Is Cliff Lee’s Waning Strikeout Rate A Cause for Concern?

Cliff Lee bounced back from a shaky first inning with six shutout innings to help the Phillies wrap up a series win over the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday afternoon. Lee appears on his way to another typical season, currently sitting on a 3.18 ERA with a 61-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

There was one curiously-minimized aspect of Lee’s start against the Reds, though: the strikeouts. Lee only struck out three batters, giving him three starts out of ten in which he has struck out three or fewer. He has a 21.1 percent strikeout rate on the season, which would be his lowest since 2009 when he spent time with the Indians and the Phillies. His nine swinging strikes yesterday gives him seven starts this year without reaching double-digits after doing so in 16 of 31 starts in 2013.

Breaking down the stats by pitch, via Brooks Baseball:

2014 Count Use% Whiff/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP FB/BIP PU/BIP GB/FB HR/(FB+LD)
Sinker 507 56.3% 11.6 48.0 26.0 26.0 0.0 184.6 1.9
Change 187 20.8% 35.6 61.8 14.7 14.7 8.8 420.0 0.0
Cutter 147 16.3% 12.0 51.4 29.7 16.2 2.7 316.7 17.7
Curve 60 6.7% 19.2 77.8 22.2 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0

 

2013 Count Use% Whiff/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP FB/BIP PU/BIP GB/FB HR/(FB+LD)
Sinker 1805 55.3% 15.2 45.7 24.0 24.7 5.6 185.3 8.8
Cutter 675 20.7% 21.3 41.1 30.5 20.6 7.8 200.0 5.6
Change 522 16.0% 30.2 50.8 20.0 24.2 5.0 210.3 3.8
Curve 260 8.0% 37.6 52.8 33.3 13.9 0.0 380.0 11.8

He’s seen fewer whiffs on every pitch, but most noticeably on all of his off-speed stuff, which accounts for a bit less than half of his total pitches. Lee has also been better at inducing grounders, so while he has not been missing bats with as much regularity, the contact has been weaker. Unfortunately, Lee has been backed by a mediocre defense and has experienced a bit of bad luck, as his .340 BABIP illustrates.

Lee’s lack of swing-and-miss stuff hasn’t seemed to make him a noticeably worse pitcher. FIP puts him at 2.63, xFIP at 2.91, and SIERA at 3.07 — all better than his ERA.

This is good news for the Phillies, who ought to be thinking about shipping Lee to a contender by the July 31 trade deadline. He is 35 years old, hasn’t begun breaking down or slowing down, and could still bring the Phillies a nice haul of prospects to set the team up to contend in the near future. Lee is owed the prorated portion of his $25 million salary for this season (a little under $19 million right now), as well as $25 million next year, and $12.5 million for his buyout in 2016 (which includes a $27.5 million club option). The Phillies should be willing to cover most or all of the remaining $56.5 million in order to bring the best possible return.

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