Rivera vs. Lidge

Mariano Rivera is clearly one of the best closers of all time.  Brad Lidge is not.  Rivera is famously clutch, and his statistics demonstrate that he is as good as anyone can be in the postseason.  Lidge is not.  But how can we more carefully distinguish between these two relievers?  Why precisely are these two considered polar opposites?

For starters, Rivera has a career ERA of 2.25, while Lidge‘s is 3.56. With relievers, though, ERA is even more effected by chance than it is with most other pitchers. When looking at rate stats, Rivera strikes out 8.3 per 9 innings, to Lidge’s 12.1. He gives 0.5 HR/9, to Lidge’s 0.9. The only great difference in rate stats is in BB/9; Rivera is at 2.1 to Lidge’s 4.1. Still, when it comes to K/BB ratio, Rivera’s is 3.93, Lidge 2.99. Rivera is clearly the better pitcher, especially when the longer stretch of his career is factored in. But the difference is not massive.

Both of these relievers are famous for their postseason performances. Rivera has an ERA of 0.74 in 133.1 postseason innings, while Lidge’s is 2.52 in 39.1. Notice that Lidge has been better in the postseason than he has been in the regular season, though not by quite as large a margin as Rivera. Lidge has blown 4 postseason saves, while Rivera has blown 5. Rivera‘s have even been spectacular, like Lidge. In 1997 in Game 4 of the ALDS, he gave up a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. Completing the save would have won the series. In 2001, Rivera blew the save in Game 7, losing the Series. In 2004, Rivera blew consecutive saves in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS that would have staved off the greatest collapse in postseason history. Yet Lidge is defined by his blown saves, and Rivera is not. Why is that?

Lidge is a victim of incredibly poor luck. While Rivera gave up a game-tying home run to the immortal Sandy Alomar, Jr. and a game-tying double to Tony Womack, Lidge was victimized by mere mortals Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Mull that over for a second. Lidge’s most famous blown saves were against the two best players in baseball in the last 5 years. Rivera’s much more forgotten blown saves were against substantially lesser players. In some sense, Lidge’s reputation is contingent upon being on Pujols and Rodriguez’s highlight reels. Second, Lidge is accused of dwelling on his past mistakes and allowing them to affect his future performance. Is that true? Pujols’ home run in 2005 did not preclude Lidge’s good season in 2007 and astounding 2008, but they might have effected his performance in a poor 2006. Rivera, in contrast, had great seasons after each of his blown saves. I have used him as an exemplar of the short memory necessary to be a great athlete.

In the end, they are polar opposites because of how good professional baseball players are. For a second, consider the distribution of baseball talent in the population at large. It is likely a bell curve, with a lot in the middle, a few hopeless, and a few great. The entire MLB is drawn from the great end of the distribution. If I am the exact median baseball players, the distance from Albert Pujols to Yuniesky Betancourt is dwarfed by the distance from Betancourt to me. Yet Betancourt should soon be out of the big leagues. In the end, Rivera is better than Lidge, though not by a lot. But in such a dramatic narrowing of the talent distribution, every little bit gets magnified outrageously. Because of that, Rivera is great, and Lidge is forever a goat.

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