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Cliff Lee and BABIP

Cliff Lee left the seventh inning of Game Two down 5-4 with runners on first and second, no outs. It was quite a disappointing start for the Phillies’ second ace as the lefty allowed 12 hits and forked over a four-run lead. It was the third consecutive mediocre post-season start for the lefty, which screamed “Narrative!” for writers across the nation.

For a fun game, I will provide two lines of pitching statistics. Your job is to pick one of them to start Game 7 of the World Series.

If you picked Pitcher A, you picked Steve Carlton. If you picked Pitcher B, you picked Cliff Lee.

Carlton put up that line in his three starts prior to the 1980 post-season; Lee compiled his in the 2010 World Series and Game One of the 2011 NLDS. Most people will recognize that the gap in ERA is meaningless given the small sample, and they will also recognize that Lee’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is much superior and that he has been BABIP-unlucky.

Carlton had a great post-season in 1980, finishing with a 2.30 ERA in four starts as he led the Phillies to their first championship in franchise history. Those who are giving up on Lee now would have given up on Carlton after the 1978 post-season, wrongfully so.

Arguably the most important thing to come out of the Sabermetric movement has been the realization that pitchers have very little control over the outcomes on batted balls (thanks, Voros!). Sure, there are exceptions like Nolan Ryan and Matt Cain, but the overwhelming majority of pitchers will find themselves close to the league average around .300. For instance, Roy Halladay‘s career BABIP is .295 while Adam Eaton‘s is .301. The difference between one of the best pitchers of this generation and one of the worst is six hits over a sample size of 1,000 batted balls. Halladay, of course, separates himself from the pack with tremendous defense-independent abilities: not issuing walks, missing bats, and inducing weak ground balls.

Throughout the game Sunday night, Saber-minded tweeters kept cursing the luck dragons for Lee’s outing. Meanwhile, traditionally-minded fans cursed Lee for pitching poorly in a crucial game. Naturally, debates rose over the validity of BABIP. Lee’s defense-independent stats (nine strikeouts, two walks, 45 percent ground balls) were good and didn’t merit his fate. BABIP wasn’t taking into account just how hard Lee was getting hit, some suggested.

If you compare the outcome of batted balls last night compared to Lee’s average on the season, you can understand why some felt he was the victim of bad luck. I posted the data in the comments of the game recap:

Batted ball distribution: 9 ground balls, 4 outfield fly balls, 3 infield fly balls, 4 line drives

Expected hits based on Lee’s 2011 BABIP…

Ground balls: .241 * 9 = 2
Actual: 5 (+3)

Outfield flies: .132 * 4 = 1
Actual: 2 (+1)

Infield flies: .010 * 3 = 0
Actual: 0 (even)

Line drives: .661 * 4 = 3
Actual: 4 (+1)

Allowed three more ground ball hits, one more outfield fly ball hit, and one more line drive hit than expected.

So, let’s actually watch the game again and see if Lee was really hit hard. I’ve made .gifs of each of the 12 hits Lee allowed. Afterwards, I’ll provide my own judgment on the hit. You, of course, are allowed to disagree but make a solid case in the comments as to why.

Rather than overload your browser with 12 .gifs, I’ve linked them next to the description in brackets. Click on it to open the .gif in a new window.

First Inning

Rafael Furcal triples on a fly ball to right-center. [Link]

Second Inning

David Freese doubles on a line drive to right field. [Link]

Fourth Inning

Yadier Molina singles on a ground ball up the middle. [Link]

Ryan Theriot doubles on a ground ball down the right field line. [Link]

John Jay singles on a ground ball to right field. [Link]

Rafael Furcal singles on a line drive to left field. [Link]

Sixth Inning

Ryan Theriot doubles on a line drive to left field. [Link]

John Jay singles on a ground ball to left field. [Link]

Skip Schumaker singles on a ground ball to second base. [Link]

Seventh Inning

Allen Craig triples on a fly ball to center field. [Link]

Albert Pujols singles on a line drive to left field. [Link]

Lance Berkman singles on a fly ball to shallow right field. [Link]


In the end, I only have Lee on the hook for four of the 12 hits. Now, to be fair, I’d have to do the same exercise for the eight batted ball outs, but the point of this exercise should be evident. As mentioned, Lee pitched well in the areas that didn’t involve his fielders: he struck out nine in six-plus innings of work, walked two, and induced ground balls at a 45 percent rate. If you roll the dice again with the same defense-independent numbers, Lee will have a much better night a majority of the time. As many will point out, though, baseball games are only played once and Lee’s results are what they are.

However, we can be a bit more fair and rational when assigning blame for the Phillies’ loss in Game Two. The Phillies’ offense, for example, went down in order in four consecutive innings between the third and sixth innings. Even if Lee forked over the lead, the Phillies should have been expected to push across at least one more run after they went up 4-0 after two innings. Unfortunately, they did not and the Phillies lost an otherwise winnable playoff game.