Cliff Lee certainly was worth his newly-earned free agent salary last season for the Philadelphia Phillies. Lee kept his end of the bargain for the "dream" rotation that nearly overcame some of his team's offensive deficiencies but fell short of their World Series goal. Lee and Halladay in particular have become as automatic a value package as you can find anywhere. According to Fangraphs, Lee's fWAR the last four seasons: 7.2, 6.6, 7.2 and 6.7. And while he makes his rotation start like clockwork year after year, the one fact that is still a head scratcher is his velocity.
Cliff Lee pitched into his tenth season last year during his thirty-second year on earth. And despite all the wear and tear a pitcher's arm endures, especially since Lee has not missed many starts since 2007, Lee's fastball velocity continues to rise year after year. Starting in 2007, Lee's velocity (according to Pitch/FX) has had the following progression: 2007 - 89, 2008 - 90.5, 2009 - 91.1, 2010 - 91.3 and 2011 - 91.5. How is that possible? Doesn't that seem to defy logic? Along with his fastball velocity, he has had a similar rise in velocity in his cutter as well.
To think this through logically, there are two ways to improve velocity: conditioning and mechanics. Today's baseball players are highly conditioned machines. They no longer have off seasons and condition themselves year round. So Lee must be very good at keeping himself in tip-top shape. After all, the guy looks like a terrific athlete. If you compare him to say, Mark Buehrle, a pitcher who throws with the same left arm and is about the same age, Lee appears on the face of it to be better conditioned. Perhaps that is some part of Lee's constant increase while Buehrle has lost velocity.
But that comparison isn't fair to Buehrle. Who knows how hard the new Marlins' pitcher conditions himself? Heck, he might work just as hard as Cliff Lee. As sophisticated as today's conditioning knowledge has become, you have to assume that most pitchers work just as hard. So there has to be another answer. And yes, that answer has to be mechanics.
Let's take a quick look at Cliff Lee's Pitch/FX release points. We'll start with his horizontal release point over the years thanks to Brooks Baseball:
Now his vertical release point:
It seems very apparent from looking at those two maps that Cliff Lee has continually tightened his mechanics from year to year. In 2008, there was quite a bit of variation, particularly in the horizontal release point. In 2009, there was much more play in his vertical release point. But look how tight everything is in 2011! Just to have a frame of reference, we'll use Mark Buehrle again. What follows are Buehrle's release point maps. First the horizontal.
And now Buehrle's horizontal release point map:
Mark Buehrle's release point isn't nearly as clean as Cliff Lee's. Lee has seemed to clean up his mechanics from year to year and that has to account for a crisper fastball. And Lee's mechanics not only aid his velocity. Pitch/FX also shows that Lee has more vertical and horizontal movement on all of his pitches now than he had before.
Cliff Lee is simply an artist that has fine tuned his craft year after year until he can virtually repeat his delivery for optimum speed and spin. That's a beautiful thing for the Phillies and not so pretty a picture for teams that have to face him.