Cliff Lee Revisted Again

Does anyone remember a stranger season in recent memory than the one Cliff Lee is currently putting together? As we’ve covered extensively here, Lee came out of the gates pitching like 1988 Orel Hershiser, dominating opponents with ridiculous performances that seemingly came out of nowhere, but lately, he’s been hit hard and watched his ERA rise significantly – he’s just barely edging out Shaun Marcum for the AL Lead as of today. However, his core performance hasn’t regressed nearly as far. Look at his by month performances:

April: 0.48 BB/9, 7.65 K/9, 0.24 HR/9, 1.80 FIP, .195 BABIP, 81.6% LOB%
May: 2.10 BB/9, 6.55 K/9, 0.52 HR/9, 2.99 FIP, .346 BABIP, 79.7% LOB%
June: 2.20 BB/9, 10.47 K/9, 1.10 HR/9, 2.99 FIP, .437 BABIP, 70.3% LOB%

He got lucky in April, so maybe karma is coming back to haunt him, but really, a .437 batting average on balls in play is not regression to the mean – it’s regression so far past the mean that it can’t even see it with a telescope. It might be tempting to look at Lee’s 5.51 ERA in June and determine that he’s back to being what he always was, but the old Cliff Lee was never a 2 BB/10 K/1 HR pitcher. His core stats from June would fit right in with Johan Santana‘s career line. June is simply not an example of Lee reverting to previous form.

As Lee continues to post months with a FIP below 3.00, we’re going to have to continue to revise our estimate of his true talent level upwards. This is a classic example of why I couldn’t care less about a pitcher’s ERA. His run prevention results of late hide the fact that he just continues to assert that he’s a better pitcher now than he’s ever been.

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

5 Responses to “Cliff Lee Revisted Again”

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  1. NadavT says:

    In your first Cliff Lee post, you said that his underlying pitch data (as shown at didn’t support his drastic improvement in core performance. If he really figured out how to pitch better, we’d probably see a big swing in his pitch data, but at the time his strike percentages were essentially the same as in previous years, indicating that he was just getting better results from the same underlying performance.

    Through May and June, however, his overall pitch data hasn’t really changed — he’s still not missing too many bats and is depending on called strikeouts more than the average pitcher. Does that suggest that his ability to get called strikeouts using precise control is a sustainable skill, or do you still expect his core pitching stats to regress, based on his pitch data?

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  2. Dave Cameron says:

    In the initial post, the performance that was furthest out of line from his pitch data was the walk rate. We have seen regression in the walk rate as expected, but he’s canceled some of the loss there with the jump in strikeout rate. Is it sustainable? Probably not, but as he continues to pitch well, we need to expect the regression to be less severe than earlier.

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  3. Dave, not sure if you mentioned this in one of your previous posts (probably have), but did you notice Lee has turned himself into a groundball pitcher? If anything I think this signals a real change, and I believe GB/FB rates tend to be significant very early on.

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  4. Dave Cameron says:

    Good catch, David. Considering my obsession with GB%, you’d think that would be something I’d have noticed, but it slipped through the cracks. I agree, though, that dramatic changes in GB/FB rates tend to be very indicative of a real change in approach, and it’s definitely a real data point that his GB% has jumped so significantly.

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  5. Tom Au says:

    This is an example of why I give primary weight to FIP (or what I call sabermetric ERA) in judging a pitcher rather than posted ERA. In 2004, Boston’s Derek Lowe had a 5.42 ERA with a FIP around 4.00. So LA’s Paul de Podesta traded for him after his “bad” season, and got a pitcher with a 3.61 ERA in 2005.

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