Cliff Lee is Still Awesome

Last night, Cliff Lee dominated the Dodgers, throwing eight shutout innings, while striking out 10 batters without walking anyone. In other words, it was just your normal Cliff Lee start. For the season, Lee now has 38 strikeouts against two walks; this is just what he does. But just because we’re used to Cliff Lee’s ridiculous command doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember to appreciate it.

Here’s a fun fact you may not know. Since the start of the 2008 season, when Lee underwent his career rebirth, he’s been the most valuable pitcher in baseball, and that doesn’t really change regardless of how you evaluate pitchers.

Here are the top 10 pitchers in FIP-based WAR, since 2008.

Cliff Lee 1,368 38.4
Justin Verlander 1,399 37.7
Felix Hernandez 1,394 33.0
CC Sabathia 1,395 32.3
Zack Greinke 1,235 30.2
Roy Halladay 1,187 30.1
Clayton Kershaw 1,186 28.7
Jon Lester 1,261 28.5
Dan Haren 1,290 25.8
Cole Hamels 1,281 24.7

And here are the top 10 pitchers in RA9-based WAR, since 2008.

Cliff Lee 1,368 38.7
Felix Hernandez 1,394 34.8
Clayton Kershaw 1,186 34.7
Justin Verlander 1,399 34.2
Roy Halladay 1,187 32.7
CC Sabathia 1,395 31.4
Jered Weaver 1,215 30.2
Jon Lester 1,261 28.7
Zack Greinke 1,235 28.4
Cole Hamels 1,281 28.3

By FIP, Lee has a +1 WAR advantage over second place, and a +5 WAR advantage over third place. By RA9, Lee has a +4 WAR advantage over both second and third place. There are a handful of pitchers who haven’t been much worse than Lee over the last six-plus years, but none have matched Lee’s sustained excellence, whether you’re only counting things that pitchers control the most or all the of the outcomes that occur when they are on the mound. For the last six years, Cliff Lee has just been remarkably and consistently awesome.

And he’s showing no signs of decline. When Lee made his big leap forward in 2008, he did it by pounding the strike zone and convincing hitters to chase when he threw pitches out of the zone. That year, Lee was #1 in MLB in Zone% (58%) and #8 in MLB in opponents O-Swing% (33%); through his first five starts in 2014, Lee is #8 in MLB in Zone% (55%) and #9 in MLB in opponents O-Swing% (36%). He’s followed the league wide trend of throwing more pitches out of the zone, but opponents are still going after them, and now, they just don’t make contact.

Here’s the rate of contact opponents have made when they chase Lee’s out-of-zone pitches over his run of dominance. Note the trend.

Season O-Contact%
2008 73%
2009 73%
2010 68%
2011 68%
2012 65%
2013 67%
2014 60%

This isn’t something Lee is exceptional at, as league average contact rate on pitches out of the zone is just 62%, but as Lee has gotten older, he’s sustained his ability to get hitters to swing at bad pitches, while getting better at getting them to swing-and-miss at bad pitches. As a result, Lee is allowing less contact than ever before, even as age has stolen some of his prior velocity. Over the last few years, Lee has seen his velocity slightly tick downwards, but it hasn’t showed up in his performance. At all.

In the first few years of his career rejuvenation, Lee’s dominance was strongly tied to his ability to limit home runs, which isn’t necessarily a skill you want to build your career around. However, as his HR/FB rate has climbed, he’s offset the higher home run rates with higher strikeout rates, and for the first few weeks of 2014, he’s also just stopped walking anyone, ever.

For the first few years of his career, Lee was a pitch-to-contact fly ball guy with a home run problem. It’s easy to still think of him as a pitch-to-contact guy, given his crazy low walk rates and below average velocity, but hitters are making contact against Lee at about the same rate they’re making contact against Chris Archer, Scott Kazmir, Adam Wainwright, and Justin Verlander. Cliff Lee is not a contact pitcher; he’s a strikeout machine who just happens to be a strikeout machine without ever walking anyone, and does it with by getting hitters to stare at pitches on the corners.

With offense trending downwards in baseball, there are a lot of notable pitchers in Major League Baseball, and many of them are young flamethrowers who get our attention in a hurry. But hanging out in the background, doing his usual thing, remains Cliff Lee. He’s not going away. He’s not even getting worse. He’s just taking the ball every fifth day and shutting down opposing line-ups.

It isn’t fair to equate Cliff Lee to the last pitcher we saw just destroy baseball with strikes and groundballs in this same way — Lee is amazing, but he’s not quite Greg Maddux — but Lee’s run since the start of the 2008 season matches up with the best years of nearly every pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Because he got a late start and because the current voting bloc has established a ridiculously high standard for modern pitchers to clear, he probably won’t end up in Cooperstown, but we’re now on Year Seven of Cliff Lee pitching like a guy who belongs. With a reasonable decline over the next few years, Lee’s going to have a fascinating case for induction, and given that Lee isn’t showing any decline right now, it’s not ridiculous to think that he might end up with career totals that give him a legitimate argument.

Cliff Lee, still an ace. Still as good as ever. Still an absolute joy to watch. He might not throw 95 or have any remaining upside, but the young hurlers we’re all in love with can only hope that they’ll have a run as good as the one Lee is currently on.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

49 Responses to “Cliff Lee is Still Awesome”

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  1. Cliff Lee says:

    Thank you.

    +62 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. jruby says:

    Lee is among my baseball heros. I woke up my dad in the middle of the night when the news broke that he was coming back to Philly.

    I was at his game last Tuesday, when he notched a complete game loss, striking out 13 and allowing only an Evan Gattis solo shot into the first row (Julio Teheran was dominant in a different way, striking out only 4 but getting hilariously weak contact all night). I remember looking at the pitch count and seeing something like “71 strikes, 25 balls” or so. Amazing. The best adjective I can think of to describe Cliff is “surgical.”

    And his middle name is Phifer, which is also awesome.

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • nehemiah stauffer says:

      My brother, who lives in LA, woke me at around 1130, with the twitter buzz of Lee coming back. I ended up waking up my wife going nuts about and proceeded to track the news for till like 1 in the morning.

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      • RJ says:

        Even with the $#1tshow in the Bronx he chose wrong, good luck with Philly baseball Mr Lee, you’ll look back fondly on losing two consecutive WS.

        -7 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • You're a dick. says:

          You’re a dick.

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        • Za says:

          Despite the downvotes, I think you’re spot on. Cliff Lee is playing on a losing team and will continue to play for a team with virtually no shot until he gets traded. On a related note, the Phils’ best shot is to trade Lee right now for a massive package. If RA Dickey can bring back Syndergaard and d’Arnaud…

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  3. neastws says:

    Cliff Lee since September 1st, 2013:

    10 GS
    74 IP
    92 K
    3 BB
    6 HR
    1.78 FIP

    31.6% K
    1.0% BB

    +39 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. here goes nothing says:

    opponents not opponent’s. <3 amazing work as always

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  5. someguy says:

    Going to be fascinating if the Phils fall out of the race and ownership gives Amaro the go-ahead to solicit offers.

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  6. Evan says:

    Not a fan of any team he’s been on, but he’s been my favorite pitcher for years. It gets frustrating watching some young flamethrower struggle to find the strike zone, which makes Lee’s incredible command even more appealing. I also think his delivery is one of the more aesthetically pleasing ones in the game, being so compact and efficient.

    But mostly I love how Lee doesn’t even seem to care that much. Like, he thinks baseball’s OK, and he enjoys that he’s really good at it, and winning is fun, but you can tell he mostly just wants to go back to Arkansas and hunt and fish or whatever. He’s made $100 million already, will probably make another 75, but after his Phillies contract I fully expect him to retire, even if he’s still good.

    Also, has any player as good as Lee ever been involved in so many awful trades? Sheesh.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Z..... says:

    One of my favorite pitchers in baseball for a few years now. Never doubted him once…now to read the article

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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Cliff Lee may not walk anyone but he is giving a ton of hits this year, 44 in 35 innings. Is he being hit hard, or are they just dropping in??

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  9. Matt says:

    Does anyone know how serious Lee is when he said he might retire after his current contract ends?

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  10. Phantom Stranger says:

    All of his pitches must come out of the same window, he regularly fools good hitters as they swing through expecting a fastball. His cutter is not quite as dominant as it once was against RHBs, but his great command has gotten even better. He doesn’t even regularly use his curveball, which would be one of the better ones from the left side if he threw it more.

    He’s become Tom Glavine with better raw stuff and a bigger arsenal.

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    • chuckb says:

      He’s considerably better than Glavine was. He hasn’t done it for as long as Glavine, but his peak is much better than Glavine’s.

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  11. Josh says:

    He is my far my favorite pitcher to watch. I just love how he is completely emotionless and puts the ball exactly where he wants it with the exact same delivery every time. Beautiful.

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  12. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I wonder what the odds are that Cliff Lee makes the hall of fame. If he can replicate his 5.1 WAR last year this year and the next and then retires, he’d end up with 56.8 WAR: Just under the 60 WAR threshold, but with some playoff value not being accounted for (I wonder how much in WAR). And there is the chance he doesn’t retire, of course.

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    • hk says:

      The Phillies have a $27.5M option with a $12.5M buyout on Lee for the 2016 season. If he puts up back to back 5.1 WAR seasons in 2014 and 2015, there’s a good chance that they’d sooner pay him $27.5M to pitch in 2016 than pay him $12.5M not to pitch, in which case eclipsing the 60 WAR threshold would become more likely.

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      • Ian R. says:

        Actually, if Lee puts up 5.1 WAR in each of 2014 and 2015, odds are that that $27.5M option will become guaranteed. Per Cot’s, he needs to pitch 400 innings combined in those two years or 200 innings in just 2015 and not end the 2015 season on the DL with a left elbow or shoulder industry.

        Of course, Lee could still retire before the 2016 season, but I find it unlikely he’d just walk away from $27.5M. As long as we’re talking about a Hall of Fame trajectory, it’s quite likely that he’ll pitch that third year.

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    • jruby says:

      I hope he stays around for a really long time. This is his age-35 season, and I feel like – without knowing for sure, statistically – that pinpoint control pitchers age really well (as in, continue to produce with less-than-normal decline as they get to 40). The way we’ve seen voters credit longevity, he may be a sure thing if he sticks around putting up 2-3 win seasons until 39 or 40.

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    • chuckb says:

      I’d say that he has next to no chance to make the Hall. He won’t have the wins, the K’s, or the Cy Youngs that voters like. Hall voters couldn’t care less (most of them) about WAR. He just isn’t sexy enough for the Hall. It’s unfortunate, because he would have a good case if most Hall voters had any clue what they were doing.

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      • Warning Track Power says:

        You’re forgetting that he isn’t going to be on the ballot for almost a decade at the earliest. We will continue to lose old timers that don’t even pay attention to baseball, or know how to analyze a career other than looking for pretty round numbers.

        Lee needs to do a bit more work but he is one of several pitchers who have a valid claim to best pitcher in baseball for at least half a decade, along with Halladay, Sabathia, Verlander, and Hernandez. If you want to look at a pitcher whose Hall chances are dim even though he can credibly be claimed to have been the best pitcher in baseball for a period of at least that length look no further than Johan Santana.

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    • Ian R. says:

      If Lee has three more good years, his career numbers will end up being quite similar in many respects to Roy Halladay’s, and Halladay is generally considered a strong Hall candidate. He does have a Cy Young Award, and he has that “ace” reputation, which will help his case with the writers.

      Lee will probably hit the ballot in 7-8 years, maybe a few more if he decides not to retire at the end of his current contract. That’ll be an interesting test of just how much the electorate has changed in that time – if they’re starting to really understand advanced metrics, he’s in. If not, he’s not.

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  13. squads says:

    I was just thinking about his Hall of Fame case a few days ago. I feel like some players who did not rack up huge numbers but had a shorter stretch of dominance can get a bump. If he can keep this up (and all signs point to him continuing the dominance) for another few years I think he can make his way in. At that point he would have been a top 10 pitcher for nearly 10 years. That has to get some recognition…although as mentioned the current standards are ludicrous.

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  14. Roy Halladay says:

    “destroy baseball with strikes and groundballs in this same way,” sounds familiar.

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  15. Derek Lowe says:

    I wasn’t awesome… my sinkers and command were mediocre.

    At least, I have a PhD from Duke.

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  16. George says:

    How about the Doc Halladay being smack in the middle of both of those lists despite being injured or ineffective for both the 2012 and 2013, and retiring in the offseason.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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