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Cliff Lee Had A Pretty Good Season

Posted By Bill Baer On November 15, 2012 @ 8:00 am In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 18 Comments

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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