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Cliff Lee Stands Alone

Posted By Michael Barr On September 26, 2012 @ 11:00 am In Phillies | 50 Comments

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 Baseball-Reference.com, 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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