Somewhat lost in Sunday's drama of the Phillies being swept at home by the second place Marlins and Shane Victorino getting tossed out of the game by an umpire 310 feet away was another rough performance by Brad Lidge. This is not insignificant considering that the bullpen is not at full strength due to injuries and seems to be the area of greatest concern heading into the final third of the season. The team will surely need a confident, effective Brad Lidge to close out many pressure packed games down the stretch in order to win the National League East and have another successful post season run.
Lidge struggled in his one inning of work, surrendering 3 runs on 3 hits, including a homerun by new Phillie killer, Wes Helms. Beyond Sunday's box score, the Marlins clubbed the 10th homer off Lidge this season (compared to 2 all of last season) and generally hit the ball hard.
So, it begs to ask the question again, what's going on with Brad Lidge? Here are some possibilities or things to consider:
Comments by Lidge, Rich Dubee and Charlie Manuel this season seem to suggest that the root cause of Lidge's diminished performance primarily relates to pitching mechanics. Additionally, those flaws in mechanics likely trace to Lidge's balky knee that sidelined him earlier in the season. Although the knee may be improved from when he was placed on the DL, it has required Lidge to slightly alter his motion. Some analysis has suggested that this has caused him to open up his body and alter his stride and landing. The theory goes that these changes have enabled batters to have a better view of the ball being delivered, lessened movement on his fastball and taken the sharp downward break out of his normally devastating slider.
Another by product of struggles with his mechanics is Lidge's overall command. Simply put, he is not getting the ball in the spots he desires, nor throwing a high enough ratio of strikes to balls. Consistently working behind in counts and laying balls in more hitter friendly zones is obviously a treacherous way to pitch. On the other hand, Lidge dominated last year and was not "painting the corners."
In last year's "perfect" season, Lidge largely pitched "backwards." In other words, he threw sliders in fastball counts (0-0, 3-1, etc) and vice versa. This season he seems to be pitching conventionally most of the time. This typically relates to not being able to locate both pitches on any given day, so the batter gets the fastball or slider that he is expecting.
The human mind surely plays an integral, and often subtle, role in athletic performance. Confidence is often times the difference between winning and losing, or succeeding and failing. A tighter grip on the ball or more tension in the body can easily result in less movement or velocity. Also, opposing players can sense a lack of confidence, which only serves to increase their own confidence. In 2008, Lidge had an air of domination, but in 2009, his body language suggests self doubt.
The last time in his career Lidge experienced similar struggles, similar questions and theories arose. What seemed to provide the breakthrough to get back on track, though, was Chipper Jones advising him that he was tipping his pitches. I have been very surprised that speculation of this possibility has not arisen in 2009. Evidence supporting that this is occurring again is the way that batters are confidently jumping on 95 mph fastballs, often times swinging way out in front and pulling them foul. Or, that batters are taking aggressive cuts at sliders rather than sheepish, defensive swings. Interestingly on Sunday, after ripping a fastball 30 feet foul, Jorge Cantu gave what appeared to be a knowing smile to a teammate as if to say "its great to know the fastball is coming, but I just got a little anxious."
Overall, the Phillies bullpen struggles this season seemed to coincide with the taping of the MLB Channel series The Pen. It stands to reason that having cameras follow your every move, especially for pressure packed roles such as a closer or late inning specialists such as Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin, would increase the tension and cause players to press a little more.
In all likelihood, resolution probably involves a combination of factors. And, there are usually interdependencies between these factors. But, if I were the Phillies, I would take a hard look at whether Lidge is tipping pitches or if teams are stealing their signs. My sense is that batters seem to know what is coming. Maybe they do not need to look any further than Sunday's videotape and see Marlins batters jumping out in front of 95 mph fastballs or Cantu's knowing smirk to diagnose the problem? I'm just saying, Philly.......