Cliff Lee Stands Alone

I’m not exactly sure how Major League Baseball players feel about fame, but you can probably guess what they think about infamy. You want to leave your mark because of your greatness, not because of some asterisk or fluke or memorable gaffe.

Cliff Lee is a fine pitcher. Fine like diamonds, not like, say, a Subaru Justy. He’s been among the elite starting pitchers going on five straight seasons. And he’s is making history this season. But probably not the way he wants to.

I doubt that the recording of the win and reliance on ERA were the genesis of sabermetrics. But a lot of what exists here — both in the statistic and narrative format — is because of a disdain for traditional measures of what supposedly makes a pitcher good.

But allow me to depart from that for a moment, because Lee is accomplishing something that’s rarely seen: He’s been a dominant pitcher without earning many wins this year. It’s not that I like the win any more than anyone else, I just like the significance of the anomaly that we’re seeing.

As you probably know, Lee has just six wins on the season. But he has a 3.18 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, a 24.4%K rate, a 8.86 K/9 rate and a 1.13 WHIP. He’s thrown 198 innings, given up 196 hits and struck out 195 batters. That’s pretty good.

His 4.8 WAR ties him with Zack Greinke and Yu Darvish. It’s just a hair behind Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, and just a tad ahead of the likes of Johnny Cueto, David Price, R.A. Dickey,and Stephen Strasburg. The average number of wins of the top 10 in WAR (sans Lee) is 16.

Lee has been so good in every way you would want a starting pitcher to be good. And looking at the leaderboard, his record sticks out like Ron Paul at Comicon.

Just how unique is Lee’s season? Using the inherently wonderful tools at, I looked at starting pitchers who qualify for the ERA title, have six wins or fewer and have a K/9 rate of 8.5 or better. I found three pitchers: Bud Norris twice (2011 and 2012), Andy Benes (1994) and Lee.

If we take out strikeouts and focus on pitchers with 3.20 ERA or lower who tallied six or fewer wins, we get John Dopson and Joe Magrane in 1988, Jose DeLeon in 1991 and Fred Glade in 1905.

But if we look for pitchers with a 3.20 ERA or less, a K/9 rate of 8.5 or more and six or fewer wins, there’s Cliff Lee — all alone. He could be the only player to pull it off.

What’s particularly interesting is he can even win another game and still be the king of Fantastic-Pitchers-Who-Can’t-Win Island. And if he wins eight games? He joins Curt Schilling (2003) and Nolan Ryan (1987). That’s some interesting company.

There will no doubt be talking heads who refer to Lee and his inability to pitch just well enough to win. It probably doesn’t matter if he wins six or if he’d won 10. The season has been weird enough to deposit him right there in that steaming heap of hogwash.  But for Lee’s part, I hope he gets two more starts. And I hope he wins both, just so he can have some company to share his misery.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

50 Responses to “Cliff Lee Stands Alone”

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  1. MrKnowNothing says:

    the gif made this post

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  2. sam says:

    I was at a game earlier this year where Charlie left Lee in too long, costing him a W. I wonder how many other games Charlie has cost him (though, of course, the Phils bullpen could have easily blown the lead as well, but in that case, it was obvious Lee was tiring, and a fresh arm would have been much better).

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    • hk says:


      I think that there are at least two games in addition to the one that you mention where better management (bullpen or otherwise) could have led to Lee (and the Phillies) getting a W. They are:

      1. Lee’s first start of the year at Pittsburgh. If Charlie had used Papelbon for a 4-out save, there’s a chance that Lee and the Phillies would have won that game.

      2. Lee’s 10 shut-out inning effort at SF. If Charlie had pinch-hit either Polanco or Mayberry instead of Thome vs. LHP Javier Lopez with a runner on 3rd and 1 out in the 11th, there’s a chance that Lee and the Phillies would have won that game.

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      • Spoilt Victorian Child says:

        Dodgers, June 5th. Manuel leaves him in to bat in the bottom of the 7th at 105 pitches. Gets two put-outs at third base in the top of the 8th before finally giving up two runs on a double by Elian Herrera. (He had allowed two total baserunners in his first seven innings.) It was one of the most incredible managerial performances I’ve ever seen, and I got to witness it in person.

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  3. Hole Camels says:

    If the Phils had a healthy Howard all season, Clifton would be a 20 game winner. One bad achilles keeping this team out of the playoffs.

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  4. jj says:

    A couple other things that make this even more interesting to me:
    1) he is going to have more starts than most of the guys you mention
    2) his team is .500 and they are middle of the pack in runs.
    3) he averages 7IP/GS which I bet is higher than most SP in the league as well as those in your comparison.

    It would be interesting to see his ERA+ compared to the others to adjust for league scoring.

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  5. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Cliff Lee went 14-8 one year with a 5.43 ERA, more hits than innings pitched, gave up lot’s of HR’s and BB’s. It’s kind of like the bullet line drive getting caught and a blooper falling in for a double, random baseball action determines outcomes. (win/loses in this case)

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  6. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Everyone else on the rotation has an unsurprising record in relation to their performance. It’s as though Cliff has shouldered all the bad luck for lot of them. I hope Cole takes him out for steak now and again.

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  7. therood says:

    The world can’t have enough Subaru Justy references.


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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    In 1987 Nolan Ryan led the league in ERA and strikeouts but went 8-16. I’m not sure this type of seaon is all that uncommon?

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    • TKDC says:

      Something similar happened 25 years ago, so it isn’t uncommon?

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      • Hurtlockertwo says:

        The title of the article is “Cliff Lee stands alone”. I guess he doesn’t.

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      • Michael Barr says:

        HL2, to recap: no other pitcher in MLB History has had a 3.20 ERA or better, a K/9 rate of 8.5 or better and only won six games. Even if he wins 7, he is alone. It’s only if he wins his next two starts that he joins Schilling and Ryan.

        It’s trivia, really. But interesting anyway.

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      • Hurtlockertwo says:

        Matt Cain 2007, 2008. Good numbers, Good pitcher, losing record.

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    • Cliff says:

      You should be

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    • philosofool says:

      While I find your reasoning specious, it’s interesting how many losses Ryan took that year. What sort of putrid offense to you have when you lose twice as many games as you win while sporting the best ERA in baseball?

      At least in Lee’s case, he’s 6-8 with most of his starts being no decisions. I would have thought this was partly a usage thing, with Ryan having a large number of complete games. Turns out he only pitched 211 innings that year.

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  9. Ian G. says:

    For a while I was wondering if Lee would finish with more WAR than wins. I suppose a reliever could have a season like that, but I imagine it’s practically impossible over the course of a full season for a starting pitcher to be that unlucky/good.

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  10. JayT says:

    I don’t get the Ron Paul at “Comicon” [sic] reference. I’m not a Ron Paul supporter, but I do go to Comic-Con, and a large part of his views would fit right in with that crowd.

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    • LTG says:

      But he would *look* out of place in his tailored suit.

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    • philosofool says:

      A lot of Ron Paul’s views are held by a lot of Americans actually. (For example, the War on Drugs is stupid and should be ended.) I think he’s unfairly painted as a radical because his views don’t fit either party well, not because they’re all unpopular or crazy. I’m not a supporter of his, but I think he deserves more credit than he gets. I also wish our American media and political system were better at understanding people who don’t fit in ready made boxes and promoted more diversity of opinion, instead of a toe-your-party’s line perspective according to which, for example, your some sort of nut if you believe globe is warming AND that universal health care is a bad idea. Politics isn’t baseball people, it’s not about rooting for Team Donkey or Team Elephant. Am I digressing?

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      • LTG says:

        Yes, yes you are. But I take it that Paul is an eccentric not because of the particular policies he endorses but rather the justification he provides for those policies. Whether this is why he is painted as an eccentric I don’t know.

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  11. Phantom Stranger says:

    Some of the losses fall on Cliff’s head. He would typically dominate for the first five or six innings, only to start giving up gopher balls the third time through the lineup. His cutter used to be a premier plus pitch to RHBs, but all too often now he’ll throw one that doesn’t cut and gets smacked for extra bases. He’s probably the first pitcher in the history of the game that throws too many strikes.

    Saying that, he did receive awful bullpen management by Manuel and the offense was putrid in most of his starts. He was simply left in too many games past the point where his stuff was losing effectiveness.

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    • KM says:

      Its tough to put the blame on Manuel for bullpen management… They just plain didn’t have guys in the bullpen who could get out for most of the year. Papelbon has been solid, but other than that it was Russian roulette.

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      • hk says:

        No, it’s actually easy to put blame on Manuel for bullpen management. There have been at least 5 games this year that the Phils led in the 8th inning and that they would have had a better chance of winning if he was willing to use Papelbon to escape the 8th and either go for a 4 or 5 out save or escape the 8th and let someone else close. This situation occurred in the 2nd and 3rd games of the season in Pittsburgh, a game in which they led Atlanta 12-7 in the 8th, a game a few weeks later in Washington, the first game of the recent series at Houston and a few other times that I cannot recall the specific situations. The team also lost a number of extra inning road games while Charlie left his best reliever in the ‘pen. Now, I get that using Papelbon in extra inning road games would not have ensured that the Phils won those games, but it at least would have increased their chances of getting one more inning to score a run. All of this because Charlie wanted to save Papelbon for 3-run lead saves and for games later in the year. If Charlie had understood that wins in April are as important as wins in September, they might be playing for something right now instead of playing out the string. To bring this situation full circle back to the point of this article, on May 14, Charlie used Papelbon to close out a 4 run lead over the Houston Astros. Since Papelbon was also used on May 12 and May 13, he was not available to save the May 15 game in which Cliff Lee pitched 8 innings and gave up 1 run. Instead, Chad Qualls blew the 2 run lead and the Phils eventually won in extra innings, but Cliff Lee did not get the win.

        Further, it was not just Charlie’s misuse or lack of use of Papelbon that cost the Phils this year. His unwillingness to employ platoon advantages – I’m not sure if that is the correct term for using LHP’s to face LHB’s and RHP’s to face RHB’s – also hurt the team. The most recent example of this also occurred in the first game of the Houston series when he let Aumont face a LHB while Diekmann was ready, then after Houston took the lead, left Diekmann in to face a RHB while De Fratus was ready. What’s worse is that, after that game, Charlie explained to the media that Aumont was gassed from being used in the past 2 or 3 games and that he was saving Horst to be his long man in case he needed a long man. So, in summary, he used a tired reliever and a lesser LHP in a game the team was winning, so that he could save a more effective reliever for extra innings in case his team blew the lead.

        Yes, while the Phillies bullpen outside of Papelbon was below average to bad this year, the manager’s mismanagement helped make it so, hurt the team and is part of the reason that Cliff Lee stands alone.

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  12. Jon Heyman says:

    The problem with Cliff Lee is he doesn’t know how to pitch to the score. Sure, the guy can pitch 10 shutout innings in a 0-0 game, but what good is that? When your team is getting shut out, you have to put negative runs on the board. The next player to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Jack Morris, understood that simple truth. Nobody was better at being on the right side of a 12-8 game. Jack Morris was a winner. Cliff Lee is not.

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  13. J says:

    Another way to sum this up–In 2012, Cliff Lee became the first starting pitcher have a higher SO/BB ratio (7.39) than amount of wins (6)

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