Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The quiet quality of Cliff Lee

The Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games in 2011 and won the National League East. That season completed a two-season arc that saw the team win 199 games. That seems so long ago. In the last two seasons, the team won only 154 games and has fallen into the also-ran status. None of that can be blamed on Cliff Lee. Lee has been basically the same pitcher from the good times to the bad.
How well Cliff Lee has done has gotten lost in the shuffle. I am newly aware of fantasy baseball rankings as I have begun my first adventure in that world. It struck me odd that Lee was owned by 99% in leagues. Shouldn't that be 100%? The guy is the closest thing there is to a metronome in pitching. Year in and year out, his peripherals rarely vary.
Everybody knows that Cliff Lee does not walk people. But they also forget that he strikes out batters to the tune of one an inning. Just look at his K/9 rate over the last three years respectively: 9.2, 8.8 and 9.0. You cannot get more consistent than that. I just looked at his spring numbers. His K/9 rate this spring is 8.7. The metronome.

He has led the National League (and probably baseball) in strikeout to walk ratio in each of the last two years and three of the last five. Over the last four years, he has struck out 852 batters and walked only 120. That is a four year average of 7.1 strikeouts per walk. Amazing.
Cliff Lee has also been reliable as they come. He has six straight seasons of over 200 innings. His WHIP in his four years with the Phillies has been 1.058. He has made a lot of money. And he has earned it.

In his four years  with the Phillies, Lee's FIP has been under 3.00 three times and has never been higher than 3.13.  And somehow, he has kept getting better as he has gotten older. His rate of getting batters to swing at pitches out of the strike zone has never been higher than it has been the past four years. His rate of getting first-pitch strikes has never been as high as the last four years. His swinging strike rate has never been higher than the last four years.
Throughout his time with the Phillies, he has never been considered the Number One pitcher on his team. There was Halladay, who was brilliant and there was Hamels, who shined off and on. But Halladay is gone, Hamels struggled in 2013 and is starting slow with injuries this year. Through it all, Cliff Lee has been the pitcher to count on.
There has been a lot of talk this spring about the Phillies trading Cliff Lee. After all, they do not appear to be going anywhere presently. The team could eat a lot of the money and still save and perhaps get prospects in return. And that might be a good thing for Lee, though he might not see it that way.
And that's because Cliff Lee should be pitching to more glory than he is. Since the Phillies have fallen on hard times, he has been forgotten a bit. And that is a shame. Because Cliff Lee has been fantastic.
Over the past six seasons, his rWAR has been 37.5 or 6.25 rWAR per season. Fangraphs has him at 37.1 or 6.12 fWAR over the same period. That is a half dozen years of wonderful quality. The projections do not expect him to slow down much despite the fact that he is now 35 years old. And if this spring is any indication, Cliff Lee just keeps rolling and dealing.
It is just too bad that he might be doing so for a team going nowhere.

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