Cliff Lee Had A Pretty Good Season

Remember way back at the start of July, when Cliff Lee had yet to win a game? When the city of Philadelphia was bemoaning his five-year deal, begging for GM Ruben Amaro to send him to the Dodgers for the salary relief? Turns out Lee finished with some pretty good numbers.

I wrote this on June 25:

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.

[...]

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.

Lee finished with a 3.16 ERA despite a 6-9 record and should have been in line for at least a few votes at the back end of the NL Cy Young ballot, but he wasn’t so much as an afterthought on anyone’s ballot. Surprisingly, Lee’s numbers stack up very well among the starters that were mentioned:

  • Lee’s 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was by far the best, far exceeding NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey‘s 4.3.
  • Lee’s 3.3 walk rate was the lowest of the group, better than Kyle Lohse‘s 4.4 percent.
  • Lee was the unluckiest on balls in play, with a .309 BABIP. Johnny Cueto‘s .296 was the second-highest.
  • Lee’s 3.00 SIERA was by far the lowest, besting Dickey’s 3.18 and teammate Cole Hamels‘ 3.22.
Name Team K/BB K% BB% BABIP LOB% SIERA
Cliff Lee Phillies 7.39 24.4 % 3.3 % .309 78.6 % 3.00
R.A. Dickey Mets 4.26 24.8 % 5.8 % .275 80.0 % 3.18
Cole Hamels Phillies 4.15 24.9 % 6.0 % .290 78.1 % 3.22
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 3.63 25.4 % 7.0 % .262 77.9 % 3.24
Gio Gonzalez Nationals 2.72 25.2 % 9.3 % .267 74.1 % 3.49
Matt Cain Giants 3.78 22.0 % 5.8 % .259 79.0 % 3.62
Johnny Cueto Reds 3.47 19.1 % 5.5 % .296 78.8 % 3.66
Kyle Lohse Cardinals 3.76 16.6 % 4.4 % .262 77.2 % 4.06

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the stat or would like a refresher, SIERA (Skill Interactive Earned Run Average) is a stat that attempts to remove factors out of a pitcher’s control to find out the underlying performance. Pitchers have a lot of control over three specific things: strikeouts, walks, and ground/fly balls (to a lesser extent, the quality of such contact as well). For example, Kyle Lohse had a 2.86 ERA but a 4.06 SIERA, implicating that Lohse was the benefactor of good fortune throughout his season. Indeed, Lohse had a .262 BABIP, nearly 50 points lower than Lee’s. Lee averaged a strikeout for one in every four batters faced while Lohse averaged one in every six batters; both were very stingy in the walks department.

Lee was hurt by a Phillies team that was subpar defensively, losing premier defenders in Chase Utley and Freddy Galvis for much of the season, and having to use mediocre defenders such as Ty Wigginton and Mike Fontenot. This impacted the amount of batted balls converted into outs, making some Phillies pitchers look worse than their performance indicated. When writers utilize stats such as won-lost record and ERA to evaluate pitchers, they are in effect punishing or rewarding pitchers for the quality of the defense behind them.

This isn’t to say that Lee should have actually won the award, as SIERA isn’t the be-all, end-all stat. ERA retrodictors in general seem to be a bit behind properly crediting pitchers with specific batted ball skills (e.g. Matt Cain, as I explained at Baseball Prospectus). But Lee’s won-lost record is still distracting people from appreciating what was otherwise a great season for the left-hander. The good news is that Lee will be back, ready to make another run at some hardware in 2013.

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18 comments

  1. yo

    November 15, 2012 08:15 AM

    and a pretty unusual one

  2. Richard

    November 15, 2012 10:00 AM

    It’s interesting to compare Lee’s fortune with Roy Halladay’s. Halladay had what is for him a terrible season. Yet for the most part, if he pitched well, he walked away with a W, finishing with 11 wins. Not so with Lee. Odd season.

  3. TomG

    November 15, 2012 11:02 AM

    For me, the vaguely cruel oddness of CL’s year was summed up in that game he pitched in SL in late May in which he went 7 innings, giving up 3 earned runs. Lee also had two hits and scored a run, so he even did his part offensively to help the team. The Phils went on to win it 5-3 but Lee got a no-decision out of that one, even though he pitched pretty well.

    And I remember there was a fly ball to center that ended up going for a double or triple; Lee evidently thought Victorino should have caught it and Lee and Victorino had a pretty heated exchange in the dugout after the inning; which was weird because it wasn’t as though Victorino made an error or didn’t put out the effort.

    But it was indicative of the kind of year Lee was having and he was obviously frustrated over the fact that here it was late May and he still didn’t have a win to his name and, now that he’d let the Cards get ahead, he probably wouldn’t get one here – and might even get a loss, what with the Phils’ lack of offense at the time. So he took it out on Victorino, which seemed uncharacteristic of him.

    After the Phils tied it in the 7th, I remember thinking, “At least Lee is off the hook, now.” And it was depressing to realize that that would probably be the best they’d do for him.

    That’s the game I consider emblematic of his year. But really, there were any number of them. I guess most foax would pick the 10-inning shutout game against the Giants, and maybe I would, too, but I missed that game for some reason or other.

    Point is, it seems like games like that one in SL just happened to Lee all year long: he’d pitch well and get a loss or at best a no-decision.

    It just had to be hard for him to take.

  4. Ellen

    November 15, 2012 11:23 AM

    Cliff had a great year inspite of his teamates not supporting him all the time. He is a great pitcher and I hope he is here for a long time

  5. Mike

    November 15, 2012 11:54 AM

    Bill Baer is a dumbass..he cleary didnt do any research…nobody in philly wanted cliff lee to leave and amaro never would of never let lee leave to the dodgers…this guy is probably from cali and just hears everything from word of mouth..do some research before you start talking about a whole city

  6. pedro3131

    November 15, 2012 12:39 PM

    There were plenty of people calling for us to trade Cliff, and there were many more calling him garbage and overpaid. Philly has some pretty brutal fans, most of the bunch around here take a more well mannered approach to fandom, but you can’t extract that to the general fanlectorate

  7. hk

    November 15, 2012 12:43 PM

    Yes, we all know that RAJ would never trade a pitcher as great as Cliff Lee….I mean would never trade a pitcher as great as Cliff Lee twice.

  8. hk

    November 15, 2012 12:52 PM

    TomG,

    The one that sticks out to me was the May 15 game vs. Houston. Lee pitched 8 innings and gave up 1 run on 5 hits, struck out 10, walked 1 and left with a 3-1 lead. However, because Charlie had used Papelbon in each of the prior two games, including the night before when the Phils led 5-1 after 8, Chad Qualls was used to close. Chad blew the lead, but the Phils won in 10, so everyone went home happy and Lee remained win-less despite a 1.95 ERA in his first 5 starts.

  9. Dan K.

    November 15, 2012 01:01 PM

    Philadelphia fans being over-reactionary and calling for the head of a great pitcher? That could never happen! Could you imagine anyone saying that we should get rid of Hamels just because he had a rough-ish year and made a comment people took the wrong way?

  10. Phillie697

    November 15, 2012 03:50 PM

  11. Phillie697

    November 15, 2012 03:52 PM

    So yeah Bill, I had written this comment defending you, and your spam filter denied me. Probably because of the assortment of links I had posted from my research.

  12. Bill Baer

    November 15, 2012 04:09 PM

    haha, I saved it from the spam filter. Sorry about that. But Mike is Jon from Citizens Bankers, trolling all y’all. I appreciate the defense, though.

  13. Vincent

    November 15, 2012 05:27 PM

    I was at the game in April (vs. Giants)when Cliff pitched 10 shutout innings and got no decision.

  14. jauer

    November 15, 2012 07:36 PM

    “Thanks for the compliment, Bill!”

    - Ty Wigginton

  15. DTM

    November 16, 2012 03:03 PM

    Enjoyed the read but I have to disagree with the idea that the city turned against Lee, that was not my observation at all. Most of the negativity came from bloggers, commentors and talk radio callers which are not only at the more extreme, reactionary end of the fan spectrum but also make up a very small percentage of the fan base. I went to a lot of games this year throughout the course of the season and, coincidentally, they were almost all Lee games. No matter what kind of stretch he was in the midst of, whether he was pitching great or blowing leads he always got the loudest cheers when the line ups were announced, was loudly cheered at each at bat and everytime he ran off the field. The one and only boo I heard was after he gave up a third home run and even then the guy immediately followed with “But I still love you!” As a Philadelphia sports fan for almost 50 years I was amazed at how the fans stuck with Lee despite the efforts of some writers and radio hosts to turn them against him. I think the reactions of 40,000 fans game after game is a better indication of the city’s opinion of Lee than the relatively small number of people that turned on him.

  16. George

    November 17, 2012 09:20 PM

    Lee is my first choice as starter of the entire Phillie pitching staff. All others learn from him…he is in a class all by him- self. Just ask (blog) the batters that face him…

  17. BobSmith77

    November 18, 2012 08:34 PM

    Never turned on him at CBP this year and Lee wasn’t booed in any of the starts I went to even during the middle of the year. Got the sense the people were a bit more frustrated than anything that the Phils just weren’t winning during his starts in the 1st half.

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