Cliff Lee Is Still Very Awesome
Question for you: Name the only two pitchers in Major League Baseball to have pitched at least 1,000 innings since the start of the 2008 season and compiled an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 140 or better.
If you lower the threshold to a 130 adjusted ERA, Felix Hernandez (135), Roy Halladay (134), and Adam Wainwright (132) join the party. Consistently elite starting pitching is hard to come by, but the Phillies have had it for six years running and appear to be on their way to a seventh year with Lee.
It didn’t look so good for Lee after his first start to open up the 2014 season. The lefty allowed eight runs on a walk and 11 hits in five innings in Texas against the Rangers. He followed it up with seven shutout innings in Chicago against the Cubs, but he allowed ten more hits. He stood with a 5.50 ERA after three starts following his April 10 start against the Milwaukee Brewers, having allowed 29 hits in 18 innings.
Then he tossed a complete game against the Atlanta Braves, taking home a tough-luck loss in which he allowed only one run while striking out 13 and walking one. In Monday night’s start against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lee dazzled with eight shutout innings, striking out ten without issuing a walk. His overall numbers are now what we have come to expect from him: a 3.09 ERA in 35 innings, with 38 strikeouts and two walks. Based on his hit rate — two out of every five balls put in play have been hits, a 33 percent increase — we could even expect him to get better.
Lee’s peripherals are as good as they’ve ever been. His 26 percent strikeout rate ties a career-high set in 2011, and his 1.4 percent walk rate would easily be a career-best, as would his 19-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. (Lee is one of only two starters to have finished a season with a double-digit strikeout-to-walk ratio, along with Bret Saberhagen.)
Perhaps the most startling fact about Lee’s first five starts is that he’s inducing ground balls at a 53 percent rate. If it holds, which is still highly questionable, it would also easily become a career-best, surpassing his previous career-high of 46 percent and his career average 40.5 percent. Compared to previous seasons, Lee is staying on the outer-third of the plate and low in the strike zone more often.
Lee hasn’t changed his pitch mix much at all, so it appears that he, along with Carlos Ruiz and the Phillies’ coaches most likely, has made a concerted effort to simply not gamble in hitters’ happy zones the way he had in the past. It may be smart on its own merit, as Lee’s velocity has declined across the board. Last season, his fastball averaged 90.7 MPH, but he’s averaged a meager 89.5 through five starts in 2014. His curve and change-up have also had velocity dips. Lee is 35 years old, after all, so less zip is to be expected.
Lee was already fearsome enough when he was averaging nine strikeouts and one walk over every nine innings. Add in ground ball after ground ball? That’s a perfect pitcher.