I don’t know if you can really understand until he’s yours. You might’ve forgotten, but Cliff Lee pitched for the Mariners once, and while I knew Lee was an ace starter beforehand, it wasn’t until I watched him every five days that I really “got” it. Lee was perfect. He wasn’t and isn’t the best starting pitcher in the world, but he’s close, and he does everything perfectly, just like you’d want him to. He’s always pitching in the strike zone, so he doesn’t get himself in trouble. He works quickly, which is refreshing, and his command is as good as anyone’s. Because of the zone work, Lee doesn’t issue walks, and because of the command and the quality of the stuff, Lee manages to rack up the strikeouts. Lee’s quick and always ahead in the count, and if you’ve had the chance to watch him and root for him, you know the way that I feel. When Lee isn’t pitching, you wish that he were.
Lee, then, is a superior form, a rare form, and he shouldn’t be the subject of many comparisons. Certainly, you wouldn’t expect to see his name linked to that of a right-handed young starter with basically two pitches. In terms of scouting reports, Cliff Lee and Shelby Miller don’t have a whole lot in common, aside from the fact that they throw baseballs at guys in equipment. But when you look at the processes, when you look at the results, Miller’s following in the right footsteps from a very young age.
I mean, you could make this really easy if you wanted to. Lee, this year, has got a 66 ERA- and an 81 xFIP-. Miller, this year, has got a 63 ERA- and an 82 xFIP-. Bam, that simple! Article finished! Article not finished, although you already know where it’s going. If you care only about general ideas, and not at all about details, then you’ve read as much as you need to.
Lee’s been interesting, in that he’s long run good strikeout rates without missing an extraordinary number of bats. The rate of contact has never been bad, but Lee’s been generating more strikeouts than you might think. He’s up to it again in 2013, with a below-average contact rate but an above-average strikeout rate. League-wide, there’s a strong correlation between the two statistics, just like you’d think, and you can plot them to try to come up with a simple “expected strikeout rate.”
We find Cliff Lee comfortably above the best-fit line. We find Shelby Miller more comfortably above the same best-fit line. Lee ranks sixth in baseball in the difference between actual K% and expected K% based just on contact. Miller ranks first, striking out well more than a quarter of batters instead of the expected fifth. There are a variety of reasons for why a pitcher might deviate from the line, but with Lee and Miller both, the key is the way they pitch so aggressively.
It’s relentless strike-throwing, is what it is. Lee’s got baseball’s highest strike rate, and Miller’s in ninth out of 133. Lee’s got baseball’s fourth-highest zone rate, and Miller’s in 11th. Just on these two numbers, Miller isn’t meaningfully different from, say, Kevin Slowey, but Miller’s more able to miss bats, which is what allows him to pitch so aggressively without getting burned.
I’m going to use some numbers available at StatCorner. The site tracks pitches thrown ahead in the count, behind in the count, and even. “Ahead” counts are 0-and-1, 0-and-2, 1-and-2, and 2-and-2. “Behind” counts are 1-and-0, 2-and-0, 3-and-0, and 3-and-1. “Even” counts are 0-and-0, 1-and-1, 2-and-1, and 3-and-2. Here’s a table:
Miller and Lee both have worked in advantageous counts well more than the average. And there are other ways of looking at this, which we’re going to do below, because why not? As long as we’re looking at information that seldom gets eyes, we might as well present a lot of it.
This year, 128 pitchers have started at least ten games. Using Baseball-Reference, I ranked them in descending order of rate of plate appearances ending with the pitcher ahead. I know that’s kind of a mouthful, but it’s a simple concept, and here’s the very top of the list:
- Shelby Miller, 42.4%
- Cliff Lee, 42.0%
How about the rate of plate appearances that get to an 0-and-2 count? No better count for a pitcher than an 0-and-2 count. The very top of the list, again:
- Phil Hughes, 28.9%
- Cliff Lee, 28.5%
- Shelby Miller, 27.3%
Hughes’ inclusion shows that the correlation between this and success isn’t perfect, but maybe Hughes has been doing better than his ERA would suggest. Or maybe he’s just been making molehills out of mountains. Finally, how about plate appearances that get to two-strike counts? The very top of the list:
- Shelby Miller, 65.6%
- Cliff Lee, 60.4%
This is a big one. Baseball-Reference appears to have searchable count data going back to 1988. Let’s run that same query for 1988-2013, looking at individual pitcher seasons with at least ten games started. Rate of plate appearances that get to two-strike counts:
- 2013 Shelby Miller, 65.6%
- 1999 Pedro Martinez, 63.6%
- 2001 Randy Johnson, 62.9%
- 1995 Randy Johnson, 61.7%
- 1991 Nolan Ryan, 61.5%
Miller has made a habit of getting himself into two-strike counts, doing so two-thirds of the time someone comes to the plate. This is the highest rate in at least recent history for a starting pitcher, and though these counts are happening a little more often with strikeout rates on the rise, two-strike counts are lethal, and Miller is finding them. Miller is earning them, and Miller is thriving as a consequence.
I know this post has been heavy with numbers, even for FanGraphs. I know it’s easier on the eyes and easier on the mind to look at some stills and some .gifs, and I flirted with the idea of adding some Miller .gif porn just because. But I’ll stick with the stat porn, and let it stand on its own. Shelby Miller doesn’t have Cliff Lee’s command, and one of the reasons Miller gets into so many deep counts is because, relative to Lee, he’s a bit harder to hit. So he gets deeper in terms of both strikes and balls. But if you thought a Miller/Lee comparison would be outlandish, at least by the numbers it makes a lot of sense. They both know where the zone is, and they know how to stay within it. They have the confidence in their stuff to be aggressive, and the confidence is justifiable. Shelby Miller isn’t Cliff Lee. No one is Cliff Lee. But Miller’s close enough to feel like a daydream.
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