Cliff Lee: Where Are the Strikeouts?

As Cliff Lee put the finishing touches on his third consecutive complete game shut-out last night, writers professional and amateur alike took to the laptops to consolidate all of the trivia. First, of course, there is the matter of his CG SHO’s:

Cliff Lee is the first Phillies pitcher to throw 3 consecutive shutouts since Robin Roberts in 1950. [Todd Zolecki]

Lee is up to 4 shutouts for the season. 7 teams haven’t thrown that many. [Jayson Stark]

Nobody has thrown 4 straight shutouts since Hershiser ran off 5 in ’88. Lee is 6th w/ 3 in row since [Jayson Stark]

And then there’s his 32-inning scoreless streak:

Cliff Lee is 3rd Phillies starter in history to run up 30+-IP scoreless streak. Joins Robin Roberts (32.2) & Grover C Alexander (30 & 41.2) [Jayson Stark]

He is more than halfway to Orel Hershiser‘s MLB record 59 and one-third consecutive scoreless innings, a record that doesn’t get approached very often.

How about his month of June?

Since 1950, Cliff Lee has the lowest ERA in the month of June amongst pitchers w/ 40 or more IP. [Corey Seidman]

Cliff Lee’s final June stats: 5 GS, 5-0, 42 IP, 21 H, 1 ER (0.21 ERA), 29 K, 8 BB, 3 CGSHO [@xochristinaxo]

Other ancillary trivia:

Cliff Lee has more wins (5) in June than the Marlins (3) [@Rebeccapbp]

In his 5th start of the month, Cliff Lee has more RBI than runs allowed. [Paul Boye]

There will be more trivia as people play with the parameters, but that’s the bulk of it for now. It’s quite a lot to digest — what Lee has done recently is truly historic, especially considering the more pitcher-friendly eras; Hershiser’s record came in the era directly before the so-called “steroid era” in Major League Baseball, for example.

However, in the wake of Lee’s tremendous run of success, I find myself… I don’t want to say worried… but quizzical, perhaps?… at Lee’s path to greatness. He started off June with a ten-strikeout performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but then the strikeouts started to drop precipitously: seven against the Chicago Cubs, four against the Florida Marlins, three against the St. Louis Cardinals, and five against the Boston Red Sox last night. For those last four starts, that’s a K/9 under 4.9.

There are many possible explanations for the drop in strikeouts, and any, all, or none of them could be true simultaneously. He could have made a conscious effort to induce more contact in an attempt to lower his pitch counts. (It hasn’t worked as his five June starts rank in the top-eight in terms of average pitches per batter faced.) Second, the lower strikeout rate could be a statistical fluke. After all, 35 innings isn’t nearly a large enough sample size. Finally, it could be indicative of injury as it was with Roy Oswalt — in his eight starts from May 17 to June 23, Oswalt struck out 21 batters in 44 and one-third innings, a K/9 of just 4.3. The good news is that, unlike Oswalt, Lee hasn’t shown a decline in velocity with any of his pitches.

This is not to say that Lee hasn’t been able to miss bats this year; in fact, he has done that at a higher rate than at any point in his Major League career. His career high K/9 coming into 2011 was 8.1 set in 2004 with the Cleveland Indians. This year, despite his last four starts, his K/9 sits at 8.8. Six of his 17 starts have seen double-digit strikeouts, a feat he had accomplished just nine times coming into the season. His overall swinging strike rate, at 9.4 percent, is also a career-high among seasons in which he made 10 or more starts. To say he hasn’t been able to miss bats would be disingenuous.

That’s why I’m a bit quizzical. It doesn’t appear that Lee made a conscious effort to induce more contact and it doesn’t appear likely that he’s pitching hurt like Oswalt. So what we’re left with is a statistical fluke, which also happens to be the most reasonable explanation. However, that also applies to his recent run of success. In June, he has a .191 BABIP while inducing ground balls at a 46 percent rate. The line drive rate is low at 12 percent as well. And, of course, the strand rate: 21 hits and eight walks should yield more than one run, even if Lee benefited from six ground ball double plays.

DIPS theory has taught us that a pitcher has the most control over strikeouts, walks, and whether a batted ball is on the ground or in the air. In a single season, pitchers tend not to have much control on the rate at which batted balls are turned into outs (relative to other factors such as his defense and simple randomness), which is why we expect pitcher BABIP to regress to around .300. The best case scenario is that Lee’s strikeouts return, thereby reducing the overall number of batted balls in play. When Lee’s BABIP normalizes, it won’t be nearly as painful — after all, a .300 BABIP on 20 batted balls (six hits) is preferable to 30 (nine hits). It could be the difference between challenging Hershiser’s scoreless innings streak and going up in flames.

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49 comments

  1. Jesse

    June 29, 2011 09:41 AM

    Isn’t this just a course correction. Early in the year, Cliff was striking out a ton of batters but had an unsustainably high BABIP. Now the luck and the strikeouts have both evened out.

    His K/9 is now slightly above his career high and his BABIP is slightly below his career average (.290 v. .295). We have every reason to believe that his second half of the season will be roughly equal to his first half.

  2. Phylan

    June 29, 2011 09:44 AM

    That’s a bit of the gambler’s fallacy though. When things regress, you don’t expect them to shoot down to unreasonably low levels to compensate for previous unsustainably high levels, you expect them to regress to the average. This month, in terms of strikeouts, Cliff is pitching well below that. Probably just a fluke though. I hope.

  3. Bill Baer

    June 29, 2011 09:44 AM

    Yeah, the first half overall can be taken at face value for sure.

    EDIT: Posted before I saw Phylan’s comment. He’s right, of course, but overall the first half looks reasonable.

  4. Phylan

    June 29, 2011 09:48 AM

    Yeah, I mean, in the end it’s a great first half from a great pitcher and we’re zooming in on a mildly curious 4-5 start run.

  5. Western Dave

    June 29, 2011 09:50 AM

    Another way of saying this is that lately batters were getting very lucky in inducing contact with Lee lately, but that the contact was weak to poor leading to low BABIP. When talking about pitching we tend to focus overly on just the pitcher. When we talk about batting we always talk about what pitchers are doing to batters. By making the actors in this equation the batters (or by making them the subject of the sentence), it changes the perception (but not the reality).

    It was meme early in the season when Lee was getting lots of Ks but giving up runs and taking losses that batters changed their approach and were swinging at first pitches more with him because they knew he would throw strikes. The question is was this true and has it changed? Did Lee throw lots of first pitch strikes in April and May and did he change his approach thus leading to his incredible June?

  6. TheKayell

    June 29, 2011 09:52 AM

    Could hitters be changing their approach to Lee? Maybe they’re worried about getting K’d up and are trying to change their plate approach to get ahead of/rattle him. Obviously it’s failing, but that is something very much human controlled.

  7. Richard

    June 29, 2011 09:57 AM

    He’s still been getting swinging strikes at a decent rate, so I think it’s pretty clear it’s a fluke combined with some regression.

    Last night, he surely got some weak contact, but also some nice defensive plays on the handful of (very) hard hit balls he gave up (with some luck having those balls more or less right at the fielders).

  8. Kevin S.

    June 29, 2011 10:08 AM

    Could there be some kind of synergy effect going on here? Deriders of DIPS theory love to talk about how guys who don’t necessarily do well in the 3TO have the ability to induce weaker contact, while the counter-argument has been that somebody who can induce weaker contact is also likely to be getting swings and misses. Given how small the sample size is here, could we just be seeing a run of people getting the bat on pitches they’d usually strike out on, but not being able to do much with them?

  9. Bill Baer

    June 29, 2011 10:10 AM

    Absolutely, Kevin. In fact, the data seems to flesh that out albeit in a very small sample. His line drive rate is only 12% in his last four starts. Most pitchers are in the 17-20% range, so he’s a bit below average in that regard. In the big picture, it’s no more than three or four line drives but it is at least descriptive even if it’s not predictive.

  10. Scott G

    June 29, 2011 10:24 AM

    Bill,

    tsk tsk. I thought we settled this :) . “Cliff Lee has more RBI [sic] than runs allowed”

    RBIs!! RBIs!!

  11. Richard

    June 29, 2011 10:37 AM

    nope, RBI

    (and, yes, I remember the discussion well)

  12. Jonny

    June 29, 2011 10:41 AM

    Bill, how do his pitch charts compare between now and then? I think he’s probably flirting with the corners more now than he was, coupled with people swinging more as to not strike out looking. We know contact with pitches flirting on the corners induce more bad results for the batter. Also what about types of pitches thrown? Is he throwing less change ups now maybe?

  13. Kevin S.

    June 29, 2011 10:46 AM

    RsBI.

  14. Bill Baer

    June 29, 2011 10:51 AM

    I’d be happy to answer pitch-type questions if someone sets us up a Pitch F/X database. I don’t know anything about databasing, and importing the data from Joe Lefkowitz’s site is too much legwork. :(

  15. KH

    June 29, 2011 11:18 AM

    His strikeouts were too high early in the year and unsustainable. He was also very unlucky earlier in the year on balls in play. What we are seeing now imo is the exact opposite. He settle somewhere in between soon.

  16. hk

    June 29, 2011 11:35 AM

    I agree with Scott G…if Attorneys General = AG’s, Runs Batted In = RBI’s.

  17. Matt

    June 29, 2011 11:36 AM

    Cliff Lee gave a quote earlier this season along the lines of “not wanting to strike batters out”, saying it required him to use too many pitches. He is most effective when guys put pitches into play and the defense can get them out. It may sound a little funny, but strike out pitchers do have to labor a little bit harder.

  18. DrPete

    June 29, 2011 11:59 AM

    Here’s his Texas Leaguers Pitch FX pre-June 1st:
    pitchfx.texasleaguers.com/pitcher/424324/?batters=A&count=AA&pitches=AA&from=4%2F1%2F2011&to=5%2F31%2F2011

    June 1st, and on:
    pitchfx.texasleaguers.com/pitcher/424324/?batters=A&count=AA&pitches=AA&from=6%2F1%2F2011&to=6%2F31%2F2011

    What I see:
    1) he’s throwing more cutters+two-seamers+curveballs, at the expense of 4-seamers (4seamers go from 24% to 16% of pitches).
    2) he’s getting more ground balls (twice as many per AB) for outs, but his flyout/lineout is similar.
    3) the whiff rates are down a bit, but not much, and a small reduction in in Swing%
    4) his In-play % hasn’t changed much and he’s still throwing strikes (Strike% hasnt changed much)
    5) he’s getting less foul balls

    So he’s shifted his pitch selection somewhat, but he’s not really pitching to contact more (In play%s are similar). He’s still throwing strikes and still has swing-miss stuff. Thus, it seems like the change to more cutters and 2-seamers over 4-seamers is yield more goundballs. Plus, perhaps the increased use of the curve — which might be his best pitch — and/or change in sequencing is keeping hitters more off balance? Combined this is resulting in a lower BABIP and markedly less extra base hits.

  19. Franklin S.

    June 29, 2011 03:38 PM

    Hi Bill, I’m not on your level as far as statistical analysis goes, but could it be the umpiring that’s causing the anomaly you’re describing?

  20. jauer

    June 29, 2011 04:05 PM

    if you say “joe has one RBI” you cant then turn around and say “joe has two RBI.” Youre changing what the acronym stands for. The plural of RBI is RBIs; thankfully the Associated Press hasn’t been taking grammar lessons from Stuart Scott.

  21. Taco

    June 29, 2011 05:58 PM

    Jauer if someone was married and his wife had 2 brothers, would you say he had 2 brother-in-laws?

    if you were to spell out RBI, would you say “Joe was 3-4 with 2 run batted ins”?

  22. Scott G

    June 29, 2011 08:50 PM

    Taco,

    You couldn’t be more wrong. First of all, I’ve had the convo with Jauer before about brothers-in-law. He most definitely knows how to say it.

    Also, the acronym RBI stands for run batted in. To make the acronym plural you add an -s at the end: RBIs. If you’re saying the phrase, it’s runs batted in.

  23. jauer

    June 29, 2011 10:09 PM

    taco, that analogy is horrendous

  24. Taco

    June 30, 2011 06:21 AM

    Run Batted In — RBI

    Runs Batted In — ??? Its an acronym, the initial letters of runs batted in are “rbi”

    you are acting as if pluralizing something requires an “s” on the end, and that is not true. what is the plural of deer? That was my point, sorry if I conveyed that point weakly.

    you can say it however you want, I don’t care. That doesn’t make it grammatically correct.

  25. SJHaack

    June 30, 2011 08:31 AM

    @Matt

    It turns out that strikeout pitchers don’t particularly throw more pitches per batter than contact pitchers.

    www.tangotiger.net/pitchCountEstimator.html

    This shows Randy Johnson (High K+BB%) threw approximately half a pitch more than Brad Radke through the time measured, but look at the graph. The high K+BB pitcher graph line is LOWER than the low K+BB pitcher line for the same % of balls in play. And we’re only talking about a handful of pitches, like 3-4 per inning. That’s worth keeping balls off the field.

  26. Scott G

    June 30, 2011 10:28 AM

    Taco,

    It is grammatically correct. Are you serious? To pluralize an acronym (stat abbr. in sports) you add an -s to the end of it. It’s an acronym. This isn’t hard, nor is this a debate. It’s a fact.

  27. jauer

    June 30, 2011 10:41 AM

    Compact Disc = CD
    Compact Discs = ???

    When taco returns from the music store, he says he bought “three CD” and becomes irate when someone points out the error.

  28. Western Dave

    June 30, 2011 02:20 PM

    People (meaning Taco), English isn’t math. It doesn’t follow consistent rules (although it turns out even math can’t be both axiomatic and consistent). If you say, “he had a 100 are bee eyes” or even “a hundred ribbies” everybody knows what you mean. If you say “he had a 100 ars be eye” nobody knows what you are talking about except for a few kids you used to play dungeons and dragons with and fight about whether you needed 1d20 or 2d20 to know whether the spell hit and whether or not you 2d8 meant rolling them simultaneously or separately. It’s about being understood not about being right. In other news, according to the rules of phonics you could spell fish “ghoti” but nobody does because it’s stupid to. Now, can we please talk about something meaningful, like whether or not we say “phillieses” when we see the word “Phillies'”

  29. Richard

    June 30, 2011 03:28 PM

    Scott, you are flat wrong. You were wrong the last time too. If you say the sentence out loud, you read the letters R-B-I, whether singular or plural. It’s an acronym for a stat. You would say “runs batted in”, or “R-B-I”. Not “RBIs”. And don’t call me guy.

  30. Richard

    June 30, 2011 03:34 PM

    the point is, the plural of RBI is RBI, and always has been; taco is actually right, above, but his logic is sort of off, and his analogies to other cases are off…

  31. jauer

    June 30, 2011 06:33 PM

    id refer to a grammar source, richard:

    My question refers to the plural use of acronyms and initialisms. As I have always understood it, the acronym or initialism can be pluralized only if the last letter indicates the plural item. So MOU (memorandum/memoranda of understanding) cannot become MOUs, but ICT can become ICTs (information and communication technologies). I run into this problem a lot with the initialism RFP (request for proposals), which people like to pluralize as RFPs to indicate multiple requests. The word proposals is already plural, so it does not make sense to me to add an s to the end of the initialism. What is the correct way to make acronyms or initialisms plural?

    A. If you can stop thinking of the spelled-out meaning of the acronym and just treat the acronym itself as a word with its own meaning, you should be able to add that little s without fretting.

    www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/Plurals/Plurals11.html

  32. Richard

    June 30, 2011 06:39 PM

    I think that’s right, jauer; thanks. I was writing just before leaving work, in a bit of a rush.

    But the overall point is that by convention baseball stats are not pluralized by adding and s at the end. It conforms well to the principle you lay out above, but I was thinking on my way home that such a principle is not really necessary. One only needs to look at how the stats have been pluralized by professional writers for decades to get your answer. Naturally, it’s circular, because the standards those professional writers follow is in fact something like the Chicago style, or the New York Times style.

  33. Richard

    June 30, 2011 06:43 PM

    I should say, jauer, with regard to your final sentence (“you should be able to add that little s without fretting”), which I overlooked, I’d agree that you could add it without fretting. My argument is that you could equally not add it, also without fretting, and that the latter conforms to standard practice (and to casual spoken use; no one says “RBIs”). My objection was always with the incorrect insistence that one must add the s.

  34. Jauer

    June 30, 2011 06:55 PM

    Pluralizing acronyms, though, usually involves the tiny s at the end. Pretty much every grammar source ive found supports this. It may be acceptable to use RBI as a plural, but its no less strange/annoying asusing CD as a plural (the s at the endof an acronym does not only apply to the final word of that acronym).

  35. Scott G

    June 30, 2011 07:32 PM

    Richard,

    Was the hostility necessary? I mean you insisted you were right, and despite the fact that you think you’re technically “not wrong”, I insist you are, and Jauer proved it. Bill, who I’m assuming is avoiding this convo, commented last time, and agreed with me after an explanation.

  36. Taco

    June 30, 2011 07:37 PM

    “If you say “he had a 100 ars be eye” nobody knows what you are talking about except for a few kids you used to play dungeons and dragons…”

    I never suggested RsBI as a pronunciation. Singular = RBI. Plural = RBI. As for dungeons and dragons, never played it, but I’m sorry that your fear of things you don’t understand extends beyond grammar.

    “When taco returns from the music store, he says he bought “three CD” and becomes irate when someone points out the error.”

    Do you know what the word ‘irate’ means? That was a rhetorical question; you clearly don’t.

  37. Taco

    June 30, 2011 07:43 PM

    btw:

    runS batted in
    compact discS

    I’ll let you figure out the difference.

  38. jauer

    June 30, 2011 08:00 PM

    Taco, the reason why i used the CD example is because i knew you would respond just as predictably as you did:

    You said RBI is the plural of RBI because “the initial letters of runs batted in are RBI”

    So, by using the initial letters of Compact Discs, the plural of CD would be CD, by your flawless logic.

    I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but the tiny “s” at the end of an acronym is not exclusive to the final word of that acronym.

  39. jauer

    June 30, 2011 08:09 PM

    Also, if you’d like to point out how I misused the word “irate,” be my guest.

    That was a rhetorical offer; you can’t.

  40. Taco

    June 30, 2011 08:20 PM

    who goes to the music store to buy CDs anyway. what is this, 1995?

  41. Western Dave

    June 30, 2011 08:23 PM

    Fine, Taco, so except for whatever arguments you used to get pedantic about over whatever arcane rules you played games by that only you recognized, quit pretending you understand how English grammar works. You don’t. And obviously, I played Dungeons and Dragons, how else would I know the rules (I was not hung-up over them kind of like the fact that it doesn’t bother me that the word its doesn’t take an apostrophe even though it’s a contraction and every other contraction does.) But by all means strain to make English consistent with the rules in your head. You won’t be the first or the last to try this, and you’ll be as successful as all the rest. And when you are done with that you can learn Esperanto (which is a perfectly consistent language). Does anybody know how to say RBI in Esperanto?

  42. Taco

    June 30, 2011 08:24 PM

    i’d rather download some MP3.

  43. Taco

    June 30, 2011 08:29 PM

    “Fine, Taco, so except for whatever arguments you used to get pedantic about over whatever arcane rules you played games by that only you recognized, quit pretending you understand how English grammar works.”

    this sentence is making my eyes bleed.

  44. PhillyFanRunner

    June 30, 2011 09:25 PM

    That was EPIC!!!! Let’s talk some semicolon now! It’s soooo ON!!!

  45. KB

    July 01, 2011 04:48 PM

    I believe if you go back and watch the games Lee has pitched in, very few of the contact balls hit off of him have been hit hard. This would actually seem to indicate that Lee does have a small amount of control on balls in play. In other words, BABIP is an excellent tool, but must be held accountable by other stats.

  46. Bill Baer

    July 01, 2011 06:02 PM

    KB,

    Pitchers don’t have zero control, but it’s significantly less than hitters. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the initial research done by Voros McCracken, and more recent research performed by Matt Swartz and Eric Seidman at Baseball Prospectus.

  47. FC

    July 04, 2011 10:56 AM

    Well Bill he struck out 8 and got shelled yesterday. I think I’ll take 3 SO and 9 0-run frames any day of the week.

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