Watching the Game: Cliff Lee

With a loss yesterday afternoon at the hands of the struggling Miami Marlins, the Phillies dropped to 36-45, 10.5 games out in last place in the NL East. With a 9-19 June and a loss to start July, the season is all but over for the Phillies. It would require divine intervention to make the playoffs at this point: to reach an assumed 88-win threshold for the new second Wild Card, the Phillies would have to win 64% of their remaining 81 games — the pace of a 104-win team over a 162-game season. It’s been this kind of season:

The frustration of this season overall, combined with the unexpected under-performance of several key players, has resulted in some unfair lashing-out by Phillies fans. Cliff Lee has been one such target, but more so than anyone else, it seems that the criticism directed at him is most unwarranted. Looking at the factors most in his control — strikeouts and walks — Lee has been doing his job nearly as well as he did last year. When you look at things he has little or no control over — RISP, W-L, ERA — he doesn’t look so hot.

Philly fans have a tendency to blame the better players for a disappointing team performance, as Donovan McNabb can verify. Coupled with the proneness to error simply by being human, we have an ever-growing myth on our hands. With the perception that Lee is irreparable, fans start magnifying every little mistake and assigning more blame to Lee than is warranted. I saw no acknowledgement of any outside factors on Lee’s results on Sunday, so I want to illustrate that by going through Lee’s last start against the Marlins in which he lasted four and two-thirds innings, on the hook for six runs on ten hits.

Lee allowed one run in the first, two in the third, and three in the fifth, so I will focus on those innings. Lots of .gifs after the jump.

First Inning

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Lee missed his spot here by about four inches. Even so, this is an easy 5-3 ground out if Polanco is playing in a normal defensive alignment (5-10 feet behind the third base bag), instead of preparing for a potential bunt from a known-bunter and very fast runner in Reyes. This is simply bad luck. With the bases empty and one out, 0.26 runs are expected; with a runner on second and no outs, 1.08 runs are expected, per Baseball Prospectus.

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This just shows how bad luck can compound itself. If Reyes had been retired on his grounder, as most other right-handed batters would have, then this is an innocuous fly out to center field by Ramirez. Or if a slower player had doubled, the runner doesn’t tag up and go to third base on this play. Both of which Lee has no control over, as validated by many years of independent research on balls in play. Expected runs with no runners on and two outs: 0.10; with a runner on second base and one out: 0.66; with a runner on third base and one out: 0.90.

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Here is where it’s very easy to muddy the waters. There is a fundamental difference between “pitching badly” and “fielding badly”. Lee made a great pitch to Morrison, but because of the outcome of this play, we simply assign general blame to Lee. When compounded with later results, this play is simply thrown in the mix. Moreover, Lee was not assigned an error on this play because he technically didn’t touch the ball, so it counts against his ERA. If Lee fields the ball properly, it’s an easy inning-ending 1-6-3 double play.

Third Inning

  • Hanley Ramirez line drive double to left field

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This was not a very good pitch by Lee. Still, it’s just a single with most batters and with most left fielders. However, Juan Pierre has one of the worst outfield arms in baseball (if not the worst), and opposing teams know this. The Marlins frequently challenged Pierre’s arm throughout this series, and Ramirez did so here. If Giancarlo Stanton was instead the batter, it’s just a single.  Likewise, if it’s Hunter Pence in left field, Ramirez stays at first base. Lee has zero control over this, even though he made a bad pitch. Expected runs with a runner on first base and one out: 0.51; with a runner on second base and one out: 0.66.

  • Giancarlo Stanton single to left field

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Lee was just completely unlucky here. If Stanton’s grounder is hit five feet to the left or five feet to the right, the Phillies have an easy play at first base, or perhaps can catch Ramirez between second and third base. Additionally, Pierre boots the ball, so there isn’t even a play at home. Knowing Pierre’s weak arm, the Marlins were sending Ramirez home all the way. Compounded with the unluckiness of the hit, there was zero chance that the run is even challenged as opposed to a partial chance if Pierre doesn’t boot the ball, and a likely chance if the left fielder had at least an average arm. Again, Lee has no control over any of this.

  • Logan Morrison single to left field

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Again, just simple chance at fault here. Lee makes a decent pitch and induces a terrible swing from Morrison. Still, it finds a hole in the vast outfield at Marlins Park. From an amateur perspective, it also seems like Pierre was playing too deep for a left-handed pull-hitter facing a left-handed pitcher. Here is Morrison’s hit location chart against left-handed pitchers, going back to late July 2010:

There must have been a reason Pierre was playing where he was, but it seems like it was incorrect.

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This is eerily similar to the Stanton single, finding the same hole between third base and shortstop. Likewise, if it had been hit five feet to the right or to the left, it’s an easy 5-4-3 or 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. Instead, the bases are loaded as the Marlins’ third base coach inexplicably held Stanton at third base. (The Marlins’ broadcasters, as the play happened, shouted, “Send him! Oh, you gotta send him!”) Did Lee make a great pitch? No, but every pitcher makes mistakes — even Roy Halladay. They just don’t pay for them at the rate Lee has paid for his this year. Pitchers still get an out more often than not on mistake pitches. For instance, between 2009-11, opposing hitters had a .302 average on pitches Lee left in the middle of the plate, compared to .247 overall.

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Lee made another mistake and Infante barely missed hitting a grand slam. It was one of the rare instances where Lee had a fortunate outcome. However, it was only compounded by the bad luck he’d experienced prior to this at-bat. It could have been a harmless fly out, but instead, a run was able to score on the play and both of the other runners advanced.

Fifth Inning

  • Giancarlo Stanton line drive single to left field

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All of the credit goes to Stanton here. He put a great swing on a decent pitch by Lee and served it into left field. Not much else you can say about this.

  • Logan Morrison ground-rule double to right-center field

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(The .gif is slower here because the MLB.tv condensed game didn’t show a full-speed version of this play for some reason.)

Morrison puts a great swing on a decent pitch by Lee, sending it into deep right-center. Hunter Pence took an absolutely awful route to the fly ball, which absolutely should have been caught and would have been caught 99% of the time. Instead of having a runner on first base and two outs (expected runs: 0.32), the Marlins had runners on second and third with one out (1.30). Additionally, Pence doesn’t get an error for this play because he never touched the ball. As a result, the runs Lee subsequently allows are earned and count against his ERA.

  • Justin Ruggiano doubles to center field

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This is a flat-out awful pitch by Lee and Ruggiano made him pay. Still, because of Pence’s bad play in right field, two runs score on this play instead of one, and because Pence wasn’t credited with an error, both runs and all subsequent runs are earned and count against Lee’s ERA.

  • Justin Ruggiano steals third base

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Presumably, the Phillies weren’t holding Ruggiano on and were playing deep on the left side because there were two outs and behind only four runs in the fifth inning. Still, this play ends up having an impact and Lee couldn’t have done anything to prevent Ruggiano from stealing third base here. Gaby Sanchez, who is batting while Ruggiano steals third, ends up drawing a walk to extend the inning.

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This was the final straw for Charlie Manuel as he pulled Lee from the game after this hit. It was Lee’s 96th pitch and he was presumably gassed after so many high-stress pitches, thanks to shoddy defense and bad luck. It wasn’t exactly an awful pitch, but a very hittable one and Buck put a good swing on it. However, if Ruggiano hadn’t been allowed to steal third base so easily, Pierre might have had a play at home, or the Marlins’ third base coach might even have decided to hold Ruggiano. After all, the ball did have velocity upon entering left field. If Pierre had charged the ball in this event, it might have changed things.

Did Lee pitch well in this game? Not really. He only struck out three of the 26 batters he faced (11.5%) and walked two (7.7%). His strikeout and walk rates on the season are 20% and 6%, and were 26% and 5% last year, respectively. Did he pitch like a 11.56 ERA pitcher (6 ER in 4.2 IP) would perform? Not at all.

What this exercise should show you is how faulty the popular methods of evaluating pitching really are. Earned runs are subject to the scorer’s decisions and in the case of this game, Lee allowed three runs that should not have counted against his ERA. 3 ER in 4.2 innings (5.78 ERA) matches up slightly better with his performance. Similarly, Lee’s defense did him no favors even discounting the should-be errors. The Marlins took advantage of Pierre’s weak arm, the Phillies’ seemingly-illogical outfield alignment, and their lack of concern over base-advancement late in the fifth inning.

Outings like this reinforce why stats like BABIP and ERA retrodictors like xFIP and SIERA are so important — they remove the impact of a pitcher’s defense and luck from the equation. Outings like this also reinforce why older stats like ERA and W-L are faulty — they are impacted by many factors out of the pitcher’s control, including luck, defense, and in the case of the latter stat, run support. Lee may be 0-5 with a 4.13 ERA, but he has not been pitching bad this year, even despite his last three starts. Anyone who says otherwise simply isn’t watching the games closely enough.

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36 comments

  1. JA

    July 02, 2012 07:20 AM

    This article will be in my ammo in my never ending fight I wage with people who think Lee is somehow a bad pitcher. Thank you, thank you

  2. pedro3131

    July 02, 2012 07:58 AM

    I agree on the season, but a lot of those early “bad luck” outcomes where on pitches where he either missed his spot, or was throwing over a lot of the plate. While you can blame babip, couldn’t you also blame Lee for missing his spot and putting the ball in a position where the batter has a higher chance of scoring a base hit? If the Reyes pitch was on the outside corner and not over the middle would he have been able to hit it? If the pitch against Ramirez was more in on the hands where Chooch lined up versus catching so much of the plate, would Ramirez have been able to drive the ball so far? On Stanton’s grounder: was it Lee’s luck, or the fact that again, Chooch called for it on the outside corner and Lee fired it right down the middle of the zone?

    While I agree with your general thesis and think people are being to Philly about their Lee fandom this year, in this game he really wasn’t making his pitches, an observation backed up by his peripherals. When you don’t make your pitches and pitch to areas where hitters have more success, I think you’re talking less about luck and more about failure to execute on your end.

  3. LTG

    July 02, 2012 08:35 AM

    I just took a look at Lee’s splits. (I was looking for BABIP on batted ball types but didn’t find it.) I found something interesting. In high leverage situations Lee has been both extremely “unlucky” (.428 BABIP and a very high infield hit rate), and not as good as he’s been in the past (13.8% K, raised LD% and HR/FB%). Not sure what to say about this. It is difficult grasp a complete picture here. Perhaps all we can conclude is that there is room for improvement on the “luck” side and the skill side.

  4. JR

    July 02, 2012 08:48 AM

    LTG – I think you are correct. It seems like everybody wants to take one extreme or the other in regards to Lee. It is most likely some of both.

  5. JR

    July 02, 2012 09:31 AM

    Bill,

    One note, you mention that Lee was not charged with an error because he did not touch the ball. I beleive that Lee cannot be charged with an error in this situation since the out was recorded at first base. I beleive you can never record an error just from the failure to record a double play or the failure to get a lead runner if an out is recorded.

  6. Bill Baer

    July 02, 2012 09:37 AM

    Perhaps it’s up to the official scorer, as I don’t see anything specifically addressing it in the rules.

    mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/official_rules/official_scorer_10.jsp

    Oddly enough, there is this, though:

    If a ground ball goes through a fielder’s legs or a fly ball falls untouched and, in the scorer’s judgment, the fielder could have handled the ball with ordinary effort, the official scorer shall charge such fielder with an error. For example, the official scorer shall charge an infielder with an error when a ground ball passes to either side of such infielder if, in the official scorer?s judgment, a fielder at that position making ordinary effort would have fielded such ground ball and retired a runner. The official scorer shall charge an outfielder with an error if such outfielder allows a fly ball to drop to the ground if, in the official scorer?s judgment, an outfielder at that position making ordinary effort would have caught such fly ball. If a throw is low, wide or high, or strikes the ground, and a runner reaches base who otherwise would have been put out by such throw, the official scorer shall charge the player making the throw with an error.

  7. LTG

    July 02, 2012 09:42 AM

    JR,

    You are certainly correct about the standard operating procedure of official scorers. But BB was not concerned so much with whether Lee’s play should have been recorded as an error. If we are asking ourselves how defensive performance affects the results attributed to a pitcher, then we need to scrutinize more carefully than the official scorers do. The error-stat is an attempt to track surrendered runs that should not be attributed to the pitcher’s performance. But, in the end, the interpretation of error by the scoring-system does not provide fine-grained enough information for the question it seeks to answer. This is not a criticism of how error’s are judged by the scoring-system but rather a helpful acknowledgement of its limitations. There could be very good reasons for treating errors the way the scoring-system does. But acknowledging its limitations allows us to understand better who deserves credit for what in a game.

  8. LTG

    July 02, 2012 09:44 AM

    BB,

    Not all of the rules of scoring are written.

  9. ColonelTom

    July 02, 2012 09:44 AM

    LTG – Lee’s troubles look eerily like Tim Lincecum’s, though Lee’s overall results haven’t been as bad as Lincecum’s. This season, both Lee and Lincecum blow up as soon as they have to pitch from the stretch. Here are Lee’s numbers:

    Nobody on: .224/.272/.346 (.305 BABIP), 1 K per 3.4 PA, 1 BB per 16.3 PA
    Runners on: .333/.357/.537 (.374 BABIP), 1 K per 6.1 PA, 1 BB per 25.8 PA

    Lee walks fewer guys with runners on, but his strikeout rate is chopped almost in half. That leaves him more at the mercy of Lady Luck, which hasn’t been kind to him (as LTG notes). Last year Lee was more effective with runners on than with the bases empty, and struck out more guys with runners on (1 K per 3.6 PA, vs. 1 K per 4.0 PA with the bases empty).

  10. Bill Baer

    July 02, 2012 09:46 AM

    @ LTG

    He wasn’t as good in high leverage spots last year, when he was a Cy Young contender, compared to lower-leverage situations.

    2011

    2012

    However, Lee is worse on BABIP and is overall striking fewer batters out and walking slightly more. He’s not quite as dominant as he was last year, but I think that was to be expected. 2011 was ostensibly his peak.

  11. Bill Baer

    July 02, 2012 09:51 AM

    @ ColonelTom

    Very interesting. The disappearance of Lee’s K-rate is perplexing, though the sample is only 130 PA.

  12. Scott G

    July 02, 2012 10:12 AM

    Wait, I’m confused. The Phillies are 9-19 in June. Jimmy Rollins has been playing exceptionally well in June. The announcers told me, “as Rollins goes, so the Phillies go.” *head explodes*

  13. Dan K.

    July 02, 2012 10:21 AM

    Not saying it makes a difference in this case one way or the other, but he didn’t get the error because an out was recorded and a double play can never be assumed. If the out is not the lead runner, it is just considered fielder’s choice, and if no outs are made, but are attempted (cleanly), it is obviously up to the scorer’s discretion whether it was an error or hit. If no out had been recorded, it would have been an error.

    This comes from me being on both sides of the score sheet (as scorer and player) many, many times.

  14. ColonelTom

    July 02, 2012 10:45 AM

    Rollins is going and so are the Phillies – just in opposite directions.

  15. Dante

    July 02, 2012 11:00 AM

    Scott, BB:

    Joe Posnanski just posted on twitter yesterday that Jeter is hitting poorly in June, yet the Yanks are winning. That “leadoff hitter drives the offense” narrative needs to stop.

  16. Scott G

    July 02, 2012 12:24 PM

    When “you” post the minor league updates, I think you should include some of the players that the Phillies got rid of. Mr. Musser just told me to check out Singleton’s minor league walk rate if I “want to hate Pence more.” The 20 yr old seems pretty impressive in AA. Perhaps he doesn’t want to eat after games like Pence does. Nah, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who like to eat. Probably most do now that I think about it.

  17. Duke1CA

    July 02, 2012 01:17 PM

    Typical Philly pessimism! The Phillies do need to turn it on now (beginning by at least splitting this week), but I disagree with your belief that they are already out of it. When Howard & Halladay return they will have last year’s starters (except for Joe Blanton in place of Roy Oswalt, who was only mediocre last year) with a better bench. Granted, the bullpen is struggling more, but there is experience there. That this group could basically perform for half the season the way last year’s team did for an entire year is not at all unthinkable. And the “88 win threshold” is only a guess anyway. The NL this year is a testament to parity, so I could see the possibility of 85 or 86 wins being enough to beat out a bunched field.

  18. Texas Fan

    July 02, 2012 01:30 PM

    I am so glad Cliff Lee decided to sign with your team rather than stay in Texas and sign with the Rangers 2 years ago. In the words of Marco from Tropoja in the movie Taken,
    “Good Luck”

  19. pedro3131

    July 02, 2012 01:35 PM

    Yea, I’m sure Matt Harrison and his 0-2 7.04 era in last year’s world series was a much better option for ya

  20. Texas Fan

    July 02, 2012 01:45 PM

    You it sucked when you guys beat us… oh wait..

  21. jauer

    July 02, 2012 01:55 PM

    So thats where the phrase “good luck” originiated? Never would have guessed.

  22. Sean C

    July 02, 2012 04:33 PM

    Watching that image…the middle man’s head moves, but the other man’s hand also moves. Very, very creepy.

  23. Sean C

    July 02, 2012 04:36 PM

    I also have nothing to add regarding the Phillies season. But, I must add that I love this Texas troll. Talks a big game for a team that looks like they could be the first two lose three World Series in a row since 1913.

  24. Sean C

    July 02, 2012 04:36 PM

    I also have nothing to add regarding the Phillies season. But, I must add that I love this Texas troll. Talks a big game for a team that looks like they could be the first team to lose three World Series in a row since 1913.

  25. beaver

    July 02, 2012 05:30 PM

    Be nice everyone! You’ll be happier, I promise.

  26. HD

    July 02, 2012 11:47 PM

    I just read the below part & wanted to comment- sometimes the saber metrics doesn’t work for me. I played as far as the minors and some guys get people out & some don’t, it is not ‘rudimentary’ or ‘archaic’ to think that way. Baseball is a simple game, hit your spots, hit it hard on the ground/square it up and lift if you’re a power guy, etc- it’s not rocket science- don’t make it that. Enjoy the simplicity. For example, ‘grounders with eyes’ are a lot of the time not luck (IMO), but rather bat control, a pitch easily in the hitters comfort zone, adjusting swing strategy to defense alignment, etc, etc. But, on to my excerpt comments:

    To easily dismiss Lee missing by 4 inches is ignoring poor execution, leading to a pitch Reyes could hit hard enough past the fielder. Why was the fielder playing in? Because, Reyes is quick and will lay one down if you are back. He wouldn’t have been playing in for say, Logan Morrison, most likely in that situation. So, his alignment was deliberate strategy in response to Reyes skill set, reputation & a plethora of other factors. He gets a lot of hits like this. To ignore this doesn’t pay homage to talent, skill set both mental and physical, positioning and a many other intricacies that make it interesting. But, that is just my take and I rather enjoy Bill’s articles, if they just prompt me to diverge. And I think whatever ties you to baseball and makes it personal, basically fun for you, is what fosters the uniqueness of it’s draw- tying us together as well. But, I can admit I am old school; love the high hard one (please, no jokes- ha!) & the long ball in low scoring affairs…………..

    Lee missed his spot here by about four inches. Even so, this is an easy 5-3 ground out if Polanco is playing in a normal defensive alignment (5-10 feet behind the third base bag), instead of preparing for a potential bunt from a known-bunter and very fast runner in Reyes. This is simply bad luck.

  27. Bill Baer

    July 03, 2012 01:13 AM

    I certainly didn’t discount the defensive alignment based on Reyes’ speed. And Lee did miss his spot by 4 inches, but he did the same thing multiple times in his 10-inning shut-out against the Giants earlier this year. Luck plays a huge role, especially when we’re talking about 20-30 at-bats in a single game.

  28. Obie Nwoye

    July 03, 2012 11:16 AM

    When the Yankees came calling in his free agent year, Lee was credited with thinking the Bombers were an old team, with no pitching and mediocre defense. So he went with the sure bet in the Phillies, with Halladay, hamels, oswalt and co. Now who is laughing…the old team is in first place, and barring a major collapse, looks set to compete in the postseason again. With Cano, Granderson,Gardner (when he gets back), Pineda (when he gets back), Hughes etc, the Yankees have a good core of younger players, and the money to contend for years. Yeah, who’s laughing right now?!

  29. jauer

    July 03, 2012 12:01 PM

    Maybe he just wanted to not pay NYC taxes.

    Im sure the New York media would be very objective in their analysis of Lee’s BABIP-allowed this season.

  30. pedro3131

    July 03, 2012 07:47 PM

    Didn’t it have more to do with the way Yankees fans harangued his wife when he pitched their while playing for Texas?

  31. Daniel

    July 04, 2012 02:24 AM

    Great statistical analysis as always. My only critique is how your defense for Lee is so dependent on counterfactuals. If this, then that. Well, it is probably safe to assume that every pitcher deals with “if onlys” in every single game of every single season. If only my team had better this or hadn’t done that or had done this. Fact is, Lee’s pitching is not stellar this year. Yes, if things had been different, then he would be having a stellar year. Reality is reality and things are the way they are. That means Lee is not having a stellar year or even a great year at that. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

  32. LTG

    July 04, 2012 06:44 PM

    Daniel,

    Every analysis of complex phenomena depends on counterfactuals. For example, the principles of natural science are counterfactuals. The law of inertia is never observed. Its updated version (the law of least action) is also never directly observed. Even the conclusion that an electron weights such-and-such depends on some counterfactuals about the experimental conditions to account for the differences in experimental results. So, using counterfactuals does not obscure reality. Counterfactuals are part of reality. They are either true or false (or undefined but then they might not really be counterfactuals), just like any other non-modal sentence.

    In BB’s analysis, he is trying to show that Lee’s performance this year (what he deserves merit or demerit for) is not well represented by the results on the field during his performances. This requires counterfactuals because his performance is buried in a context with lots of other performances and varying circumstances out of his control.

    We can define “not having a stellar year” as a results only predicate. But then “not having a stellar year” does not entail “deserving demerit for it”. And that looks like a rather revisionary redefinition.

  33. LTG

    July 04, 2012 10:34 PM

    Wow. That’s not disguised by the emoticon.

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