In the aftermath of Brandon Lyon's four blown saves to begin the 2011 season before landing on the DL, I wondered if he had the worst string of meltdowns by an Astros' closer in recent years. Let's make some comparisons to answer the question. These closer slumps leave a traumatic scar on fans; so I figured I could just follow my memory to identify the candidates. Since 2000, troubling closer slumps by Brad Lidge (2006), Billy Wagner (2000), and Jose Valverde (1998) seem to be the candidates.
Brad Lidge 2006
Brad Lidge, one of the best closers in history in 2004 and 2008, had a horrible 2006. For the first time, Astros' fans developed a morbid fear when Brad Lidge entered the 9th inning. Various theories developed regarding his troubles, ranging from "Pujols ruined him" to "he is tipping his pitches." Brad Lidge ended up with a 5.28 ERA in 2006, which tells you that he had a bad year for a closer. But Lidge's troubles were not similar at all to Lyon's. Lidge was just maddening because it seemed like periods of good to great performance would be interrupted by crushing slumps which would come out of the clear blue.
Look at Lidge's month to month ERA, and you can see what I mean: April 6.39, May 4.15, June 5.40, July 3.25, August 3.14, Sept./October 3.75. Lidge's April was actually worse than Lyon's, in terms of ERA (6.39 to 4.76 for Lyon). But despite the blow ups, Lidge continued to be productive in the save department, with 8 saves accumulated in April, compared to 4 for Lyon. Sure, Lidge had more save opportunities with a somewhat better team, but he never approached anything like Lyon's .500 save percentage. Lidge had 32 saves on the year, which is a nice season's work for most closers. By the way, Lidge's horrid April ERA was accompanied by a 13.9 K/9. Lidge never had a monthly K/9 lower than 10 in 2006.
Jose Valverde (2008)
In his first year with a team other than the D-Backs, Valverde scared the hell out of Astros' fans in April. Valverde's season started off well enough, with a win on April 1 followed by a save on April 4. But he suffered a blown save on April 7 to St. Louis at home. Three days later, he had a stunning blown save in Philadelphia that seemed to crush the team's psyche. He entered the 9th inning of a 3-0 gem pitched by Shawn Chacon and gave up 4 runs, including 2 HRs. Three days later, he earned another save, but still sported an ERA over 10. He suffered another blown save two days later at home against the Padres. However, Valverde continued to work on his mechanical problems and pronounced himself cured two days later . In fact, he was right. He ran off a string of saves to end the month, a pattern which continued in May.
In some ways, Valverde's and Lyon's April were similar.
April (ERA, Saves, Blown Saves, Win-Loss)
Valverde (2008) 6.92 ERA, 3 BS, 5 S, 3-1W/L
Lyon (2011) 4.76 ERA, 3 BS, 4 S, 3-1 W/L
Superficially, Valverde's bad spell looks worse than Lyon's. But there is a big difference. Valverde came out of his tail spin at the end of April, with three straight saves. And the improvement seemed to stick in May. Lyon's ERA for May is listed as "infinite" because he didn't get an out in his first appearance in the month of May.
Billy Wagner (2000)
Billy Wagner probably is the greatest closer in Astros' history, and he could well end up in Cooperstown. However, his 2000 season was something he wishes he had missed, and, at this point, it is probably worse than Lyon's 2011. Like Lyon, it turned out that Wagner had been pitching with an injury, and Wagner was placed on the DL with a torn flexor tendon after his last appearance on June 17. Wagner underwent surgery and returned to form in 2001.
Wagner's 2000 season began without any hint that he would have a bad year. He reeled off four consecutive hitless and run-less appearances, earning 3 saves. He had his first blown save on April 23; but all in all, he had a fine month of April with a 3.38 ERA.
Wagner suffered his 4th blown save on May 22 in Milwaukee. This is one of those games I remember watching--with horror--on television. At one point, this looked like a comfortable blow out for the Astros, but the Brewers kept chipping away at the Astros' bullpen. Wagner entered the 9th with the Astros ahead 9-6. The Brewers won this game 10-9. This game began a string of 3 straight blown saves by Wagner, and over these 3 games, Wagner's ERA ballooned from 3.38 to 5.73. In June, Wagner had 5 appearances, earning 3 blown saves and 1 save. Given the mounting blown saves, Wagner was moved out of the closer position on June 15, but still got a blown save in the 6th inning of his next appearance. Wagner was placed on the DL after that last June 17 blown save--a sad appearance in which he couldn't get an out and produced 1 run on 4 walks.
As I recall (I couldn't find a link with google), after the June 9 appearance against the Padres, Tony Gwynn told the press that something was wrong with Wagner; Gwynn believed that Wagner wasn't throwing as hard as the Enron Field radar indicated. Despite Gwynn's warning, the Astros insisted that nothing was wrong with Wagner and continued to trot him out there for three more games. The appearance of good velocity on his fastball was one of the reasons that the Astros used Wagner for so long. (Maybe a velocity decline from 99/100 to, say, 94 doesn't seem so bad.) However, reportedly Wagner had problems snapping off good sliders.
A comparison of Wagner's and Lyon's stats:
(ERA, BS, S, W-L)
Wagner (2000) 6.18 ERA, 9 BS, 6 S, 2-4 W/L
Lyon (2011) 7.15 ERA, 4 BS, 4 S, 3-2 W/L
At this point, Wagner's 2000 outscores Lyon's 2011 in miserableness. But Lyon's 2011 may not be over--so who knows?