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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.