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.

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78 comments

  1. Larry

    July 02, 2013 11:21 PM

    “Only a crazy person would trade a 29-year-old lefty with 27.9 WAR ALREADY accumulated over a 36-year-old pitcher, ANY 36-year-old pitcher. Yes, even Roger Clemens in his roids-aided days.”

    Why can’t you have a debate, instead you attack people.

  2. Phillie697

    July 02, 2013 11:31 PM

    At some point I have to end a debate. I suppose my way of ending it is a bit… crass, and I admit that. But at some point, when the debate is not a debate but more like someone inventing arguments that only he thinks makes sense, I have to end it somehow in a way to make my regards known.

    Hamels is halfway to a HoF worthy career at the age of 29, and you’re advocating trading him and keeping a 36-year-old pitcher, and your argument du-jour is that “AL is better than NL,” as if somehow if we put the Cole Hamels of 2008-2012 in the AL, he would instantly turn into a scrub. What am I suppose to conclude from that, besides the fact that 1) either you just don’t like Cole Hamels, in which case yes, I think you’re crazy, or 2) following your logic to its conclusion, Clayton Kershaw must not be as good as he is since he’s pitching in the NL. Otherwise, your argument doesn’t make any logical sense, which also is a sign of being crazy.

  3. Larry

    July 02, 2013 11:38 PM

    I bet it pains you that Cliff Lee is doing so well at age 34. I believe you pray that Cliff Lee will stop being so damn good. How dare he prove silly697 wrong.

  4. Phillie697

    July 02, 2013 11:45 PM

    Actually, let’s remove your bias against me and Cole Hamels and look at my statement objectively:

    ” Only a crazy person would trade a 29-year-old lefty with 27.9 WAR ALREADY accumulated over a 36-year-old pitcher, ANY 36-year-old pitcher. Yes, even Roger Clemens in his roids-aided days.”

    Imagine the 29-year-old pitcher as Jered Weaver, also not pitching as well as he should be and about the same career as Cole Hamels, except in your precious AL. Imagine the old pitcher is Bartolo Colon, who’s having a hell of a season, also in the AL. Tell me, is there ANY chance in ANY scenario in which you would not call anyone who would remotely suggest that a team should trade Jered Weaver first before trading Bartolo Colon as being crazy? My point exactly.

  5. Phillie697

    July 02, 2013 11:56 PM

    Oh, and I forgot, Bartolo Colon is only making $3M this year as well, not even $25M like Cliff Lee. Why would anybody want to trade a pitcher with 2.79 ERA making only $3M and keep a scrub with 4.15 ERA with $70M left on his contract? Crazy talk!!!

  6. Larry

    July 03, 2013 12:03 AM

    I can’t wait to see Cole Hamels at age 34, I assure you it will be nothing like Cliff Lee at age 34.

    Did you read my post about Cole getting his opponents cherry picked?? Please explain why Cole got dropped from the upcoming Braves series?? Wouldn’t you agree how important this series is, if the Phillies have any chance at making a run at the Braves? Why wouldn’t you want your newly signed 6 year 144 million dollar so called ace pitching against the Braves? I’ll tell you why, because RAJ is afraid for his job. The Cole Hamels signing will prove to be the worst contract in his tenure and his downfall.

    They have more confidence in minimum wage Pettibone to face the Braves than Cole Hamels???? What a joke!!! I guarantee you if we faced the Marlins next week, they wouldn’t have skipped Cole’s start tonight. That’s for damn sure.

  7. Larry

    July 03, 2013 12:08 AM

    We are not talking about Colon and Weaver so stop. Talk about Lee and Hamels. What’s their war since Cliff joined the team?? Lets talk apples to apples. I’m so sick of saying that, but people look other places instead of a fair analogy against similar competition. Same years on the same team is the easiest way to compare players in their prime. Oh I forgot Lee is way too old for his prime lol.

  8. Phillie697

    July 03, 2013 12:10 AM

    Because I don’t get worked up over 17 starts of someone who had 4.5 WAR and 4.4 WAR the last two seasons?

    And if your question is actually who will have a better age-34 season, my answer, surprise surprise, is Cliff Lee. But again, I will reiterate hk’s point, not once did you ask that question either. Your question, as best as any of us can tell, is whether Cliff Lee’s 2015 season will be better than Cole Hamels’ 2015 season, and as best I have only claimed that if I’m going to bet the farm on that question, I’d bet on Hamels. It’s you who have extrapolated that as me saying Cole Hamels is a better pitcher than Cliff Lee, and you call me silly?

  9. Phillie697

    July 03, 2013 12:14 AM

    Those who perceive other people as getting personal are usually the ones who already got personal in the first place and hadn’t realized it yet.

  10. Larry

    July 03, 2013 12:20 AM

    So you refuse to answer the Braves series question??? Or the Cherry picking opponents for Cole. That’s what I thought. You have no answer. Thank you.

  11. Pencilfish

    July 03, 2013 12:26 AM

    hk,

    Profar is definitely an offensive upgrade over Galvis, but the bigger issue is if he compares favorably with above-average SS such as Jeter, Hanley Ramirez, Rollins or Tulowitzki when they were age 20. After all, we are talking about trading an elite pitcher like Lee.

    Profar is listed as 6 ft tall and only 165 lbs. He will have to beef up considerably to endure full MLB seasons, let alone hit for power consistently with such a slim frame.

  12. Phillie697

    July 03, 2013 12:29 AM

    @Larry,

    I don’t answer questions that only a single person has perceived as a problem. Seriously, you’re picking apart 17 starts and you expect other people to join you, and if they don’t they must have no answer. 15 year olds do that.

  13. Larry

    July 03, 2013 12:51 AM

    17 starts for a sp is like 85 starts for a position player. Yet you blast Howard every chance you get and he’s having an above average season for a lot of players in his position while injured. You were probably so upset that Howard came through in the clutch tonight. Yet Cole is having a garbage year for sps. You are a coward for not answering my question. You have no answer. Anyway it worked out great tonight. Pettibone did an awesome job. Can Cole match Pettibone in game 3???

  14. Pencilfish

    July 03, 2013 12:53 AM

    Larry,

    I’ve said before that Hamels lacks not only the stats, but the makeup to be the team ace. He is a very good #2 pitcher on any staff, but he’s no Halladay or Lee at their peaks. He never won a CY, led the league in wins, won 20+ games in a season, thrown a no-hitter, etc. We can’t expect him to carry the team on his back. That is why RAJ went out and got Halladay and Lee (twice).

    Hamels has a 93-71 record over 8 seasons. He may reach 200 wins in his career, but at best he’s a fringe HOF candidate. Halladay has a better shot, whether he resumes his career or not. Certainly, Hamels is no Steve Carlton. Not even close.

    Hamels will face Gerrit Cole on Wednesday, so it certainly is not an easy match-up.

  15. Larry

    July 03, 2013 01:13 AM

    @Pencilfish,

    You are right on the money. He is a 2 or 3, nowhere near 6 years 144 mil, that’s for big time aces like Doc, Lee, Kershaw, etc. He’s more of a role player when we had Doc and Lee healthy, but not your franchise biggest payroll player. Doc has a great shot at hof. Lee needs more great years, hopefully as a Phillie. Cole won’t make it, no shot. Howard Is way more likely to get HOF than Hamels. I know that hurts Phillie697’s feelings, but it’s a true statement.

  16. hk

    July 03, 2013 05:52 AM

    Pencilfish,

    I’m not a scout, so when it comes to prospects, I rely on the opinions of scouts. And, while the scouts are human and can be wrong, their opinions and projections are usually better than those of people commenting on a blog. So, if the consensus of the scouts is that Profar will be a five tool player, I’d take my chances. I’m not one to second-guess a GM’s decisions. I’d rather offer my opinion when the deal is done and see what plays out. Therefore, when it comes to trading established players and stars for prospects, I use the value that I perceive the prospects to have and my perception is heavily based on what I read from Callis, Hulett, Law and Mayo (among others).

    One other thing is that I am not in the camp that says that they have to trade Lee for the best offer they get in the next 4 weeks. I would be perfectly fine if they keep Lee if the offers are insufficient. However, if they can get a 20 year old who was the best prospect in baseball before he lost his rookie eligibility for a 34 year old superstar pitcher making $22.5M per year, I think they should do it.

  17. hk

    July 03, 2013 06:22 AM

    Larry,

    For some reason, you talk about making apples-to-apples comparisons yet you continue to cherry pick Cliff Lee’s best seasons and Cole Hamels’s worst and compare the two pitchers only when they were both in the NL without recognizing that those seasons were Lee’s age 30, 32, 33 and 34 seasons while they were Hamels’s age 25, 27, 28 and 29 seasons. Yes, they were in the same league in those seasons, but they are 5 years apart in age, so Lee was in his prime while Hamels was approaching his prime. Since we are talking about which one the Phils should trade right now if a suitable offer comes, the question is not – and never was – who is better, the questions are (1) will Hamels (like Lee) be better in his age 30 to 34 seasons than he was in his age 25 to 29 seasons? And, (2) will Lee, like most pitchers, decline in the second half of his 30’s?

    Two hypothetical questions:

    1. If you were a Cleveland Indians fan in 2007, what would you be saying about Cliff Lee and his 6.29 ERA two years into a 4-year contract extension?

    2. If the Phillies were out of contention in July 2011, what would you have said to anyone who suggested that they trade the then 34 year old Halladay for prospects because of the fear that Halladay, like most pitchers in their mid-to-late 30’s, projects to start declining due to age or increased likelihood of injury?

  18. Pencilfish

    July 03, 2013 09:41 AM

    hk,

    I understand and agree with your approach about relying on professional scouts on Profar. What I question is whether he’s the right guy to target for Lee. As I said, we already have Rollins, Utley, Hernandez, Galvis and Asche (if he moves to 2B to accommodate Franco at 3B). I also forgot to mention J. P. Crawford. I realize Crawford is a raw prospect, who may not pan out, but again relying on scouts, it has been said Crawford is the one SS prospect who may play his position in the majors (see Eric Longenhagen’s excellent article on Crawford). Crawford is 23 months younger than Profar.

    Not sure if there are contending teams with “can’t miss” pitching prospects willing to take on Lee’s contract. If there are, those are the ones I would target.

    My preferred recipe to create a winning team is great SP and defense up the middle (C, 2B, SS and CF). Profar fits in, but he would add to the glut. We obviously don’t have any great SP in the minors yet.

  19. Phillie697

    July 03, 2013 10:31 AM

    @Pencilfish,

    Would our stable of semi-decent infield prospects prevent you from saying “hell ya” if Colorado called tomorrow and offered us Tulo for Lee? I don’t think so. In the end, it is still just your assessment of Profar’s star-potential vs. hk’s, and the mentioning of our infield prospects is really a filler argument.

    Profar is the consensus #1 prospect in baseball at the beginning of the season. I’m pretty sure that’s about as “can’t-miss” as you can get, and I note that I agree with you there is no such thing as “can’t-miss” prospects. We will be trading one or two years of an almost-sure thing in Lee (and not having to pay $77.5M to him while we’re at it) for two or three lottery tickets, one or two or maybe even three of them might pan out for a decade at the cost Lee makes in one year. Is there a risk there? Sure. But does it makes sense? Absolutely. I think RAJ has already proven at this point that holding onto old players is how you ruin a team.

    I still don’t see why you continue to think SP is the only way to win. Like I said, there might be some evidence it is the way to go in winning in the playoffs, but there is no study that shows it is any more helpful than a great offense in the regular season, and at this point, it would be ill-advised for the Phillies to stock their cupboard “just in case we make it to the playoffs.” You kinda have to get there first.

  20. hk

    July 03, 2013 11:17 AM

    Pencilfish,

    Like I said yesterday, the fact that lesser prospects like Asche, Galvis and Hernandez are in the system would not prevent me from acquiring Profar if he was offered. None of the current prospects is even a top 100 prospect in MLB, so I would not turn down getting Profar because I have Asche, Galvis and Hernandez. If any of them develops into a top prospect / potentially capable MLB player, that would be a good problem to have. I did overlook Crawford, but he’s probably 4 or more years away from the big leagues, so I would not pass up the opportunity to acquire the #1 prospect in the game today just because I have a recent HS graduate 1st round pick who happens to play the same position.

    I don’t have statistics to back this up, but my impression is that top prospects who are not pitchers turn out better than top prospects who are pitchers. Therefore, I would be happy to add Profar and I would use the money freed up by trading Lee to address my team’s need for starting pitching.

  21. Larry

    July 03, 2013 01:04 PM

    @ HK,
    You also have to remember a lot of pitchers and hitters also decline in their late 20s and early 30s. This could be Cole hamels. If you want, let’s look at some examples:

    Tim Lincecum was a major stud in this league. He won 2 cy young awards which is awesome. However, at age 28 he started to decline and at age 29 he is struggling big time.

    Look at Josh Johnson at age 29 declining. For every example you and Phillie697 give me, I can give examples back. That’s why I like to compare guys when they are supposedly both in their prime on the same team. Age in baseball is a lot different than age in other sports, like the NFL. Check out Raul Ibanez at age 41, has 1 less homer than Dom Brown and 75 less at bats than Brown. Baseball players are all different. Some keep in great shape and play great at older ages, while some slow down in their late 20s.

  22. hk

    July 03, 2013 01:55 PM

    Larry,

    I don’t have time to do the research or provide examples, but that does not mean I agree with your premise about the percentage of pitchers who peak in their late 20’s as compared the percentage who peak in their mid-30’s.

    I will concede it is possible that Cole Hamels may have peaked already. Of course, it’s also possible that he, like Cliff Lee did before him, may just suffer through a down season in his late 20’s before returning to the being the sub-3.00 ERA pitcher he was from 2010 to 2012.

  23. Larry

    July 03, 2013 03:45 PM

    @HK,

    “I will concede it is possible that Cole Hamels may have peaked already. Of course, it’s also possible that he, like Cliff Lee did before him, may just suffer through a down season in his late 20’s before returning to the being the sub-3.00 ERA pitcher he was from 2010 to 2012.”

    Next year might be a good indicator.

  24. Phillie697

    July 03, 2013 10:57 PM

    @Larry,

    I didn’t give you examples. I gave you aggregate stats. Still remember the 178 v. 13? Those aren’t “examples.”

  25. Pencilfish

    July 03, 2013 11:36 PM

    hk,

    We can replace Lee with lesser pitchers and save money, but if you want to replace his kind of production, then we are talking about Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, etc. These guys are not available. Perhaps you assume Hamels would take over as the ace, and we’ll sign a couple of guys to pitch behind him. That’s doable, but as I said, I doubt Hamels will ever be the workhorse ace that Lee and Halladay exemplify. Hamels has the tools, but not the mental makeup to lead. Witness his mental fatigue issues in the 2009 WS, and again this week, when Charlie gave him a couple of extra days to “clear his head”.

    The pending FA’s in the roster will free up about $46M. That should be plenty to address many shortcomings without sacrificing Lee.

    In the end, this may not matter. The Rangers are reportedly one of the teams in hot pursuit of Ricky Nolasco.

  26. Larry

    July 03, 2013 11:57 PM

    @ Aggravating697,

    “I didn’t give you examples. I gave you aggregate stats. Still remember the 178 v. 13? Those aren’t “examples.”

    You must be drunk. Go to bed.

  27. #PhilliesTalk

    July 04, 2013 12:45 AM

    “Rollins is a 10/5 player, so we can’t trade him without his consent, period.”

    I’ve never seen a player refuse to go when it was time.

    —————————-

    “Is it really unreasonable to think that Hamels, who is 5 years younger, could be better than Lee in 2014 or 2015?”

    Who cares which guy is better?

    Your team needs five pitchers in the rotation who are good to great.

    The question you should be asking is why did the Phillies sign John Lannan for $2mil when they could have signed Zack Greinke for $25mil per year?

    Zack Greinke is a lot better than John Lannan. You can’t be shocked at how Lannan is performing.

    Why aren’t you outraged at how David Montgomery is performing?

    The Phillies TV deal is supposed to be at least five billion dollars.

    WHERE”S THE MONEY?

    Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez

    Why is this guy not even mentioned in Philadelphia?

    WHY?

  28. Reid F. Floyd

    July 05, 2013 07:11 PM

    This season of the show was the first to not rank in the Top 50 according to Nielsen ratings and the first to garner less than 10 million viewers on average; it ranked #51 with an average of 9.73 million viewers. This was the last season to have George H. Ross and Carolyn Kepcher as main boardroom judges. The show moved to Los Angeles, California the following season and Donald Trump’s children became the most prominent judges after him.

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