I was running on the treadmill, I was subtly changing my stride to alleviate pressure on my left toe, which required transfering more pressure to the right side of the foot, which led to the second bout of soreness I felt.
I draw two parallels to Lidge's situation last season -- one literal, and one figurative. The literal: the fact that Lidge's elbow required surgery after the season makes perfect sense, given the fact that he says he was favoring his knee and changing his mechanics all season. The figurative: Lidge's fastball was most affected by the knee injury, which made his slider seem more ineffective than it really was.
The second scenario is what really intrigues me, because Lidge's slider was the pitch that was the subject of so much speculation last season. Had he lost confidence in it? Had he lost a feel for it? Were hitters laying off it at a far greater rate than in previous years? Was his lights-out 2008 season mostly the result of hitters consistently fishing for sliders out of the zone?
While there was good reason to ask any one of the aforementioned questions, I don't think they hold the key.
I haven't done enough research to say anything concrete, but I have done enough to say this: I strongly believe that the overwhelming difference between Lidge in 2009 and Lidge in 2008 was more a result of an inability to control his fastball location inside the strike zone, and less a result of hitters waiting out sliders (perhaps suggesting tipping, or lack of command) or crushing bad ones.
I. The Slider
Let's look at the 44 sliders Lidge through in the 2009 playoffs
- Strikes: 30
- Called strikes: 7
- Swings/Misses (including fouls): 12
- Hits: 1
- In-play Outs: 3
- Strikeouts Swinging: 3
- Strikeouts Looking: 1
Now let's look at the 109 sliders he threw in the 2008 playoffs:
- Strikes: 70
- Called strikes: 20
- Swings/Misses: 32
- Hits: 2
- In-play Outs: 7
- Strikeouts swinging: 8
- Strikeouts looking: 1
The one glaring difference is the number of sliders he threw. In 2008, 63 percent of his total pitches were sliders. In 2009, 42.7 percent of his total pitches were sliders. This jibes with his percentages during the respective regular seasons, when he threw 49.3 percent sliders in 2009 and 56.2 percent in 2008. Why the disparity? Who knows. Maybe he wasn't as confident in the pitch, maybe he was trying repeatedly to establish his fastball, maybe he didn't feel it was effective. All of those are legit questions. But that's a different topic of conversation. My search here was to find him he was throwing the slider as effectively, and the numbers suggest that -- at least during the playoffs, he was:
- Hitters actually swung at the slider more in the 2009 postseason (50 percent of the time), than they did in the 2008 postseason (45.0 percent of the time).
- He threw his slider for more strikes in 2009 than in 2008
- Hitters put sliders into play at a similar rate in 2009 (9.1 percent) as they did in 2008 (8.3 percent)
- Lidge threw his slider for more called strikes in 2008 (18.3 percent to 15.9 percent), but hitters swung and missed or swung and fouled off more sliders in 2009 (34.1 percent) than they did in 2008 (29.4 percent).
- All other categories were comparable.
Of course, this was the playoffs, when Lidge's results were as good as they'd been all season. So I also looked at two separate five game stretches in May, the first from May 8-15, the second from May 26 to June 1. I tried to pick one of his worst stretches of the year, and one of his best. I don't expect them to prove anything, since they are arbitrary dates and - along with the playoffs -- represent roughly 15 percent of his appearances during the year.
Here is his breakdown from early May (5.0 IP, 8 ER, 10 H, 24 AB, 4 SO, 3 BB, 6 XBH), when he threw 106 total pitches:
- Sliders: 60
- Strikes: 35
- Called Strikes 7
- Swings/misses: 18
- In-play Outs: 5
- Hits: 3
- Strikeouts swinging: 2
- Strikeouts looking: 0
Now here is his breakdown from late May (4.2 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 13 AB, 5 SO, 1 BB, 0 XBH), when he threw 64 pitches:
- Sliders: 28
- Strikes: 20
- Called Strikes: 5
- Swings/misses: 7
- In-play Outs: 2
- Hits: 2
- Strikeouts swinging: 3
- Strikeouts looking:1
So during his rough five-game stretch, Lidge threw more sliders (56.67 percent to 43.8 percent), and threw fewer of them for strikes (58.3 percent to 71.4 percent). But. . .
- Hitters swung at his slider at a similar rate (46.7 percent during his rough stretch and 50.0 percent during his good stretch, the equivalent of about one more swing during the good stretch and two more during the rough stretch).
- Hittters "missed" when swinging at the slider -- in other words, did not put a ball into play -- at the exact same rate in both stretches (71.4 percent)
- Hitters put the slider into play at a similar rate during both stretches (13.3 percent of all sliders during the rough stretch, 11.1 during the good stretch).
What does all of this mean? Nothing conclusively. But at the very least, it doesn't appear as if there is a huge disparity in the frequency with which hitters elected to swing at Lidge's slider during any of thestretches. And the similar in-play rates would seem to indicate the hitters were having only slightly more success against the slider during the bad stretch than during the good stretch.
II. The Fastball
Conversely, the difference between Lidge's fastball was vastly different between the two May '09 data sets.
- During the good stretch, 0-for-12 against his fastball. During the bad stretch, they went 8-for-19, meaning 42.1 percent of the time a batter swung against a fastball, it resulted in a hit (and six of those hits were for extra bases).
- During the bad stretch, 13 of the 46 fastballs Lidge threw (and 13-of-19 swings) resulted in a Ball In Play. During the good stretch, 4 of the 36 fastballs he threw (and 4-of-12 swings) resulted in a Ball In Play.
- Hitters swung more at his fastball during the bad stretch (41.3 percent) than the good stretch (33.3 percent), but no more than they swung at his fastball during the playoffs in 2008 (42.2 percent), when they put just 13 of 64 fastballs and 13-of-27 fastball swings, into play.
As I said earlier, these are really small sample sizes, so nothing about this is scientific. But I think some of the examples illustrate were the bulk of Lidge's problems lay last year. He still had his slider, even if it was slightly less effective. But hitters killed his fastball at a ridiculous rate, thanks to his difficulty in putting the ball where he wanted it.
What does all of this have to do with Lidge's knee? Maybe nothing. Maybe he just flat-out lost his command. But the knee makes sense in a lot of ways. It explains the location issues. It explains the inconsistent velocity he displayed throughout the season (While his fastball averaged just 0.7 MPH less than in 2008, there seemed to be days where he wasn't throwing as hard. For example, during the 2008 postseason, he threw just one fastball out of 61 total that was clocked below 93 MPH, according to PitchFX. During the 2009 postseason, he threw 12 such pitches out of 51 total fastballs.
Take Game 4 of the World Series, for example, when Lidge allowed three runs in the top of the ninth to blow a tie game. Seven of his first 10 fastballs clocked in at 94 MPH (the other three at 93). Of the final seven that he threw, six clocked in at 92 (including a Mark Teixeira HBP, Alex Rodriguez's RBI Double, and Jorge Posada's two-run single).
Again, anecdotal evidence doesn't prove anything. And it certainly doesn't prove that all will be well with Lidge now that his knee (and, consequently, elbow) are surgically-repaired. Maybe the drop in velocity came from poor mechanics, or the fact that he was pitching from the stretch.
But if the knee was the problem, and if it remains trouble-free this season, all the offseason worry about the bullpen could prove to be unfounded.