2013 Phillies Report Card: Cliff Lee

In mid-December 2010, I was a little downtrodden. I was at a bar called Jersey’s, the same place where, just two months earlier, I’d watched Ryan Howard take strike three from Brian Wilson to send the Giants to the World Series and the Phillies packing for warmer weather than southern New Jersey would offer in the winter. I was in between jobs, mired in year two of post-graduate work rockiness that drove me and almost everybody associated with me a little bit nuts. Plus, it was cold and dark. It was a bleh time.

Naturally, all it took was one of the greatest surprises in 21st century baseball to turn all (well, most) of that around in a heartbeat. That night at Jersey’s, I and the rest of the internet learned that Cliff Lee was going to sign with the Phillies as a free agent, nearly a year to the day after he was traded to Seattle in one of the worst trades made by any club in recent memory.

That was a different time; Phillies baseball was about optimism, and Ruben Amaro’s brazen disregard for conventionality and common sense seemed more endearing than endangering. Fast forward to 2013, and though those circumstances have changed and the golden aura around the Phillies logo has been muted and desaturated, Cliff Lee remains rust-free and a persistent bright spot, a beacon in the miasma.

Let’s first acknowledge that Lee might be a little bit sociopathic. He’s always been stoic and robotic on the mound, never dilly-dallying on (or along the way to or from) the mound, but that million-mile stare at the All-Star Game? It’s a classic give-no-fuck moment that ranks up there with his nonchalant pop-up catch in the ’09 World Series and never watching a second of the final out in his 2010 ALDS Game 5 masterpiece against the Rays. But it’s also terrifying, and compels me to hold his performance in an even higher regard than I probably normally would. I ain’t gonna trifle with that.

Luckily, there’s no need to plea for clemency in the face of criticism, because Lee’s 2013 featured very little in the way of disappointment. He led the Majors in walks per nine, as well as strikeout-to-walk ratio, for the second consecutive season. In fact, his 6.94 mark in the second of those stats is the 25th-best in MLB history and Lee’s third such entrance among those top 25 seasons. The rest of the vitals:

  • 222.2 IP
  • 2.87 ERA
  • 222 K
  • A 14-8 record, if you care for such things
  • A host of other nice stats

In a world without Clayton Kershaw, Lee’s season would probably receive more serious Cy Young Award consideration. As it is, he had a top-five season in the National League and stands to be rewarded as such, in a just world.

Lee’s September is also worthy of it’s own separate discussion, as it may well merit consideration for one of the best-pitched months in baseball history (I have no idea where to even begin researching that). Five starts – four of them going eight innings and the other seven – none of them shutouts but only one or two runs allowed in each, plus an absolutely preposterous 54 strikeouts to one walks. Fifty-four to one! The bit of trivia there is that the batter to draw that walk was San Diego’s Jedd Gyorko, if you’re hunting for minutiae. The month also featured three double-digit strikeout starts, punctuated by a 13-K game to end the month and Lee’s season with an exclamation. In reality, the month had the potential to even be better, had his start against the Mets on the 22nd not been abbreviated after seven innings (and just 88 pitches) for lackluster offensive reasons.

The future of Lee in red pinstripes might be a bit murkier, but that’s not a discussion for right now. Today is a day to reflect on the best thing about the Phillies’ season and appreciate it for what it was: the latest great season for one of the most spectacular reclamation projects in baseball history, and another high point for one of Philly’s most beloved players.

An easy A.

Bill Michael Eric Ryan
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12 comments

  1. Andrew Cleveland Alexander

    October 21, 2013 08:44 AM

    Well, any conversation about the best-pitched months in baseball history has to start with Orel Herschiser’s scoreless innings streak of September, 1988. Started on August 30, technically, and ended Sept 28.

    59 IP, 0 R, 31 H, 38 K, 10 BB, 3 extra-base hits, 700 pitches

    But that’s an easy one. I feel like Pedro or Koufax or Clemens must have had some awesome months.

  2. Matt

    October 21, 2013 09:46 AM

    As hard as it is to believe, the Phillies might actually come out AHEAD on Lee’s contract, if you just use the standard 5 mil/win model, using fWar lee’s been worth 82.5 million in these first three years, and made 72 (I believe). He has to attain 3.75 WAR per year the next 2 years to be worth the 120 million.

  3. pedro3131

    October 21, 2013 10:13 AM

    Pedro Sep/Oct 1999, 42ip 20h 71k 6bb (0.86 era). Also posted a 0.86 era in may of 2000, and interesting only had a 3-2 record.

  4. Trevor MacBain

    October 21, 2013 10:29 AM

    www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=leecl02&year=2011&t=p

    Cliff Lee’s June and and August of the 2011 season were nothing short of spectacular. May be even better than his September. They didn’t feature the 54-1 K/BB ratio, but that August it was 39/2. And the June streak that year featured 3 CG shutouts out of the 5 he pitched! He is all sorts of amazing.

  5. Trevor MacBain

    October 21, 2013 10:32 AM

    39/8 K-BB in August.* my mistake.

  6. KH

    October 21, 2013 02:01 PM

    A good case can be made that Cliff Lee was the second best starting pitcher in baseball not just top 5 in NL. He racked up 7.3 bWAR this year. He wont finish where he should though because of writer ignorance.

  7. Mike B.

    October 22, 2013 10:46 PM

    If the Phils do indeed sign that new TV deal this winter, Cliff is not going anywhere. Fingers crossed!

  8. EricL

    October 23, 2013 12:26 AM

    Matt, there is some new research that indicates that the $5m/WAR is grossly underestimating the cost of an actual win.

    Lewie Pollis wrote this that indicates that a free-market win may be worth as high as $7m. A lot of contracts look a lot better if that turns out to be more accurate the the antiquated $5m/win.

  9. hk

    October 25, 2013 06:11 AM

    EricL,

    I found Pollis’s article and his debate with Cameron in the comments section very interesting. I wonder what impact relievers had on Pollis’s research as I don’t believe Cameron applies his ~$5M per WAR calculation to relievers. It would also be interesting to see how much RAJ has paid per WAR since taking over as GM. As Joecatz points out, they’ve gotten great value (paying $57.5M for 18.1 RA9-WAR) from Cliff Lee so far – although that $3.2M per RA9-WAR is somewhat skewed by the fact that the contract is so back-loaded. They also paid > $10M per WAR for Raul Ibanez from 2009-2011 and > $13M per RA9-WAR from Jamie Moyer in 2009 and 2010.

  10. Joecatz

    October 26, 2013 02:35 PM

    I think we as analytical fans tend to put way too much stock into what a iw is with dollar wise and analyzing values.

    You need roughly 50 wins over replacement to make the postseason. Whether a team spends 100mm or 200mm for those wins is irrelevant to everyone but the owners.

    They key is making sure you have the combination of players to add up to the wins.

    A lot will be made of this this offseason. In reality it doesn’t matter if the phillies pay 20mm per season for a 4 win OF or 10mm as long as they get a four win OF and they can still get a 3 win starter etc…

  11. hk

    October 27, 2013 06:35 AM

    “You need roughly 50 wins over replacement to make the postseason. Whether a team spends 100mm or 200mm for those wins is irrelevant to everyone but the owners.”

    I could not agree more with this statement. However, when a team (a) spent $160M for 30 WAR and 73 actual wins in the prior season
    (b) has nearly $120M committed to 7 players, one of whom is an injured set up reliever, (c) has yet to show a willingness to exceed the luxury tax limit, and (d) has stated that it plans to make moves to be contenders next year, isn’t it logical to wonder whether it’s realistic to expect them to find those extra 20 WAR this off-season?

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