Looking Back on the Cliff Lee Era
The Phillies officially ended the Cliff Lee era in Philadelphia on Tuesday, buying out the lefty’s contract for $12.5 million rather than picking up his club option for $27.5 million. As Justin Klugh pointed out at The Good Phight, that transaction has become something of a joke, as many have responded with a joke to the effect of “they’re paying him an obscene amount of money not to pitch”. In reality, they’re simply saving themselves $15 million.
Lee may be 37 years old, but if his elbow hadn’t died, the Phillies most likely pick up that option if for no other reason than to hopefully flip him for younger players at the trade deadline. Alas.
Just as with Chase Utley‘s decay, Lee’s disappearance from baseball relevance is a sad tale. He didn’t have the gradual decline many other veteran pitchers were afforded; there were no 4.50 ERA slopfests, no 83 MPH fastballs, no labored breathing in the third inning. Just a 2.87 ERA over 222 2/3 innings in 2013 and… pop goes the elbow early into the fourth year of Lee’s five-year deal.
The Phillies shocked the baseball world back in December 2010 when they brought Lee back on that five-year, $120 million deal. The prevailing thought was that he would sign with either the New York Yankees or the Texas Rangers. The signing was just about universally hailed as the Phillies were coming off of a 97-win season and had a bitter taste in their mouths after being booted from the playoffs in six NLCS games by the eventual world champion San Francisco Giants. Lee, it was foretold, would be the final piece in what was cleverly referred to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, along with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.
The Four Horsemen didn’t disappoint. The Phillies won 102 games in 2011, breezing into the playoffs behind Halladay’s 2.35 ERA, Lee’s 2.40, Hamels’ 2.79, and Oswalt’s 3.69. But the Phillies were stopped dead in their tracks in a tragic five-game NLDS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The final game ended when first baseman Ryan Howard blew out his Achilles, which in retrospect closed the chapter on arguably the greatest era of Phillies baseball.
Lee was still quite good in 2012, finishing with a 3.16 ERA over 211 innings. And, as mentioned above, his ’13 numbers were quite excellent. The flurry of moves the Phillies made in an attempt to compete including signing Lee — trading for Oswalt and Hunter Pence, signing Raul Ibanez, signing Jonathan Papelbon — didn’t pan out, but that had more to do with a seriously bad string of luck than poor front office decision-making. Halladay’s arm just vanished, Howard suffered a freak injury that never left him the same, they lost a 1-0 series-clinching game, Utley’s knees eroded. If the Phillies have a better roll of the dice on even one of those events, who knows what could’ve happened. A playoff berth in 2012, rather than a disappointing .500 finish, might have left us with a more palatable aftertaste.
As it happened, Lee’s contract looks poor in retrospect. The Phillies got three excellent, healthy years, and two injury-riddled, valueless years. This is exactly the risk teams take when they sign pitchers in their 30’s to lengthy, multi-year deals. Teams looking at Zack Greinke and David Price will keep this in mind. The Phillies’ signing of Lee, however, was not at all misguided despite how things turned out.
Over the duration of his contract with the Phillies, Lee compiled an aggregate 2.89 ERA (133 ERA+, or adjusted ERA) with a 739/114 K/BB (6.48 K for every BB) over 747 2/3 innings. In that same span of time, among starters who racked up at least 700 innings, only two pitchers — Clayton Kershaw and Johnny Cueto — compiled a better adjusted ERA than Lee.
Only Kershaw had a better FIP. Lee had the best K/BB ratio. He set the bar high in 2010 when he had a 10.28 K/BB ratio — then the second-best mark in baseball history — but posted major league-best marks of 7.39 and 6.94 in consecutive years in 2012-13. Lee finished third in Cy Young Award balloting in 2011 and sixth in ’13, which undersells just how good he was.
Knowing what we know now and with the privilege of a time machine, do we go back and refuse to sign Lee? Or do we sign Lee, roll those dice again and see what happens? If, for instance, Halladay doesn’t crater and the Phillies get back into the playoffs in 2012, the Phillies are arguably favorites for any Division Series match-up on the basis of their outstanding rotation. The Phillies didn’t give up prospects to bring Lee back; they only lost money. And contrary to popular belief, spending money wasn’t what did the Phillies in for 2013 and beyond — it was trading away the farm system for Oswalt and Pence, giving up draft picks to sign Ibanez and Papelbon, and giving Howard that awful extension.
The ending sucked, but the Cliff Lee era in Philadelphia was successful, despite the lack of hardware in the Phillies’ display case at Citizens Bank Park. Would that Halladay and Lee were still pitching today, but death comes to us all.