Cliff Lee Was Everything You Could’ve Wanted

The 2010 Mariners were a dreadful baseball team, and an unexpectedly dreadful baseball team at that. They were designed to be competitive — they should’ve been competitive — and from a fan’s perspective, I’m not sure I’ve witnessed a bigger letdown. It was a difficult season for countless different reasons, but what’s been most upsetting, both now and back at the time, is that the Mariners being terrible cost me the opportunity to watch more Cliff Lee on my favorite team. I knew he was awesome when he was first brought in, but I didn’t appreciate the extent until I got to watch him every five days.

I bring this up because Lee is in the news:

Lee hasn’t officially retired, and you never know when someone might have a change of heart. Yet it’s never been less likely that Lee will return, so I want to take this chance to offer a quick retrospective. Not everyone is deserving of the treatment, because not everyone is equally interesting, but Lee developed into the perfect pitcher. It took him some time, and he’s not going to end up in Cooperstown, but for a good six-year stretch, there was nothing else you could’ve wanted Cliff Lee to be.

He’s a little like a slightly poorer man’s Roy Halladay. Halladay was young, and he had a lot of talent, and then in between his debut and his development, he had to run an ERA over 10. Lee had to run an ERA over 6, but then for both, on the other side of the nightmare, there was perfection. Seemingly permanent perfection, enduring perfection, until there came a sudden end. Everybody gets to an end, but when you’d watch pitchers like Halladay and Lee, that was an easy truth to forget.

I can only really speak to the fan experience. I know that Lee was considered a good leader and a good teammate. I know he was driven, with an almost unmatchable work ethic, and I know he has an outstanding but dry sense of humor. Lee checked off all of those boxes, but at the end of the day, as a baseball fan, you want to watch players that you enjoy watching play. This, to me, is where Lee really stood out.

Lee put it all together in 2008, and he pitched at an elite level for six straight years, through 2013. Over that span, Lee’s age ranged from 29 to 34, and in the whole history of baseball since 1900, Lee ranks sixth among pitchers in WAR between those ages. He comes in a half-win behind Randy Johnson, and a full win above Gaylord Perry. So, most simply, Lee was great — the most important thing for any player is to be great.

Yet Lee had so much more going for him. It was Cliff Lee who really got me thinking about player and pitcher watchability. There are certain things that can make a pitcher more or less of a pleasure to watch, and Lee didn’t just get hitters out — he got them out quickly, efficiently, without messing around. He got them out in droves, and if you ever looked away, you could miss a whole half-inning. The pace of a typical Cliff Lee start just didn’t feel like the pace of almost any other given pitcher.

The Lee model, as near as I can tell:

  1. throw strikes
  2. all the time
  3. and make them good

Lee didn’t invent it himself, but few pitchers are able to follow the blueprint. It requires a certain confidence and precision, and Lee didn’t waver where other pitchers might. One particular indicative Cliff Lee fun fact: between 2008 and 2013, there were 1,141 individual pitcher seasons with at least 100 innings pitched. All six of Lee’s seasons show up in the top 25 in percent of pitches in the strike zone. He was always on the attack, but he still kept himself from being hittable.

He avoided walks, because he always threw strikes. He avoided runs because he always threw good strikes, and that, combined with his frequently being ahead in the count, led to strikeouts. In 2010, Cliff Lee led all of baseball in three-pitch strikeouts. He led baseball again in 2011. He led baseball again in 2012. He led baseball again in 2013. The following is a pretty representative Cliff Lee sequence. This is from September of a few years ago, but it could be from almost any point in the same stretch.

Three pitches, and a good hitter was gone in barely 30 seconds. When players retire, they’re frequently remembered by their highlights. It’s great to see a hitter’s home runs, and it’s great to see a flame-thrower’s fastest fastballs, but with Lee, I don’t think individual pitches really capture the essence. It’s better to see a few in a row, so you can better understand just how in control he was of nearly every game. Everyone who pitches in the majors is fantastic, but Lee truly mastered the craft. It all came together to allow him to have the most valuable fastball in the sport despite underwhelming velocity.

Among starters, during Lee’s peak, he ranked in the top 10 percent in strikeout rate. He ranked in the top one percent in walk rate, and he ranked in the top two percent in ERA-, and for good measure his pace was faster than average. For fun, I created a little statistic that averages all four percentile ranks. Lee comes out at the top, about tied with Halladay and Cole Hamels. There’s a pretty substantial gap between those three and fourth place. On this simple watchability scale, Lee excels, along with two pitchers he was able to call teammates. Everything good is fleeting, but for a time, Phillies fans were atypically blessed. They already knew that, but it’s good to be reminded of the better times.

Better times aren’t what brought Lee to this place, today. He’s just about retired because of injury, and at some point, for every pitcher, the arm will just stop cooperating. I’m sure he would’ve loved to deliver more for the money he was being paid, and this isn’t how anyone wants to go out. The frustration, though, melts away in a hurry once you acknowledge that it’s over. With Cliff Lee, now, it’s all about looking back. And we get to look back upon a pitcher who won’t be a Hall-of-Famer, but who did pitch at a Hall-of-Fame level for six consecutive years. Cliff Lee was about as perfect as a pitcher gets, a man who made it a pleasure to simply watch him go to work.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Chris_from_Bothell
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Chris_from_Bothell
3 months 1 day ago

Thanks for this. As an M’s fan I was very sad to see the news go by this morning.

In addition to what you mentioned about his pace on the mound, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher hustle to and from the mound as fast as he did too. He had genuine and mature intensity, not just the hyped-up macho “grr man face grr” that is a poor substitute for it. Everything about him on the field, from bullpen warmups to performance in-game, just exuded a sense of cold professional detachment that added up to just make him an all-around badass. Like a shark who could throw 92, left-finned, for strikes.

Chris_from_Bothell
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Chris_from_Bothell
3 months 1 day ago

Also just remembered a silly fan-pride moment of yelling out to him after a pregame bullpen session, right before he was traded from the M’s, “Don’t leave us, Cliff! Or if you do, for god’s sake don’t become a Yankee!” and getting a brief smile from him.

Nelson S.
Member
Nelson S.
3 months 1 day ago

Lee and Sizemore are out of the game, Brandon Phillips put up 6.7 WAR or the past 3 years and Bartolo Colon has put up 9.1 War over the same period. And everyone says the Expos lost that trade. Go ‘spos!!

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
Member
3 months 1 day ago

You’re making me all nostalgic Jabronies.

Anybody know where I can get some poutine in St. Lucie?

Dave Stewart
Member
3 months 1 day ago

I can find you all the poutine your jabronies can handle, big guy. St. Lucie or anywhere else they play ball.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
3 months 1 day ago

When are you two getting your buddy cop spin-off greenlit?

AaronC
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AaronC
3 months 1 day ago

To be fair, the Expos are also out of the game.

Westside guy
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Westside guy
3 months 1 day ago

Cliff Lee was so amazing to watch that year (the year he was mostly with the Mariners).

I still remember one game in particular, where he did his usual thing and struck out about 11 guys and walked one (and also the unusual thing happened where he got a win for his trouble). At the end of the game, Jen Muller (IIRC) was interviewing him… and all he would talk about was that single walk!

Les Vegetables
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Les Vegetables
3 months 1 day ago

It’s kind of a shame because Cliff Lee in my eyes is a hall of famer but I doubt he will get in. His career numbers are middling because his career was so short, but from 08-2013 he was without a doubt one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. I have no idea what it was that clicked for him in 2008, but he become a master of the art of pitching practically overnight. He’s another example of a guy who was head and shoulders better than the competition albeit for a limited amount of time who will get penalized for a short career.

K-Man
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K-Man
3 months 1 day ago

Perfectly spotted fastball – Sweeping curve – fantastic change up
What a satisfying sequence to watch
I remember in some games Lee used his fastball variations and changing speeds for multiple innings, only introducing the breaking ball after the second time through the order. When he was on, the command of these pitches was almost robotic.

Ira
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Ira
3 months 1 day ago

Lee was definitely a mesmerizing pitcher. This start, in particular, was frightening in the almost casual dominance you’re talking about:

http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/0/v13791315/phi-wsh-lee-shuts-out-the-nationals-strikes-out-12

MLB Rainmaker
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MLB Rainmaker
3 months 4 hours ago

Doesn’t even break a smile after that…

Ruben Amaro Jr.
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Ruben Amaro Jr.
3 months 1 day ago

Cliff Lee IS worth $150 million.

SomaDaydream
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SomaDaydream
3 months 1 day ago

NEVER FORGET 2009
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tpQZM_tTk8

Since 1900, only 3 pitchers have seasons with 200 or more strikeouts and 30 or fewer walks.

Those pitchers are Cy Young (1904, 1905), Roy Halladay (2010), and Cliff Lee (2012).

That is a fantastically small club and highlights just how great Doc and Lee were.

Lee also has the highest career K% and best career K%-BB% for a phillie.

BEAST. BEAST.

Cory Settoon
Member
3 months 1 day ago

Lee did it with a 8.83 K/9. Halladay had a 7.86 and Young had 4.74 and 5.89 K/9.

Not to mention that from 2010-2013 Lee averaged 213 K’s and 30 BB’s per year.

t
Member
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t
3 months 1 day ago

And he actually put forth real effort when hitting. And that fielding!
http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/0/v7099837/ws-2009-gm1-lee-makes-two-plays-look-easy

Dan25
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Dan25
3 months 20 hours ago

I was expecting that popup catch to be a gif in the article actually.

Love Ryan Howard crossing himself after it also.

dirtbag
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dirtbag
3 months 1 day ago

Here’s what I’ll always remember about Cliff Lee…

I think it was 2010, and I was watching a game on TV with my young daughter. Jon Lester had just struck out someone in a 10-pitch AB. After the AB, they put up the cumulative K-zone box that showed every one of the 10 pitches was just outside the strike zone.

Daughter: “He got him out without every throwing a strike!”

Me: “That’s what great pitchers do — they get you out without ever giving you anything good to hit.”

Later that summer we’re watching Cliff Lee carve up a team. He gets a 5-pitch strikeout, and they put up the cumulative K-zone. Of course, every pitch is in the strike zone.

Daughter: “Dad, I thought you said great pitchers get batters out by not throwing strikes?”

Me: “Yeah, but this is Cliff Lee.”

Josh G
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Josh G
3 months 1 day ago

My favorite Cliff Lee game

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN201204180.shtml

Because

1. Cliff Lee was as usual awesome with his quick pace and 7 Ks to 0 walks
2. He also went 10 shutout innings
3. And the Phils lost anyway, in spite of Cliff Lee’s awesomeness

SomaDaydream
Member
SomaDaydream
3 months 10 hours ago

That game actually epitomized Cliff Lee’s work ethic. He threw 10 shut out innings and ended up going on the DL after the game with an oblique strain. He fought until the end, even when his body wanted to quit.

domxbomb
Member
domxbomb
3 months 1 day ago

why did the phillies trade Lee only to sign him to a huge contract shortly after? what was the point of that given they were contenders? don’t say “Ruben Amaro Jr” what was really the idea there?

SomaDaydream
Member
SomaDaydream
3 months 10 hours ago

Really, RAJ. He thought they didn’t have the money for both Halladay and Lee, so on the same day they traded with the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay, they traded Cliff Lee to the mariners. None of the prospects in that package made a dent at the major league level. Really a terrible trade.

FrancoLuvHateMets
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FrancoLuvHateMets
3 months 21 hours ago

I always think of that Game 1 World Series game vs the Yankees when I think of Lee. Where he just carves them up, and makes 2 plays including that casual behind the back comebacker.

ice_hawk10
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ice_hawk10
3 months 19 hours ago

loved Halladay for all the same reasons. just a merciless strike thrower with a bowling ball sinker and a great cutter that he could locate to both sides of the plate. the combination of command and movement was simply overwhelming most nights. batters didn’t have the luxury of being patient cause Doc would be ahead 0-2 before the batter even knew what happened, and yet he was so difficult to square up that trying to ambush him was like trying to trick a force of nature – it just made no difference.

jruby
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Member
jruby
3 months 10 hours ago

I remember, when Clifton Phifer Lee returned to the Phillies, I woke my dad up in the middle of the night to tell him because I was so excited, and in the morning he couldn’t remember if it was a dream.

If I had to choose one word to describe Lee, it would be “surgical.” He hit the corners with incredible precision, and his strike-to-ball ratio would often be something like 85-25.

My other favorite Cliff Lee moment was when Lee, the pitcher least likely to walk someone, walked J.P. Arencibia, the hiter least likely to walk, because, well, baseball.

mcawesome
Member
mcawesome
3 months 9 hours ago

My favorite Cliff Lee moments?

I remember watching his first Phils start at SF on TV. He threw a CG 4-hitter and missed a HR by about 4 inches off of the CF fence and ended up with a double.

I went to his first start in Philly against Colorado, a 5-1 win in which he gave up a leadoff double to Fowler (who later scored on a SF), and then proceeded to throw 6 shutout innings.

2009 WS Game 1 was incredible, if he could have thrown every game the Phils would have won in 4, he was unstoppable.

Watching him get traded was painful, but I remember where I was when I found out he signed with the Phils in 2011. Every Phillie fan had dreams of another parade, in spite of the prospect of giving Ryan Howard 600 ABs.

He will always be my favorite Phillie and his work ethic and humbleness might have only been matched by Doc.

ballsteidhe
Member
ballsteidhe
3 months 4 hours ago

Oh boy, the days when the Phillies had what everybody thought to be the best rotation ever. Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt, and that Clifton Phifer guy…
Cliff was, to me, even more enjoyable to watch than Halladay. Ever so often, he would flash the slightest of smiles after doing something particularly awesome. Doc was a little too robotic in my eyes, and Cliff showed just the right amount of joy for the game.
There were just too many incredible games he pitched to name a single one, so I’m gonna give you Cliff Lee hitting a homerun at Dodger stadium and having some fun with his fellow pitchers back in the bullpen afterwards: http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/6479266/v17855863/philad-lee-belts-his-second-homer-of-the-season

Jon L.
Member
2 months 29 days ago

I always felt a sinking dread when the team I was rooting for faced Cliff Lee. You had to watch, because otherwise you’d miss seeing him pitch. But against any other pitcher, there were moments of hope – a couple guys on base, a good hitter in a good count… Something! But against Cliff Lee, hope mostly just hurried back to the bench.

No-No
Member
No-No
2 months 29 days ago

My Favorite Cliff Lee moment wasn’t a moment per se, but a month of some of the most dominant pitching the game has ever seen in the modern era. In June of 2011 Lee made 5 starts. In those starts Lee pitched 41 innings, completed 3 games and allowed just 1 ER. He went 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA. His slash against was .151/.197/.173.

In August of the same year Lee did it again, just not quite as stunning numerically. Lee started 5 games going 5-0 with a 0.45 ERA in 39.2 innings. He allowed 2 runs in one game that month, but that was it. That game he allowed the only HR in his 10 June/August starts. His slash against was up from June, but a still remarkable .173/.231/.211.

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