I’m Tired of the “Next Cliff Lee” Posts

Cliff Lee had, by all accounts, a fantastic 2008 season en route to a Cy Young Award. What made his performance more remarkable was how he seemingly came out of nowhere, a back end of the rotation type of pitcher without any history of complete and utter dominance. Unfortunately, his success last season also paved the way for a wide array of speculation with regards to which pitcher will repeat such a turnaround this season.

Double unfortunately, many of those doing the speculating lack some sort of uniform criteria, leading to several names being floated that realistically fail to match the exactitudes of Lee’s season.

Pitchers like Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson and Chad Billingsley are mentioned the most often. All three of these righties have been dominant in April but do not really have that “Cliff Lee” feel in that they are fairly recently removed from prospect status. Lee experienced a bit of success in the majors for several seasons before an injury plagued 2007 and a dominant 2008; guys like Greinke, Johnson and Billingsley simply do not fit that bill.

Greinke suffered from depression early in his career, rebounded for a very stellar 2008 campaign and has allowed just one unearned run in four starts this season. That doesn’t place him in the same category as Lee. Greinke isn’t a non-descript pitcher suddenly becoming an ace but rather an ace in the making living up to his potential. The same can be said for Billingsley, whom many have been high on for over two years now. Johnson looked dominant before injuries got the best of him so he, too, does not belong in such conversations.

If people are really looking to try and find the “next Cliff Lee” they need to include back end pitchers with a smidgeon of success in their past who have looked solid so far. Someone like Wandy Rodriguez comes to mind. If Rodriguez finishes this season with incredible numbers then his season would have a similar feel to Lee’s. Looking for someone to replicate what Lee did goes beyond someone posting incredible numbers who is not an established ace like Johan Santana or Roy Halladay and too many analyses are failing to make this distinction.

Case in point, speculating on which pitchers are going to have breakout seasons and cement themselves as horses capable of carrying a team is fine… just do not label such speculations as searching for the next Cliff Lee. Or if such a label is involved, make sure the pitchers being discussed are actually in the same category as Lee and not just young pitchers coming into their own.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

22 Responses to “I’m Tired of the “Next Cliff Lee” Posts”

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  1. vivaelpujols says:

    Their better than the guy who though Jarrod Washburn was the next Cliff Lee.

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  2. Joe says:

    Well, I actually did this very thing in regards to Greinke. But it could be due more to the fact that Lee came out and had a really great season, when he hadn’t one of those. Although, Lee did have a good one already. Plus, both Lee and Greinke have experienced things mentally–though different–and bounced back (in Greinke’s case, a far different case, and much longer to go in the season to solidify a great year).

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  3. Joe says:

    Not to mention, being *dominant* early, in the following year, has something to do with it I’m sure

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  4. Steve says:

    Kevin Millwood is the new Cliff Lee

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  5. KingKirkpatrick says:

    Zack Greinke is the new Greg Maddux

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  6. Terminator X says:

    Cliff Lee is the new Esteban Loaiza.

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  7. dan says:

    Eric is the next Billy Beane.

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  8. R M says:

    Eric Siedman is the new Scrooge. Bah, Humbug!

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  9. Brian A. says:

    Wandy’s been showing steady gains for a few years now. One could point to the numbers and say they saw Wandy coming whereas the same could not be said of the current Cliff Lee or the Cliff Lee before him, Chris Carpenter.

    The best candidate so far might be Gil Meche. Though he too has been showing steady and well-documented gains and wouldn’t be coming completely out of nowhere, Meche, like Lee and Carpenter before him and unlike Rodriguez, has in the early going shown a sharp increase in strikeouts, a sharp decrease in walks, and, perhaps most telling of all, a sharp increase in groundball rate. It’ll be interesting to see how the season plays out but right now he’s got potential Cliff Lee written all over him.

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  10. lester bangs says:

    To truly find “this year’s Cliff Lee” you have to grab a name of someone left for dead, as Lee was in March 2008. No one expected anything. So Wandy doesn’t fit, Meche doesn’t fit, certainly the Greinke, Johnson, Billingsley crew doesn’t fit either. Millwood or Washburn, at least, would qualify as possible answers.

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    • Brian A. says:

      If you’re looking for the full Cliff Lee package—left for dead, coming out of nowhere, drastic changes in observable skill set—Meche fails on the first two fronts, but Millwood and Washburn fail on the third. The difference between Meche and Lee is that while Meche underwent his transformation over the course of 3+ seasons, Lee did the whole thing overnight.

      To echo Jay below, there might not be a Cliff Lee this year, next year, or the year after that. The beauty of the Cliff Lee is that by the time it hits you, it’s too late. Okay, maybe that’s a bit misleading. You probably knew something was up in early May when he had twenty strikeouts for every walk.

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  11. Po says:

    Washburn is going to be interesting. Really any FB pitcher in Seattle is going to be interesting for a while.

    Washburn’s BABIP on fly balls currently sits at .083 the AL fly ball BABIP currently sits at .144. In fact the entire Seattle pitching staffs BABIP on fly balls is .119. If Mariner pitchers can keep it in the park that sexy defense is going to get to a ton of them.

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  12. Pat says:

    I understand why all the comparisons tick people off. I’m tired of people saying Zach Greinke was going to break out this season, as if last year’s performance wasn’t good enough.

    Finding an out of nowhere ace is always a huge accomplishment, but usually you just can’t predict it. Laugh it up, but I think a good candidate is Zach Duke. He’s had success in the majors before, then struggled badly and fell off the map. This year, he looks like a whole different pitcher mentally and physically. He has limited stuff, but if he can keep going at the rate he is now, 10-15 wins and an ERA under 4 is possible, and that’s light years better than anyone expected out of him.

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    • lester bangs says:

      Totally agree – the call for a “breakout” after the breakout happens is very annoying. It’s too late to call for a Greinke breakout, or a Billingsley breakout, or even a Pelfrey breakout. It’s happened. Move onward.

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    • Daniel says:

      I think Zach Duke IS breaking out, but he was a pretty darn good prospect in his own right, though not quite on the level of Greinke and Billingsley. Duke, too, is only a few years removed from prospect-status.

      Let’s go deeper… how about ‘Matt Palmer is the next Cliff Lee’? He did his toiling in the minors. Or a personal hope… “Dave Bush is the next Cliff Lee.” This one I could actually see. He had flashes of brilliance in 2005, aided by a 4:1 K/BB ratio, but has often relied on being ‘effectively wild’, which to me is rarely that effective. If he can keep the HRs down and continue to limit the walks, Bush could put together some very nice numbers on the season. He is currently at 3.74 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 38:11 K/BB through 8 starts. And he’s 3-0, which doesn’t hurt.

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  13. Jay says:

    It is kind of funny in that one of the great pleasure of the game is that it constantly is showing us stuff we didn’t expect, a sequence of events that we’ve rarely or never seen before.

    I don’t know when we saw the LAST Cliff Lee, before Cliff Lee, but I don’t expect to see the next one anytime soon. I expect to see something I didn’t expect, instead.


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  14. Alex says:

    I wrote about the “next Cliff Lee” this preseason and the guys I can up with were Jeremy Bonderman and Kevin Millwood. Good career K/BB rates, previous success, never really a stud, a couple of tough (injury plagued) years. Millwood is working out pretty well so far. We’ll have to see about Bonderman. Kyle Davies is also emerging as a potential Cliff Lee like breakout since adding his cutter.

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  15. gp says:

    Come on, people, get a grip. Why so much snark? “Who is the next Cliff Lee?” means “Who is the pitcher who has a really good season and wins this year’s Cy Young?” Period. There is nothing in the question that intimates to me that the guy’s career path has to mirror Lee’s.

    Same this with the “who is this year’s Rays?” question. All it means is “what team that we didn’t expect to make it goes far this year?”

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    • kris says:

      I think that’s why people are complaining. If you want to know who’s going to be the most improved pitcher, ask it! Want to know who’s going to be the most improved team, ask it!

      A lot people are fed up with taking an accomplishment and immediately diminishing it by asking “who will it happen to this year1?!?!” The reason why Cliff Lee, and the Rays were awesome was because it doesn’t happen every year.

      I know i’m pretty fed up. I’m a simple man, with a simple understanding of life. Where I come from, if you want a question answered, you ask the question. You don’t go warping it with recent references for no damn good reason.

      I can’t wait until CNN starts asking “WHO WILL BE THE NEXT, FIRST, BLACK PRESIDENT?!?!”

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  16. canvas says:

    hat doesn’t place him in the same category as Lee. Greinke isn’t a non-descript pitcher suddenly becoming an ace but rather an ace in the making living up to his potential. The same can be said for Billingsley, whom many have been high on for over two years now.cheap airline tickets discount plane ticket

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