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.

Clayton Kershaw 173 1128.0 2.11 2.32 LAD
Johnny Cueto 145 889.1 2.71 3.41 CIN-KCR
Cliff Lee 133 747.2 2.89 2.86 PHI
Zack Greinke 133 986.2 2.82 3.00 MIL-LAA-LAD
Justin Verlander 127 1047.0 3.22 3.25 DET
David Price 127 1090.2 3.02 2.98 TBR-DET-TOR
Cole Hamels 125 1068.1 3.12 3.23 PHI-TEX
Stephen Strasburg 124 708.2 3.11 2.91 WSN
Doug Fister 124 853.2 3.24 3.51 SEA-DET-WSN
Jordan Zimmermann 123 971.2 3.14 3.30 WSN
Felix Hernandez 123 1107.2 3.03 2.96 SEA
Max Scherzer 121 1046.0 3.36 3.12 DET-WSN
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/4/2015.

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.

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  1. Nick

    November 04, 2015 11:28 AM

    My favorite player. The kind of pitcher who traditionalists and the more sabr inclined could point to and say unequivocally, “He’s good.” The guy who I would go out of my way to watch pitch. The guy who’s jersey my buddy’s bought me as a gift on my bachelor party, August 16, 2013, (also Sandberg’s first game) that pitted my two favorite pitchers against each other. The gruff plain spoken man from Arkansas. The guy who spurned the Yankees to come back and finish the job even though it didn’t end the way we all wanted.

    Thank you Cliff. I’ll miss watching you pitch, but I’ll still wear your jersey.

    • Aria

      November 04, 2015 11:52 AM

      All pitchers are Divas to a large extent, but Cliff lost me as a fan when he called out Victorino on the field. That giant choke job in game 2 v. the Cards makes his ‘cool guy whatever’ act a little less palatable.

      • kanejandice

        November 04, 2015 01:15 PM

        Yeah I really loved Lee but what are the chances we don’t move on in 2011 without him blowing that 4 run lead? Seemed like we were gonna get to coast to the NLCS against probably our toughest competition. That really, really hurt.

      • glovesdroppa

        November 05, 2015 11:02 PM

        Completely agree. Absolutely loved him his first go-around here, theyd probably have 2 rings if they didnt trade him. I soured on him after he blew the 4 run lead against the cards. Also, there were some grumblings behind the scenes that he was falling in with pap and broke the clubhouse radio cuz he didn’t like the music (despite not playing that day) .

      • Jesse fye

        October 12, 2017 12:27 AM

        Funny the guy puts on years of near perfection and you claim to have “lost him” bc of 1 game or one moment he acted out of character. Boy what world do you guys live on. Its sounds PERFECT. I came here bc I wanted to remember the Phillies glory years. And cliff Lee will always have a big chapter in that book. What he did to the yankees in the 09 world series was beyond special. Then turning down the evil empire for less money to come back to our Phillies. All I can do is say thanks Cliff. Thanks for bringing me a lot of great times and wonderful memories.

  2. Romus

    November 04, 2015 03:26 PM

    Cliff Lee disappeared this last year….from any rehabs in Philly, but he could have done them at home in Arkansas, but even from community appearances for fund raisers.
    Utley’s, Howard’s, Hamels and ALS fund raisers he failed to attend.
    Of course, he was not required to attend any fund raisers, but…..

  3. TomG

    November 04, 2015 03:58 PM

    You go a bit dark in that concluding line, Bill. You feeling okay?

  4. 100Bucks

    November 04, 2015 07:44 PM

    When Cliff Lee pitched that gem in game 1 of 2009 WS. I enjoyed every moment of it. Watched it from a bar in Alexandria, VA with an old friend from PA. When I sat in right field bleachers with my boys and watched Cliff pitch another great game while Dom Brown stroked a double off the fence in one of his first games, I enjoyed every minute of it.
    Players get old and other players never pan out the way you think they will. But, Cliff Lee was more great than bad.

  5. Dan

    November 05, 2015 08:24 AM

    Doc is Doc and forever will be Doc, but Lee was the Horseman I most loved to watch pitch. He was appointment viewing (okay, every Phillies game in 2011 was appointment viewing), but his delivery, his cutter, his big looping curve, man he was great.

  6. Fatalotti

    November 10, 2015 12:29 PM

    If I remember correctly, the price of a win on the open market in 2011 was about $6 M. From 2011 onward, Cliff Lee compiled 19.2 fWAR and 21.2 bWAR. With the $120 million the Phillies paid, they were in effect purchasing 20 WAR, and by both measures of WAR, Lee pretty much delivered.

    With that in mind, I’d definitely go back and resign that contract. Lee essentially was worth it in just 3 seasons of work, and those seasons weren’t unexpected given what we knew about him at the time. If Lee pitches the length of the contract, the surplus value on this contract is immense. Figure he keeps up the pace of the first 3 seasons, with .5 WAR regression per year for years 4 and 5, and the Phils get something like 32-33 WAR out of Lee over the 5 year life of the contract, which would mean they got the value of an approximately $200 M contract.

    I thought it was a good contract at the time (it was only 5 years, not 7 or 8), and I think in hindsight it’s still a good signing from a results standpoint.

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