According to MLBAM classifications (with the help of Dave Allen’s reclassification algorithm), Cliff Lee has thrown six distinct pitches this season: four-seam fastball (FF), two-seam fastball (FT), cut fastball (FC), changeup (CH), curveball (CU), and slider (SL). Classifications of sliders and cutters tend to get mixed up especially if they have similar speeds. However, Lee does throw the slider much more frequently against LHH than RHH while using the cutter around 20% of all pitches to either batter, so, in this case, we’re assuming that he does throw a slider no matter how rarely he uses it.
His new cut fastball may be his most important pitch now, as he used it on 20% of all pitches this season compared to 6% of all pitches in 2008, his Cy Young-winning season. But what does Lee typically throw on the first pitch? Which pitch does Lee use when he’s in trouble in a three-ball count? What about his out pitch when he’s at two strikes? Take a look at his pitch selection against right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters based on the count situation:
Clearly, Lee approaches right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters differently when working the count, as there are a few interesting tidbits to note here. First, look at the fastball distribution. Lee’s two-seam fastball tails away from right-handed hitters more than his four-seam fastball does, so it makes sense that he uses two-seamers more than twice as much as four-seamers against RHH. Against LHH, the opposite occurs: he uses the four-seamer more than twice as much as the two-seamer.
The cut fastball distribution by count is relatively similar, except Lee doesn’t like to use his cutter against RHH when the batter is ahead in the count. The splits for the breaking balls are very interesting, in that Lee uses his changeup almost exclusively for right-handed hitters while utilizing his rarely used slider only against left-handed hitters. Looking at the count situation, does it surprise anybody that Lee’s curveball is one of his favorites to use as an out pitch? He rarely uses the curveball unless he has two strikes and/or he is ahead of the batter in the count. In fact, 78% of all of his curveballs are thrown precisely in two-strike situations.
What about Lee’s plate discipline statistics by pitch type? Let’s glean what information we can get from these splits and suggest why Lee chooses to throw certain pitches in different count situations:
We just found the reason why Lee rarely throws his changeup rarely against LHH: left-handed hitters have not whiffed on his changeup all year while putting 35% of them into play. Granted, Lee only threw 17 changeups against LHH all year, so there is the sample size issue we should keep mind of. But this is clearly a case where Lee chooses not to use a pitch because it is ineffective against left-handed hitters. Similarly, Lee has only thrown four sliders against right-handed hitters all season. That should be self-explanatory.
The curveball splits are very interesting. 18% of RHH whiffed on curveballs, while only 7% of LHH did. However, it was more difficult for LHH to put curveballs into play (7%) than RHH (17%), probably because only 25% of LHH swung at curveballs (compared to 51% of RHH). For some reason, Lee wasn’t able to locate the strikezone with his curveball particularly well against LHH, but that may be intentional for all we know. Again, drawing information from a left-handed pitcher’s breaking-ball usage against left-handed hitters is hazardous because of the sample size — Lee threw fewer than 100 breaking balls against LHH all season.
Still, the most compelling trend is the uniformity of cutter usage no matter the count or the batter. Look for Lee to distribute his cut fastball usage evenly in today’s World Series Game One start. At the same time, his curveball rarely appears, but when it does, he uses it on two-strike counts or when he’s ahead in the count, so keep watch of what pitch Lee uses tonight to induce swinging third strikes.