Lidge’s legacy

lidgeATLANTA – When the 2009 season is archived or formatted to some digital data base way in the future, Brad Lidge and the issue of all those blown saves and extraneous runs will be the largest underlying theme. It has to be given how much time we’ve spent talking and writing about it.

Interestingly, all these months later the closer issue has not been resolved. Lidge started blowing saves in earnest in May and kept at it fairly consistently.

Who knows, down the road when we’re looking at the stats on Baseball-Reference or whatever clearinghouse baseball stats are vaulted in, maybe all we will see from Lidge is his save totals. After all, as the closer it is Lidge’s job to save games.

Lidge has 31 saves so far this season after finishing off the Braves in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. In his career, Lidge has saved at least 30 games (with a high of 42) four times in six full seasons. That’s a nice feather in his cap.

Now here’s some historical perspective on Lidge’s 30-plus saves in four seasons: Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge.

That will all change when guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get voted in. By then 45 saves will be what 30 was in the 1970s. Still, it will be interesting to see how history judges Lidge’s ’09 season. Chances are the legacy will have more to do with how the year ends as opposed as what happened between May and September.

He’s nailed down his last three chances in a row, allowing a run in each one of them, but the end justifies the means when it comes to saving games. In that case, the 31 saves comes with no caveats in Lidge’s case.

Looking at the blown save redux

GooseNo one has to look at the stats or old game logs to know baseball is a much different game now than it was just 25 years ago. Just look at the innings pitched stats of the pitchers to learn all you need to know.

Yes, the game has changed. Just look at the way folks are reacting to Brad Lidge’s 10 blown saves this year as exhibit A. Of those 10, including the one the Phillies’ closer snapped from the jaws of victory on Saturday night in Houston, five were walk-off jobs and four came after he retired the first hitter of the inning.

But here’s something for you… of the handful of pitchers with the record for most blown saves in a season (14), two of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Bruce Sutter had 14 blown saves in 1978 only to come back to win the Cy Young Award in 1979 with 10 more blown saves.

Yes, that’s right. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter from Donegal High School in Lancaster County, Pa. had 24 blown saves in two seasons and took home a Cy Young Award.

Of course Sutter didn’t always pitch just one inning to get his saves, which is where the huge difference lies. Of those 24 blown saves, Sutter coughed up nine of them in outings of two innings of more. In fact Sutter took a blown save in one game where he pitched five innings.

When was the last time Brad Lidge went more than three outs to get a save? Try July 6, 2006.

No, closers aren’t asked to do too much these days, which is probably why the blown save stands out so much. The game is so defined by roles and managerial moves so compartmentalized and beholden to statistical data that there is much more pressure on everyone. If the manager deviates from the norm he is questioned and if the closer can’t walk that tight rope night after night without tripping up, people call for his head.

One inning to define failure or success.

Only a handful of relief pitchers won the Cy Young Award and even fewer were awarded the MVP. One of the guys who got both in the same season was Rollie Fingers who helped pitch the Milwaukee Brewers into the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season. However, in just 47 appearances and 34 save chances, Fingers nailed down just 28.

Of course he pitched 78 innings and had a 1.04 ERA, which means the nine runs he allowed that season led to those eight blown saves.

There are more examples, too. Remember when Steve Bedrosian was saving games every time he came into a game for the Phillies in 1987? Yeah, well he blew eight of his 48 chances, too, and still got the Cy Young Award.

bruce_sutterIn 1974 Mike Marshall of the Dodgers won the Cy Young Award even though he had 21 saves in 33 chances. Yes, that’s right… that’s 12 blown saves. Of course he appeared in 106 games and racked up over 200 innings all in relief.

Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young for the Yankees in 1977 and there was a lot of talk about how relievers weren’t worthy of such an honor. After all, Lyle had just 26 saves and 13 wins with eight blown saves. Of course he finished 60 games and averaged nearly two innings per outing, so he kept busy.

My favorite of all workhorse closers is Goose Gossage who was charged with 10 blown saves in 36 chances in 1977 in his only season in Pittsburgh. That season Goose picked up 16 saves when he pitched more than two innings, including four of three innings or longer and one four inning save.

Goose also had blown saves of four and five innings each in 1977. That’s nothing compared to Goose’s first year with the Yankees where he took two blown saves in a seven-inning outings and had five blown saves when he pitched three innings or longer.

Only 10 of Goose’s saves were three-inning jobs in 1978.

Lidge, on the other hand, has appeared in 57 games this season but only accumulated 50 1/3 innings. The last time he pitched more than an inning was late in the 2007 season when he got ahem a blown save.

Still, I have talked to closers about going more than one inning in save situations and even brought up Gossage’s efforts in 1977 and 1978 and they usually look at me like I have two heads. Only Brett Myers seemed interested in coming in before the ninth inning for a save chance, but that was when he was healthy.

No, I’m not saying stretching out the closer by asking him to do more work is the answer. In fact, it’s clear the modern day pitcher can’t handle the work load that the relievers of a generation ago piled on. But I am saying there is much more pressure on guys like Lidge these days. The fact that closers have absolutely no wiggle room at all makes Lidge’s 2008 season that much more impressive.

Moreover, closers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman walked that precarious ledge for decades and somehow have come out on the other end lauded as the best ever at the role.

Yeah, the current-day closer has more pressure and is expected to be practically robotic, but there’s something cool about the best reliever coming into a game in the seventh inning and throwing heat to every hitter in the lineup.

It was a simpler game back then – for better or worse.

Mark it zero, dude

Goose GossageGoose Gossage finally was elected to the Hall of Fame after it seems as if the BBWAA voters were shamed into giving him his due after last years’ snub. Perhaps it was the fact that Goose narrowly missed out on getting elected last year sealed the deal this year. For one thing it forced some folks to go back dig deeper into his record.

The thing about Gossage’s career is that it’s one thing on paper and something much deeper on the game logs. Sure, Gossage was the most dominant closer in the game for a handful of years. In fact he was so good that the Yankees went out and signed him to a big deal before the ’78 season even though Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award as the teams’ closer in 1977. But Goose spent the last decade of his career bouncing around the league from team to team and fighting injuries.

At a quick glance, the last bunch of years for Gossage hardly looked like the ledger of a guy headed for the Hall of Fame… and aren’t Hall of Famers supposed to be as consistent as clockwork?

But what the stat page doesn’t show is how Gossage put together a bunch of those saves – especially during the early years. These days when a closer is considered a workhorse for getting the occasional four-out save from time-to-time, it is fun to look at Gossage’s 1977 game log in his lone season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A quick glance there shows that of his 26 saves, only five were of three outs or less. Nine of them were two innings, three were two-plus innings, three were three innings or longer and the coup de grace, a mid September four-inning save in which Goose gave up one hit and struck out five.

Yeah, that’s right, a four-inning save.

So is Gossage Hall of Fame worthy… yes, absolutely. But then again based on some of the other folks enshrined in Cooperstown, Gossage wasn’t the only player who should have earned election to the Hall today. Gossage was baseball’s most dominant relief pitcher in the 1970s and the early 1980s so based on that criteria, Jim Rice should have been elected today as well. Why? Because Jim Rice was the game’s most dominant hitter from 1977 to 1979 and continued to be a perennial All Star to the mid-1980s by posting some gaudy numbers in an era before performance-enhancing drugs.

And if Tony Perez was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, then Andre Dawson should be enshrined, too. And if Gaylord Perry or Robin Roberts are in then Bert Blyleven should be, too.

Jim RiceWith that in mind here is how I would vote if I were a Hall of Fame voting member of the BBWAA, keeping in mind, of course, that I will never actively choose to be a member of the BBWAA. There’s a better chance that I would join the GOP or local Aryans group than be asked to join to BBWAA.

Anyway, here’s how I would have voted in the current system:

Rich Gossage
Jim Rice
Bert Blyleven
Andre Dawson
Lee Smith
Jack Morris
Tim Raines
Dave Parker
Dale Murphy
Tommy John
Don Mattingly

In this ballot I give points for guys who were the league’s best players at their position for a bunch of years in a row. I also give kudos to players who have remarkable seasons/performances, etc. In that vein, though most of his career was underwhelming, Roger Maris would get my vote.

This is how I would have voted if the Hall of Fame wasn’t so watered down with the likes of Perez and Ryne Sandberg:

Gossage
Rice

That’s it (though it’s pretty hard to ignore Raines… maybe his 808 career stolen bases will garner a second-look next year).

As far as Mark McGwire goes, the answer is simple:

No.

It will remain that way until baseball decides what to do with the records of the Steroids Era players. My suggestion is to separate them in the same way that the records pre-1900 were differentiated. Baseball calls the seasons after 1900 “The Modern Era.” Perhaps the seasons from 1990 and on can be called “The Post-Modern Era.”

Why not, postmodernism certainly worked well for Beckett.