A Glimpse of Recent Baseball’s Most Unhittable Pitcher

Brad Lidge is 36 years old. In December, when he was still 35, he announced his retirement from professional baseball. He hadn’t been much of a factor since 2010, so in that sense it felt inevitable that Lidge would hang them up. In discussing Lidge’s career, Mike Axisa wrote up the memorable moment that was Albert Pujols taking Lidge deep. Below, in the comments section of that post, some Phillies fans chimed in to say they most remember Lidge for completing the 2008 World Series. Me, I find both of those to be memorable moments, and when it comes to most memorable, that’s entirely subjective. But when I think of Brad Lidge, I don’t think first of Albert Pujols, nor do I think first of Eric Hinske. I don’t think of any one particular moment. I think of the whole sequence of moments that was Lidge’s 2004 season with the Astros.

Craig Kimbrel is coming off an impossible season with the Braves, in which he struck out more than half of the batters he faced. Opposing batters made some sort of contact 61% of the time that they swung. Aroldis Chapman, too, was incredible with the Reds, collecting 122 strikeouts. Opposing batters made some sort of contact 62% of the time that they swung. Going further back now, Eric Gagne was downright unfair as a Dodger in 2003. He won the National League Cy Young, and opposing batters made some sort of contact 56% of the time that they swung.

For Brad Lidge, 2004 was his second full season in the major leagues. Along the way, he turned into the Astros’ closer, and he never looked back. Over 80 regular-season appearances, he logged nearly 95 innings, and he reached 157 strikeouts. Opposing batters made some sort of contact 51% of the time that they swung.

To be more precise, 50.5%, according to Lidge’s FanGraphs player page. We have some plate-discipline data going back to 2002, and since 2002, there have been 3,546 individual pitcher seasons of at least 50 innings. Here’s the contact rate top-five:

  • Brad Lidge, 2004, 50.5%
  • Eric Gagne, 2003, 56.2%
  • Michael Wuertz, 2009, 58.1%
  • Rudy Seanez, 2005, 58.7%
  • Brad Lidge, 2005, 59.6%

If you prefer swinging-strike rate instead, here’s that top-five as well:

  • Brad Lidge, 2004, 25.0%
  • Eric Gagne, 2003, 22.3%
  • Eric Gagne, 2004, 21.4%
  • Eric Gagne, 2002, 20.9%
  • Brad Lidge, 2005, 20.3%

In 2004, one out of every four Brad Lidge pitches generated a swing and miss. One out of every two swings against a Brad Lidge pitch made contact. It’s not just that 2004 Brad Lidge leads the way; it’s also about the separation between Lidge and the runner-up. The difference between 2004 Lidge and 2003 Gagne by contact rate is nearly six percentage points. Swinging against Brad Lidge in 2004 was essentially a coin flip.

Brad Lidge never repeated what he did in 2004, and Brad Lidge in 2004 didn’t post baseball’s highest-ever strikeout rate. But when I think about unhittability, I think about difficulty of making contact, and that’s where 2004 Lidge is the winner over at least the last 11 years. Consider that, in 2004, the league-average contact rate against relievers was 78%. Armed with a high-90s fastball and a high-80s slider, Lidge allowed batters to make contact with the same frequency with which Barry Bonds reached base in 2001. In this paragraph, a pitcher’s contact rate is compared to a hitter’s on-base percentage.

If you need still more numbers for whatever reason, Lidge missed as many bats in 2004 as Felix Hernandez did in 2010, when he won the American League Cy Young. Felix was a starter and Lidge was a reliever. Lidge missed far more bats in 2004 than AL Cy Young-winner David Price did in 2012. Price was a starter and Lidge was a reliever. Lidge made a mockery of the whole pitcher-batter interaction.

The glimpse I hinted at in the headline — that’s because I was able to find some video. Below are two .gifs of Brad Lidge throwing sliders in 2004. This is all the video I could find of recent baseball’s most unhittable pitcher. It looks a lot like other Brad Lidge videos, but the knowledge that these particular pitches were thrown in 2004 adds a little contextual substance, I think.



That’s clearly a knockout slider, and Lidge threw it nearly half of the time. As a rookie in 2003, Lidge threw 65% fastballs. As a sophomore in 2004, Lidge threw 49% fastballs, and his various numbers went in all the various right directions. Lidge rode his heat and that slider to a season unlike any we’ve seen lately. Other pitchers have the stuff, but they haven’t deployed it with the consistency to match Lidge’s results. For Brad Lidge in 2004, in terms of swings and misses, it just all came together.

Of course, one might blame Lidge’s slider for Lidge’s arm problems. His slider, and his heavy early-career workload. If Brad Lidge pitched differently, Brad Lidge might still be pitching. But now that it’s all over, it’s not like Lidge has a lot to regret, and he’s the author of one incredible season, a season in which batters had as good a chance of whiffing as they had of making contact, in the event they opted to pull the trigger. Nobody’s matched Lidge’s contact rate in 2004. And nobody’s really come all that close.

That second .gif shows Lidge and the Astros locking up the National League Wild Card. Lidge would make seven postseason appearances, striking out 20 of 44 batters faced. Batters attempted 87 swings against Lidge in the playoffs, and about 52% of the time, they made contact. For 2004 Brad Lidge, you could say October was a swing-and-miss slump.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

29 Responses to “A Glimpse of Recent Baseball’s Most Unhittable Pitcher”

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  1. Mat says:

    That is a filthy whiff-maker of a slider.

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    • TheBigsdisciple says:

      It looks like a knee-high strike 90% of the way. And the ball is usually going too fast to see that last bit. So unless the batter picks up the spin or guesses right, he’s gone.

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    • Muggi says:

      Watching him as a Phillies’ fan, even when we didn’t get him at his absolute best, it was still one of the most unique pitches i can recall. Sliders just don’t BREAK that way.

      I’d love to see a comparison on the downward break on his slider compared to other great sliders for which we have data. I don’t get how, with a fairly typical arm motion, his broke DOWN where everyone else’s seems to have such lateral movement.

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    • Nick C says:

      I mouthed the word “wow” while watching that second gif. Unbelievable.

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  2. Sleight of Hand Pro says:

    94.2 innings without even starting a game? and that off the heels of 85 innings without starting a game?

    jimy williams mustve known his seat was hot.

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  3. Phantom Stranger says:

    We know Gagne was doing it those years with PEDs…though Lidge’s slider was truly amazing before injuries took their toll. If you can pair a wipeout slider with a mid-90s fastball from the same arm slot, you are going to make millions of dollars pitching in MLB.

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    • Synovia says:

      Almost everyone was doing it through those years with PEDs, and my guess is that they still are.

      Discounting Gagne because he was dumb enough to get caught isn’t particularly helpful.

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  4. Marsupial jones says:

    Albert Pujols took his soul.

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  5. Kevin says:

    Here’s a link to a video of one of his sliders.

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  6. Synovia says:

    Most interesting thing I found in this article was the link to Rudy Seanez’s stats.

    I remember him as a mediocre reliever who played a year for the sox… his career stats are really strange. I guess a lesson in caution on paying big bucks for relievers. He’s got a year where he had a 12+ K/9 and <3 BB/9, and other years where his K/9 is below 7 and his BB/9 is above 6.

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  7. beardcrabs says:

    I feel Sergio Romo might be heading towards this path as well… He already has past elbow issues and threw his sliders 63% of the time last season… No bueno…

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    • clark duke says:

      The problem with throwing so many sliders and off-speed pitches is that you eventually lose your fastball velocity. Tommy Hanson is a good example as is Romo.

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      • Samuel Deduno says:

        Is there evidence of this? All pitchers eventually lose velocity so pointing to a few cases isn’t significant enough.

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  8. JKA says:

    Lidge had numerous injury problems (including rotator cuff surgery and a broken forearm) after being drafted by the Astros out of Notre Dame in 1998; he did not reach the majors until age 25. So given his stuff, a short but meteoric career was probably to be expected.

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  9. david says:

    IIRC, ’03 ‘stros pen had lidge, wagner and dotel all at or near their peaks: 10+K/9.

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    • Matt says:

      Yep, it was a helluva thing to watch. You could practically turn off the game if they had a 6th inning lead.

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  10. supershredder says:

    Lidge truly had an amazing season in 2004…just so sad it will forever be under-appreciated by me as an Astros fan. How far we have fallen!!

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  11. Jim says:

    Could somebody please explain this to me: You’ve got swing-and-miss strikes, and you’ve got “some kind of contact.” How in the world do those two numbers not add up to 100%? What possible result can there be other than “contact” or “not contact”? And if you swing and don’t make contact, how can that be anything other than a strike?

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    • Xao says:

      Different denominators. The swinging strikes were a percentage of all of Lidge’s pitches. The contact was a percentage of all batters’ swings against Lidge.

      Exercise for the reader: what percentage of Lidge’s pitches were taken in 2004?

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  12. Baltar says:

    Yes, Hoyt Wilhelm had years of 159, 145, 144 and 131 innings with no start. He had many, many more around 100.
    Roy Face had 114 in the year after his incredible 18-1 season, in which he had 93.
    I’m sure there are many others.

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