Cliff Lee On Pace for Historic Season
On Saturday at the Sweet Spot blog, Christina Kahrl noted that lefties Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee are both on pace for historically-great seasons, going by Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement:
3. Just one pitcher in 10 years has produced a season worth 9.0 WAR or better
And that would be Zack Greinke for the Royals in his Cy Young season of 2009. But this season two pitchers might challenge that mark: Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (4.5 WAR) and Cliff Lee of the Phillies (4.6 WAR and counting).
For pitchers, piling up big stacks of value from on-field performance is tough, especially in today’s workload-conscious era as teams mitigate risk. But even allowing for that, while there have been 182 pitching seasons worth 9.0 WAR or more, just 30 of those seasons have come since divisional play started in 1969. Or about one every three years in each league, only it’s happening even less frequently these days.
Lee actually went from 4.6 to 4.5 after his most recent start against the Dodgers, so he is no longer on pace for 9.0 WAR unless he gets to 34 starts, but 8.7 is close enough. Lee’s career-high is 8.6, posted in 2011 in his first year back with the Phillies. He finished with a 2.40 ERA in 232.2 innings, completing an astonishing six games. He finished third in Cy Young voting to Kershaw and teammate Roy Halladay.
Though his ERA has been good or great all season long, Lee started off the season a bit slow, striking out a meager 19 percent of batters through his first eight starts. In the nine starts since, he has bumped that rate up to 28 percent. Overall, his defense-independent stats are about where we would expect them based on his performance dating back to 2010. In fact, he has been remarkably consistent judging by his xFIP. Starting in 2010, it has gone: 3.06, 2.68, 3.06, 3.08.
There have been two noticeable factors in Lee’s success this year, though: good BABIP fortune, and a severe cut in home runs allowed. His current .270 BABIP is 25 points below his career average (and also the league average). With 345 balls put in play, the 25-point gap has meant the difference between nine hits and nine outs. Not the most significant, but it is a factor nonetheless. As for home runs, Lee has allowed just eight of them in 125.1 innings thus far. Comparatively, he surrendered 26 home runs in 211 innings last year. Put simply, his home run rate is half of what it was just a year ago.
The decision to trade Lee or not has been a hot topic of debate lately. All the while, Lee has quietly bolstered his trade value as the Phillies enter July 9.5 games out of first place in the NL East. Lee has a no-trade clause which allows him to veto a trade to 20 teams. He turns 35 on August 30 and is owed $25 million in each of 2014 and ’15 with a $27.5 million club option or $12.5 million buyout for 2016.
Lee has been outstanding in his tenure as a Phillie, but GM Ruben Amaro may never have another opportunity to simultaneously extract value from another team in terms of prospects and Major League-ready talent while also clearing a significant portion of his remaining salary. As Halladay has shown, even the best pitchers in the game can become mortal in their mid-30’s. Keeping Lee is effectively a $62.5 million gamble on the lefty maintaining his current elite level of pitching over the next two seasons.