The Greatness of Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee spent the first month of the season on the disabled list, not making his season debut until April 30th. While most starting pitchers have already started 11 or 12 games this season, Lee has started just seven. And he still leads all American League pitchers in Wins Above Replacement.

211 batters faced, 4 walks. 71 percent of the pitches he has thrown have been strikes. 69 percent of the batters to step in against him have seen a first pitch strike. Since the start of the 2008 season, he’s walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings. No one in baseball has better command than Lee.

Unlike a lot of guys who pound the strike zone, Lee has swing and miss stuff. His fastball isn’t overpowering, but his change-up is devastating, his curveball is a knockout pitch, and everything is located perfectly. He lives in the strike zone, and yet, he’s still gotten a swinging strike on 8.9 percent of his pitches this year. He’s 9th in the American League in K/9, ahead of high powered strikeout machines Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.

If his season ended today, it would be only the fourth time in major league history that a pitcher had posted a K/BB ratio over 12 in a season with at least 50 innings. Dennis Eckersley did it twice (1989 and 1990), while Mariano Rivera did it in 2008, but of course, they both pitched out of the bullpen.

Inspired by the ridiculous performance Lee has had so far this year, I set out to try and find the best stretch of seven starts, using walks and strikeouts as the criteria, by other pitchers in recent memory. Here’s the best two that I came up with:

Curt Schilling, May 3rd to June 3rd, 2002: 52 IP, 2 BB, 70 K
Pedro Martinez, August 8th to September 9th, 2000: 51 IP, 3 BB, 64 K

Not surprisingly, those are two of the best pitching seasons in the history of the game. Lee’s numbers from this seven start stretch don’t quite match up, but that he’s even in the discussion is a testament to how well he’s pitching. While he might not have the track record of Johan Santana or the fastball of C.C. Sabathia, it’s hard to argue that there’s a better left-handed pitcher alive than Cliff Lee right now.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


38 Responses to “The Greatness of Cliff Lee”

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  1. Laputian says:

    Just curious if I missed something but, “If his season ended today, it would be only the fourth time in major league history that a pitcher had posted a K/BB ratio over 10 in a season with at least 50 innings.” made me wonder why Ben Sheets in 2006 doesn’t apply.

    He finished at 10.55 K/BB in 106 IP.

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  2. Creek Johnson says:

    Aren’t K% and BB% better measures for pitchers than K/9 and BB/9 since pitchers face a different number of hitters every game?

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    • Creek Johnson says:

      Whoa, I just realized I read that in an article you wrote called “Evaluating Pitching Talent”.

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    • philosofool says:

      They’re better measures than K/9 and BB/9, but the two end up being very tightly correlated over any long period of time. The difference is like the difference between xFIP and FIP over the course of the season–it’s a small difference. I strongly prefer % myself and I’ve often wished that fangraphs would mover over to that statistic, but really this is a matter of preference and the per 9 stats have gotten enough traction that it’s a small matter. People like to point out that you could have 27k/9 and still allow a lot of base runners with walks, but you can’t have 100% K rate and walk a batter.

      Hardball Times used to carry a stat that was K/G, which the calculated as K% times league average batters per 9 innings, so the number came out to the familiar sizes of K/9 but was only a representation of %. That was my favorite.

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      • Newcomer says:

        Maybe they can start to add in some alternative stats to the dashboard options, other than the ones they list on the sections of the player pages. That would be a good way to keep from cluttering while offering more options.

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  3. Steve C says:

    Brett Saberhagen in 94

    From 5/5 to 6/13

    58IP / 2BB / 49K

    Of course he also gave up 24 runs and 61 hits.

    Up until the strike he had a K/BB of 11 through 177 innings.

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  4. Gregg says:

    Aumont, Gilles, Ramirez and $9 million. Sigh.

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  5. KG says:

    An argument could be made for Lester over Lee, I suppose.

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  6. Scott Batura says:

    Hey Dave,

    It would be helpful if you would put Lee’s line in there with Shilling and Martinez’s. Hard to make a comparison without searching around.

    Thanks

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  7. Temo says:

    In June and July of 1995, Greg Maddux went 51 straight innings without allowing a walk, giving him an infinite K:BB ratio.

    It was the best summer of baseball I’ve ever watched as a Braves fan.

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  8. I got to watch Lee quite a bit when he came to Philly. As a Delaware resident, I never got to see him much when he was out on the Mistake On The Lake. My original impression of him, without looking at the numbers, was that he ‘got lucky’ with his Cy Young, and benefited from a high win total. Boy was I wrong. Cliff Lee is a pleasure to watch. It’s like watching someone pitch how they’re supposed to.

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  9. algionfriddo says:

    Seattle appears to be going nowhere and that will likely be more clear in 10 days or so. Lee has no interest in resigning with Seattle. The Mariners will trade him this season to a contender. The Yankees would kill for him but also realize he will be a free agent at the end of the year and therefore they won’t have to give up players now… unless they feel they need Lee now. I’m betting the Yanks want him NOW. I wonder what the Mariners will get for him. Is it possible the Mariners could allow the Yankees to discuss a long term contract with Lee now so that hey could get more back in prospects? Seattle will have a say as to where Lee goes this year, but after that, it’s in Lee’s hands. It won’t matter if the Mariners prefer he not go the the Yanks.

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  10. sabernar says:

    “two of the best pitching seasons in the history of the game.” Seriously? Schilling’s 2002 season is one of the two best pitching seasons in the history of the game? You really have a warped sense of what ‘best’ means.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Nowhere did I say it was one of the two best.

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      • sabernar says:

        Sorry if I misread it, but that season isn’t even one of the best 100 pitching seasons ever. So my point stands, even if I slightly misread what you wrote. Shoot, I don’t even think it was Schilling’s best season, much less one of the best of all times.

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    • Basil Ganglia says:

      But not nearly as warped as your warping of what was actually written.

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    • Temo says:

      I’m sorry, I read it exactly the same way. Exactly how is that part supposed to read?

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      • Doctor_Teh says:

        That it was two OF the best, not the two best. Like, for example two of the top 10 (not that I’m saying it is, I have no clue, just that that was his intent, I believe.)

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      • Bill says:

        It doesn’t say “the two best”, it says “two of the best”. As in, “these two performances are among the best”

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    • Ivdown says:

      I think you are warped if you don’t think Schilling’s 02 was one of the best pitching seasons ever…it was insanely good. 9.7 WAR I believe. I wouldn’t have a problem guessing that it’s a top 25 pitching season ever.

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    • John H says:

      2.19 xFIP over 252 innings and 9.7 WAR? You’re right, that’s not very good.

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  11. mowill says:

    A guy could write a pretty interesting post about Felix Hernandez’ eighth inning tonight. He struck out Span, Tolbert, Mauer and Morneau on sixteen pitches. Simply amazing.

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    • Steve says:

      that’s awesome. too bad the Mariners are wasting the great performance of their rotation in a very winnable division by playing scrubs like Casey Kotchman at 1B.

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  12. Scott says:

    Also:

    Ben Sheets – July 5th to August 6th 2004 – 47.2 innings, 58 K, 4 BB.
    Johan Santana – August 18th to September 19th 2004 – 51 innings, 64 K, 5 BB.

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    • Mafrth77 says:

      “Johan Santana – August 18th to September 19th 2004 – 51 innings, 64 K, 5 BB.”

      Five walks!! He sucks!!!

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  13. NBH says:

    Eye opening article – he’s been amazing over his last 500 innings.

    My team is doing well in Ks/wins, but I have no “real” closers (thank you Gonzalez/Francisco/Hoffman/Frasor) so I just traded Ubaldo and Bonderman for Lee and Soria. I think it makes sense value-wise, Ubaldo is a little better than Lee, but Soria is a ton better than Bonderman, but I’m uncomfortable losing a guy who gave me so much, even though my head tells me Ubaldo is a big “sell-high.”

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  14. Mafrth77 says:

    I could see the Red Sox making a play for Lee. with Beckett’s back injury lingering, too straight disiaster starts form Wakefield (against KC and Oakland) and Dice-K’s sub-mediocrity Lee would be a huge value to to them.

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  15. Mafrth77 says:

    Also, Lee has done this without ever having the oppotunity to pad his numbers against the Mariners offense.

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  16. phil says:

    I just completed a trade for him, ethier & wilson for panda and lee, and i traded for him last year in same league(straight up for bj) so i like to see this.

    Any team in AL East should want him and NL West could look that way too. Watch a team like the Reds give up a cueto, volquez, and some pieces for him and aarsdma if they stay in contention.

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  17. yungmuneyholla wat it dew says:

    now 38 straight innings without a walk, 19 K/BB…unbelievable

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  18. CircleChange11 says:

    Lee’s comeback/transformation is unbelievable.

    Whatever he and the AAA pitching coach worked on should be in a book somewhere. I would be very interested to read about how being back in 3A changed his mental approach, outlook, and what physical changes he made. Because this dude is just turning out to be damn dominant and from a stuff point of view he’s not overwhelming.

    I really like that he uses the cutter to get in on RHBs and to use it up in the zone like he did to Jeter and ARoid in the WS. He changes speed so well that he can actually put hitters away with a 92 mph fastball. When I was a teen/youth, Tommy Glavine was the lefty to watch to “learn how to pitch”, now it’s Lee … only Lee is more aggressive.

    To me, the zero walks in 38 innings isn’t that big of a deal (even as silly as that may sound). What IS a big deal is that he isn’t walking people and still dominating. In other words he isn’t just putting it ove the plate to avoid walking folks. He’s dominating in the zone, and with “stuff” that is less than Lincecum, Strasberg, Verlander, Jimenez, etc.

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  19. CircleChange11 says:

    I would imagine among the Bob Tewksburys, Bret Saberhagens, and Greg Madduxs of the world (and that’s just from my youth) there have been similar streaks of “zero walks for XX innings”.

    Hence, any ratio of K’s per Walks is going to be impressive. Heck if you just struck out 5 guys and waked none for each of your 4-6 starts over a ~35 inning ‘walkless streak’ streak, your K:BB would be anywhere from 20:0 to 30:0 for the streak, and likely really hgh for the season, especially if the streak occurred in the first half of the season.

    So, what I am wondering is “How does this streak and K:BB ratio compare to other ‘similarish’ streaks of the past?”

    Lee has made 11 starts in 2010. He has not walked a batter in 8 of those starts. Struck out 50 in those starts (50:0 K:BB *grin*).

    In his other 3 starts he has walked 4 batters and K’d 28, for a 7:00 K:BB ratio. Even THAT’s impressive.

    So, over 11 starts he’s walked 4 and K’d 78. That’s laughably ridiculous.

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  20. Kyle says:

    Lee has been great the past 3 seasons, but he’s almost 32. He’ll be lucky to get 160 wins in his career. I agree with the guy who said he’d take Lester over Lee. One is 26 years old, the other is 32.

    50-19, 3.57 ERA in that division, starting to strike out guys at a ridiculous clip, and 26 like I said.

    You forgot to mention Lee’s horrible fielding this year. 3 errors? He could be the first pitcher to ever have more errors than walks!

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