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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  1. Micah

    May 19, 2014 01:36 PM

    As sad as it would be to see Cliff traded for a second time, he’s such a sure thing that he really could be the most coveted asset on the market by July. The slight variance we’ve seen this season thus far, as Bill has pointed out, doesn’t necessarily signify regression, which is *highly* uncommon for pitchers his age. Throw in the fact that Cliff just doesn’t go on the DL (again, at 35) and there really isn’t a large class of comparable pitchers at all, let alone potential trade targets. I just hope the money doesn’t become an issue for RAJ in negotiations. But I can’t deny that I’d miss coming to the ballpark to see Lee do his thing.

  2. awh™

    May 19, 2014 03:31 PM

    Well, Bill, you obviously think differently than the Phillies FO seems to. They think they can contend, and if they are within a sniff of the 2nd WC come the trade deadline Cliff Lee isn’t going anywhere.

    Sure, everyone wants “the best possible return” for Lee, but what is that? Which team likely to contend has the best prospects and would they be willing to give up that haul for Lee?

    In the current climate, where young players and prospects are treated like gold, I’m not sure that even “the best possible return” is likely to yield the same WAR going forward that Lee will give you until the end of his contract.

    • crow

      May 19, 2014 06:57 PM

      *I’m not sure that even “the best possible return” is likely to yield the same WAR going forward that Lee will give you until the end of his contract.*

      That argument only applies, I think, if your primary interest during the term of Lee’s contract is winning. If your goal is to rebuild with a new generation of young players, then you aren’t interested in equivalent WAR.

  3. Pete

    May 20, 2014 12:55 AM

    Did the Phillies achieve the “best possible return” in the first Lee trade? If yes, then I’d prefer to forgo another trade because that wasn’t the most impressive haul of players. If no, then I’d still prefer to forgo another trade because how could they expect to do better this time.

    Also, if Lee gets traded, doesn’t that force your hand to trade your other older players that still have any value, i.e., Utley, Ruiz, Rollins and Paplebon?

    • hk

      May 20, 2014 06:34 AM

      If they trade Lee again, the circumstances will be different than they were the first time. When the front office decided that they would acquire Halladay and trade Lee simultaneously, they gave themselves a small window of time in which to trade Lee. Since one of the front office guys was previously employed by Seattle and was familiar with Seattle’s minor league system, they made a deal with Seattle. Hopefully, if they decide to trade Lee again, they’ll have a chance to engage more possible buyers and get a much better return relative to what they got the first time.

      If they admit that they are unlikely to contend this year or next, they should trade Lee for a package that projects to help them in 2016 and beyond. If they do this, they should also try to trade Ruiz, Utley, Rollins and/or Papelbon (especially Papelbon), but only if they can secure a suitable return for each of those players. Ruiz’s contract should not be much of a detriment, even if they find a catcher of the future and he transitions into a back-up catcher role late in 2015 or 2016. Utley and Rollins have no-trade protection, so they can stay if they want and neither has a contract that should prove to be problematic. Utley stays as long as he remains healthy and viable enough to get 500 PA’s and Rollins’s deal ends after next season. Papelbon’s a different story. They should trade him as soon as they find a team that is willing to either take on the majority of his contract or (more likely) give the Phils a good prospect in return for the Phils eating ~50% of his remaining money.

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