Cliff Lee: Counting Up From Zero

Above is a very interesting question Alex Rolfe asked me on Twitter during last night’s Cliff Lee start. Lee went seven innings, allowing five runs and once again failing to pick up his first win of the season. Lee has now allowed 14 runs in his last three starts spanning 20 innings, bumping his ERA all the way up to 3.72. Now all of Philadelphia is wondering: what’s wrong with Cliff Lee?

Amazingly, Cole Hamels — who started the other game in yesterday’s double-header — was in an eerily similar position as Lee back in 2009. Fans said many of the same things and asked many of the same questions of Hamels that are now surrounding Lee. Hamels had, in 2008, put himself on the map with a 3.09 regular season ERA and a World Series MVP award as the Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games for their first championship in 28 years. However, Hamels abruptly fell from grace, posting a 4.32 ERA and famously saying after a disastrous Game Three start against the New York Yankees in the World Series that he “can’t wait for it to end”. It, of course, referring to his terrible year. The Phillies lost in six games. Fans and media types spent time in the off-season dissecting Hamels’ season and wondering how they could ship him to Toronto for Roy Halladay.

At the same time, the stat-savvy among us pleaded for caution, claiming that Hamels’ ’09 was merely a fluke and his 2010 season would likely be much better. Myself, Matt Swartz, Paul Boye, and many more penned articles expressing this sentiment. These articles were met with skepticism (as any topic should) and disapproval, many claiming that the player we had written about was not the same player fans and media types had watched. To briefly recap the main points in favor of a Hamels rebound: the only difference between his 2008 and ’09 seasons was BABIP. His strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical, as were his batted ball splits, and he wasn’t allowing any more home runs. However, Hamels’ .259 BABIP in ’08 had risen to .317 in ’09, explaining much of the discrepancy.

As expected, Hamels rebounded in a big way in 2010. In fact, he not only regressed back to his mean, but he improved significantly. Hamels struck out more batters and induced more ground balls than ever before, and he added another pitch to his arsenal: a cut fastball. He finished the year with a 3.06 ERA, reestablishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball and giving the Phillies a daunting starting rotation that also included Halladay, Lee, and Roy Oswalt. Fans who had once stormed the castle with torches in hand in protest of Hamels’ continued presence had grown to love and accept him as one of their own.

On June 25, 2012, Philadelphia is on the verge of repeating ¬†history. Lee is having a season not unlike Hamels’ 2009. Prior to his last two starts — both seven-inning, 5 ER affairs — a legitimate non-Sabermetric case could have been made placing Lee in a very preliminary Cy Young discussion. Despite having zero wins to his name, he had a 3.18 ERA, quality starts in seven of nine starts, and one memorable no decision against the San Francisco Giants. He had struck out 66 and walked merely 11 in 64.2 innings of work.

Then came the narrative train. No wins and three bad starts makes Phillies fans something something. Go crazy? Don’t mind if they do! Repeating the same cliches foisted upon Hamels back in ’09, the narrative has centered on Cliff Lee’s “struggles”. And yet, when you look at the stats — the same ones that controversially told us Hamels would rebound in 2010 — Lee is actually pitching quite well.

2011 25.9% 4.6% 46.3% 2.68 2.72
2012 25.5% 4.6% 49.3% 2.88 2.75

There is one difference between Hamels and Lee, however: home runs. For Hamels, there was no jump in long balls surrendered, but for Lee, he has allowed nine home runs in 77.2 innings compared to 18 in 232.2 innings last year. On a per-fly ball basis, Lee jumped from nine percent last year and eight percent over his career to 13 percent so far in 2012, excluding yesterday’s start. If there are more home runs, then Lee has to be struggling with location, right? Doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

What about just fly balls? Again, not really a difference.

Let’s narrow it down to just home runs.

He is not being punished in any one particular area and, as the charts above show, he isn’t peppering a specific location where he shouldn’t be. Eight of his ten home runs allowed have been hit by right-handed hitters, compared to 79 percent over his career. And Lee’s pitches have been accessory to a home run in nearly equal portions: three fastballs, two cutters, two change-ups, and one curve. By the way, there has also been no meaningful change in his pitch usage.

We can narrow down the damage to Lee’s fastballs: sinkers and cutters. Opposing batters have mustered a meager .234 wOBA against his “soft” stuff this year and right-handed hitters are doing most of the damage (.341 wOBA compared to lefties’ .292 on “hard” stuff). Yet Lee is still doing his job against them as his 3.14 xFIP and 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio illustrate (career averages: 3.93, 3.2) and there is no pattern. Surprisingly, lefties have a .367 BABIP compared to the .301 of right-handers, including .356 on “hard” stuff. The distribution of hits, though, doesn’t scream “this guy is getting shelled!”

There is not one performance-based metric that is alarming regarding Cliff Lee. Yes, it is June 25 and he has zero wins and his ERA is just under 4.00, but such is life in small samples. Two weeks ago, there was nothing wrong with him and the narrative simply focused on his zero wins to date. As a fan, there is no fault in being frustrated with Lee’s last three starts, but when the irrationality of being a fan mixes with objective analysis, there is a problem, and it’s the same problem that arose in ’09 with Hamels. Performance and results are not always related. In some cases, like Roy Halladay in 2010, they match up perfectly, but other times, like Hamels in ’09, James Shields in ’10, and Lee this year, they are at odds.

Maybe, instead of hyper-analyzing Lee, we should be hyper-analyzing the traditional stats with which we evaluate him and others. Even if Lee’s 3.72 ERA was indicative of his performance thus far, his 0-4 record into late June should give us pause as to exactly why we continue to include this statistic in our conversations. Lee is the only pitcher this year to have thrown 50 innings and not earn a win. Is he the worst pitcher in baseball? Is he anywhere close to it? No. Then why use W-L ever, at all? Lower the threshold to 40 innings and Chris Volstad joins the party with his stunning 7.46 ERA. That tells you all you need to know about traditional statistics and their place in the conversation, especially when narratives are involved.

Cliff Lee has been really, really good this year and it’s important that Phillies fans realize this in what has otherwise been a very disappointing season.