As everyone's undoubtedly heard by this point, former major league pitcher Cory Lidle passed away after his airplane experienced in-flight mechanical problems. The cause of the event isn't completely clear at this time, though it most likely was an accident, and what was presumably an unavoidable one at that. Rather than spending too much time discussing his untimely and unfortunate death, I'd like to take a look back at Lidle's brief, yet notable career with the Blue Jays. By the way, for those interested in reading others' interpretations and thoughts on the matter, I highly recommend checking out this thread on Baseball Primer.
The Blue Jays were the fourth team for which Lidle played in a nine-season career spent with seven different teams. On November 16, 2002, he was traded by the A's to the Blue Jays for Mike Rouse and Christopher Mowday, whose stocks were essentially as low then as they are now. The trade was perceived to be a salary dump on the part of the cost-conscious A's. Lidle, who was fresh off two above average seasons as a starter, was due a substantial raise in salary. As it would turn out, he signed for $5.35 million, a $1.8 million raise from the previous year and more than any A's starting pitcher would be paid in 2003.
At the time, it was universally praised as a coup for J.P. Ricciardi, who was no doubt the fortunate recipient of a nepotic act on the part of A's general manager Billy Beane. After all, Lidle was perceived to a pitcher on the rise, following a very successful second half in 2003. It's difficult to exaggerate the dominant manner in which Lidle finished his career with the A's. In August 2002, Lidle was 5-0 with a 0.20 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP in 45.1 IP. In the midst of that herculean effort, he pitched 32 consecutive scoreless innings and became the only pitcher other than Orel Hershiser to make five scoreless starts in one month. Of course, it would've been foolish to expect him to maintain that level of play, or to even remotely approach it, in subsequent seasons, though he appeared to be a very safe bet to match or exceed his overall performance from that year. Although his stuff wasn't particularly tantalizing (he did go undrafted, lest we forget), he seldom walked batters and struck them out at a relatively fair clip. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it's safe to say that those two seasons in Oakland were the zenith of his career, never to be replicated afterwards.
His tenure with the Blue Jays began on a positive note. Through June 1st, he was 8-3 with an ERA of 4.21, mainly due to a terrific month of May. Afterwards he simply fell apart, and was perhaps the worst regular starting pitcher in baseball. His ERA between June and August was above 8.00, and he won only twice following mid-season.
It's difficult to pinpoint what led to his poor play in Toronto as compared to Oakland, but, as always, there are a few possibilities. For one, he was exposed to the offensively potent lineups of the AL East far more often than he was as a member of the A's. Here are his ERA's versus AL East opponents in both 2002 (as an Athletic) and 2003 (as a Blue Jay):
2002 IP 2002 ERA 2003 IP 2003 ERA
35 6.69 95.1 6.70
Obviously ERA is a very blunt measurement, but Lidle's performance against AL East teams in '03 was very similar to his performance against them in '02, with the most important difference being the amount of innings he pitched.
Another reason could be that the Blue Jays were substantially worse defensively than the A's, whose defensive-minded philosophy has led to a great degree of success during Billy Beane's tenure as GM. Other than Terrence Long, whose bat was as abysmal as his fielding, the A's were a very sound defensive club, a strength which helped mask many of its pitchers' deficiencies. The Blue Jays weren't awful defensively, mind you, but certain players -- Eric Hinske, Frank Catalanotto, and Shannon Stewart, to name a few -- were noticeable liabilities. According to UZR, a stat created by Mitchel Lichtman (MGL) that is no longer available to the public, Orlando Hudsonwas the only Blue Jay who belonged in the upper echelon of defenders from '00-'03, the seasons the list was published. In short, UZR lists the number of runs saved or lost relative to an average fielder at that position. It takes into account the number of balls fielded relative to the number of fielding chances, which are weighted relative to the zone in which they were fielded. Of course, fielding metrics should be regarded with caution, though it's safe to say, in my estimation, that Toronto's defence was appreciably worse than Oakland's during the early part of the new millenium.
Another explanation for Lidle's subpar play as a Blue Jay could be a psychological one. In Oakland, he was comfortably and anonymously cast beneath the vast shadow of the much-heralded "Big Three" of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. As a Blue Jay, however, he was immediately thrust into the spotlight as the team's second starter, behind the team's perennial ace, Roy Halladay. Perhaps he couldn't handle the newfound responsibility, a problem many players have encountered throughout the game's history. This argument is less well-founded than the others, but it's notable, to be sure.
Following the 2003 campaign, Lidle was unceremoniously allowed to leave as a free agent to the Reds, where he would continue to struggle before somewhat resurrecting his career with the Phillies.
His best game as a Blue Jay took place on May 2, 2003, against his old rivals from out West, the Angels. He pitched a complete game three-hitter while allowing one run in a 6-1 victory in front of roughly 18,000 fans.
Lidle's time with the Toronto Blue Jays was rather brief, as was his time on this earth, as fate would have it. It's unfortunate that his performance never quite matched the heightened expectations held by the fans and the organization, but he certainly left his mark and remains one of the key figures of the J.P. Ricciardi era in Toronto. Rest in peace, Cory.