Cliff Lee, Ace

Regardless of your rooting interests last night, you had to be impressed by the complete domination of Cliff Lee. The Yankees have a great offense, but he made them look foolish all night, keeping all-star hitters off-balance with a mix of pitches that don’t look like they should be that hard to hit. He set the tone from the first hitter of the game, striking Derek Jeter out with this three pitch sequence:

Fastball, 91 MPH, foul
Curveball, 75 MPH, foul
Cutter, 85 MPH, strikeout

This was just a clinic on how to pitch. He changed speeds, eye level, and movement, finally putting Jeter away on a pitch up in the zone that, on it’s own, is pretty hittable. You generally don’t want to throw 85 MPH at the top of the strike zone, but Lee had set that pitch up perfectly with his first two offerings, and got a good contact hitter to swing right through it.

He had everything working last night, including a nasty curveball that Fox never tired of talking about. But for me, it was Lee’s change-up that was his true out pitch last night, and the reason he was able to shut down a line-up with some really good right-handed hitters. He threw 21 of them on the evening, 18 of which went for strikes, including five swinging strikes where the opposing hitter was just badly fooled. Actually, let’s just look at all of those change-ups.

1st inning, Mark Teixeira, ball.
2nd inning, Jorge Posada, foul.
2nd inning, Hideki Matsui, swing and a miss.
2nd inning, Robinson Cano, flyout.
3rd inning, Nick Swisher, swing and a miss.
3rd inning, Melky Cabrera, called strike
3rd inning, Johnny Damon, called strike.
4th inning, Mark Teixeira, called strike.
4th inning, Alex Rodriguez, swing and a miss.
4th inning, Alex Rodriguez, swing and a miss.
5th inning, Nick Swisher, ball.
5th inning, Nick Swisher, flyout.
6th inning, Melky Cabrera, flyout.
6th inning, Derek Jeter, ball.
7th inning, Jorge Posada, groundout.
8th inning, Nick Swisher, called strike.
8th inning, Nick Swisher, called strike.
9th inning, Mark Teixeira, groundout.
9th inning, Alex Rodriguez, swing and a miss.
9th inning, Jorge Posada, called strike
9th inning, Jorge Posada, foul.

The final total: three balls, five swinging strikes, six called strikes, two foul, five in play outs. Lee’s change-up was almost perfect. He used it against the power hitting Yankee right-handers, but also mixed it in to lefties effectively as well.

The “spike” curveball might have been the more interesting story for Fox to focus on, but the change-up was what led Lee to pitch one of the best games in World Series history.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

39 Responses to “Cliff Lee, Ace”

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  1. glp says:

    That curveball Lee threw on the second pitch of the game made my jaw drop. But yeah, it was his changeup usage that really won him the game.

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  2. BATTLETANK says:

    .519 WPA for the game last night
    1.38 for the post season alone. he’s dealing.

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  3. cardsfan says:

    If FOX had talked about Lee’s changeup, we would have an article here on how Lee’s curveballs really were the factor…

    My suggestion – instead of trying to prove FOX wrong all the time and diminishing someone else all the time, just focus on writing CLEAN baseball articles. For example, just say you were impressed with Lee’s changeup – no need to mention FOX and bring down the quality of your article.

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    • Nestor Chylak says:

      Do people generally watch baseball games on Fox with the sound on?

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Only if I’m playing a modified version of the Joe Morgan Drinking Game (TM).

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      • Richie Abernathy says:

        I asked a friend of mine if he wanted to join me for Game 1 in my neighborhood bar. He responded with, “It will be so loud that we won’t be able to hear the broadcast.” I said, “Exactly.”

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      • Tom B says:

        center channel = off or unplugged

        instant sanity.

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      • paris7 says:

        Don’t watch, listen! I love the games on the radio. No Jeter-madness, no favoritism, only occasional stupidity.

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    • Facebook Status says:

      FOX, as an industry leader is damn dismal. McCarver, a former catcher and announcer for so many years has never heard of a spike/knuckle curve? Are you f-ing kidding me?!

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      • Handwasher says:

        Evidently Uecker caught all the pitchers who threw that pitch.

        My eight-year-old has heard of the knuckle/spike curve. I laughed long and hard at McCarver last night.

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      • Bryz says:

        I’ve never heard of a “spike” curveball, but have heard of a knuckle-curve….yet “knuckle-curve” was never spoken of last night, if I remember correctly.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        That’s the first thing I thought when they showed us the grip – how is this all that different from what Moose threw?

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    • mannysfirsttrimester says:

      Are you new? You’re probably the only person who, after reading this article, decided it was crap just because it mentioned Fox in a bad light.

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  4. Kevin S. says:

    This Yankee fan was completely amazed by Lee last night, and is glad that someone is willing to give credit to a great pitcher having a fantastic night, instead of blaming the Yankees for “lacking preparation” and “not showing a killer instinct” and all that other bullshit you here when a team winning games at a .700 clip in the playoffs happens to drop one. Hats off to Lee.

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    • Facebook Status says:

      I’m a fan too–Lee just put on a clinic.

      However, I would like to see more hacking at that first pitch fastball. No use running his pitch count up when he’s up 0-2 on everyone.

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      • Matt says:

        Well to be fair, the Yankees are all about trying to work the count. They were hoping to drive up Lee’s count and get him out of the game and/or be around for him to make a mistake. Too bad for them that he simply dominated.

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  5. Hobbbot says:

    As an Indian fan watching last nights game I thought of a famous quote from Homer:

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    • Archie says:

      I was sitting there thinking during the game how depressing it must be to be an Indians fan watching your two old pitchers going at each other like that. Add in Carmona and that would be one heck of a pitching staff today.

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  6. neuter_your_dogma says:

    First, I think this and all articles on FG are good, whether I agree with them or not. Second, I think it is a bit misleading to focus on the changeup like this, only because more than any other pitch, all of the other pitches have to be working for the change to be successful. Without context (the compliment of other pitches), the change is nothing more than a batting practice pitch.

    More interesting to me is the beginning of the article focusing on how Lee used the changeup with other pitches per batter. I’d like to see how he used the other 18 changes within the context of other pitches.

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    • Bill says:

      That at bat where Lee struck out Arod with two changeups could merit an article all by its self. Lee made the second best hitter in the league look like Willie Bloomquist. Absolutely sick.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      This is the myth of the change-up, that it’s just a slow fastball that only works when hitters think its a fastball. It’s just not true.

      A good change-up, like the one Lee was throwing last night, is essentially an excellent sinker with tailing movement. Even if you’re looking for an 84 MPH sinker with tail, it’s really hard to hit, especially as an opposite handed hitter. That ball diving away from you, while also dropping, is just sick.

      When you can throw it for a strike like Lee can, it’s better than any 100 MPH fastball. It’s an out pitch, not a change-of-pace.

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      • neuter_your_dogma says:

        Thanks for the insight. I enjoy that you and others here are expanding my knowledge of baseball (I am being sincere here). I’d like to follow up by looking at the locational/movement data on Lee’s change last night. Any suggestions on where to look?

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      • Dave Cameron says: has the full Pitch F/x data for every game, so you can pull last night’s data from there. However, you’ll probably want to read some primers on the different Pitch F/x labels before you dig into it, otherwise it won’t make a whole lot of sense. You may want to start here.

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  7. Brian Recca says:

    It wasn’t the most exciting pitching performance I’ve ever seen, but it certainly was the most perfect I’ve ever seen (besides perfect games). Sure he struck out 10 batters but more incredibly he didn’t walk anybody on probably the best team in terms of OBP in the history of baseball.

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    • Choo says:

      No doubt. Lee had the command, control and arsenal to do exactly what he needed to do with the ball to execute the ideal 3 to 6 pitch combination to every hitter in that lineup last night, inning after inning. That was an extremly rare performance.

      Great breaking ball. Great change. The trio of darting fastballs he was able to spot wherever he damn well pleased. (How about the cutter last night? Particularly the one he hypnotized Swisher with in the 8th when all Swisher wanted to do was not strikeout. It looked like an outside 4-seamer that caromed off a wall about half way to the plate). The ability to change speeds without changing arm speed. The demeanor of a surgeon.

      Awesome stuff.

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  8. Brian Recca says:

    CardsFan- a little defensive there. Obviously you have a love for Mr. Buck (ugh) but come on they are pretty bad. Honestly my favorite broadcast team is from the Diamondbacks. Mark Grace and Joe Garagilio (sorry if I butchered the name) this coming from a Giants fan.

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  9. JH says:

    The changeup will never be sexy. Jeremy Hellickson was criminally underrated as a prospect coming into this year for the same reason. His curve was an o.k. pitch to keep hitters off balance, but he never made people look foolish by swinging at a pitch that started at the hips and ended up at the ankles. Plus changeups only get respect if you’re Jamie Moyer or Johan Santana.

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    • Big Oil says:

      On a similar note, I was thinking about this last night: going forward and taking into account ability, age, contract status, trade value, etc., would you rather have Cliff Lee or Johan? I understand this probably isn’t too much of a debate if Johan is healthy and productive per his normal seasons, but recently his body has pushed back a little bit. Further, Lee has an $8M option for ’10 (although he’ll get paid after that).

      Just interested to hear the commentariat’s thoughts.

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      • Dan says:

        Don’t know which I’d rather have, but it’s amazing to me what the Phils gave up to get him:

        Carlos Carrasco
        Jason Knapp
        Jason Donald
        Lou Marson

        Knapp was the big chip in the deal, and he had arm troubles which I understand they knew about then. Otherwise, you see guys who may or may not become every day players.

        What a steal! What do you think the Yanks would give up today for Lee?

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      • PhD Brian says:

        developing pitching is a crap shoot most of the time, so the current thinking is have a tons of good arms and some will turn into good pitchers. That is why the Indians took those 4 guys. Recall Cliff Lee was nothing special most of his career, but he found himself at the age of 30. He had 2 awful years one ok year and one above average career until 2008. He did not even start in the majors until he was 25. Of those 4 guys chances are fairly solid one is the next Cliff Lee or perhaps just Gil Meche, But I would not wager much on any one of them being the guy.

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  10. Big Oil says:

    I think the MLB Tonight crew pointed this out: 10:1 K/BB ratio in the playoffs. Sweet Mother of Mary.

    What website was it that said not to worry about Mr. Lee at the beginning/middle of this season when it appeared to mainstream outlets that he was “struggling”?

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  11. Shant says:

    The most disgustingly flithy pitched game I’ve seen in a while. Fun to watch, even for a Yankee fan.

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  12. Logan says:

    Okay, this is why I love this site. Articles like these. Incredibly enlightening.

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  13. Evan says:

    To give Fox a little bit of a pass, that first curve that Lee through to Jeter had amazing movement. Its easy to say how good the changeup is in retrospect, but at the time I was completely dazzled by the movement on Lee’s curve as well.

    That said, the change was brutually effective, but everything he was throwing was pretty good.

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  14. gnomez says:

    In defense of Fox, did you SEE that curve at the end of the game? That was one of the filthiest pitches I have ever seen.

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  15. Chris says:

    How did Cliff Lee become Cliff Lee? I remember watching a spring training game in 08 and he was going to be shipped out to the minors if he didn’t pitch good that game. He did and went on to win the CY. Did he add a pitch or is it just a confidence thing. Like was mentioned earlier, Lee was really an average pitcher up to 08…

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  16. verd14 says:

    Cameron great article as usual. A note about your bringing up the FOX network in the article.

    I’m tired of watching the MLB playoffs on mute! Is it just me?

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  17. BW says:

    Agree on the Fox broadcast, and Tim McCarver in general, but the downside to listening on the radio is having to hear the seldom lucid Joe Morgan talk about how 20 ABs is an effective sample size to judge a player’s performance.

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