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Cliff Lee Just Can’t Buy a Win

Along with several other members of the FG/RG family, I’m currently participating in a twelve-team 5×5 mock draft, just to reset expectations for the upcoming season. With the first pick of the sixth round, as the 12th starter taken — and ahead of guys like CC Sabathia, Chris Sale, & Jered Weaver — a pitcher was selected who didn’t get his first win until July 4 and ended up with only six on the season.

We’re talking about Cliff Lee, of course, and he is still awesome.

Actually, you could make the case that in many ways he had one of his finest seasons last year. No qualified pitcher in baseball topped his BB/9 mark of 1.19, and it should come as no surprise that his 7.39 K/BB was the tops in the sport by a wide margin over Joe Blanton’s distant 4.88. By WAR, ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, WHIP, K%, QS%, or whatever metric you care to use – they all painted a picture of Lee being one of the top ten or fifteen best starting pitchers in baseball in 2012.

And yet, there’s that ugly 6-9 record standing next to his name, fueling thousands of jokes (mostly) that he “doesn’t know how to win” and earning him precisely zero votes in the NL Cy Young balloting.

The obvious impulse here is to blame the declining Philadelphia offense, and it’s not unfair to do so — a group which averaged 4.22 runs per game in 2012 managed to put up only 3.60 when Lee was on the mound. That’s how you end up with such hilarious outings as May 15, where he struck out 10 Astros over eight one-run innings for a no-decision; June 5, when he struck out 12 Dodgers over 7.2 two-run innings and took the loss; and my personal favorite, April 18 in San Francisco, where he went ten scoreless innings but was not involved in the decision.

Every pitcher has some hard-luck tales of games they should have won, but it seemed to reach a new high with Lee. Seventeen times, he held his opponents to two runs or fewer. In a right and just world, Lee’s record in those games is something like 14-1. In the cruel reality of 2012, Lee was merely 6-3, and if you noticed that coincides with the amount of wins he had all season, then you’ve struck on something important: not once did Lee win a game in which he allowed two runs or more, so the bad luck he found in losing all those tight games was compounded by never once getting the benefit of being bailed out of a poor outing like so many other pitchers are lucky enough to receive from time to time.

Lest it be forgotten, there were bad games at times. Five times, Lee allowed five earned runs or more, and three times, he allowed three or more homers. (And only one of those two groups of games coincided, believe it or not.) That pushed Lee’s HR/9 over one for the first time since his miserable 2007, despite posting one of his better GB/FB ratios. Lee hasn’t started allowing more fly balls, but more of the ones he did give up in 2012 left the park.

To be honest, I think my soul has died a little bit on the inside just from talking about pitcher wins so much, but in the world of fantasy it’s an important stat in nearly all leagues. Still, if you even ascribe “wins” to pitcher talent at all, almost no one believes it’s a repeatable skill, so if Lee maintains his current performance he’s all but guaranteed to bounce back to a more normal record, even if the Phillies can’t return to their glory days of a few years ago.

At 34, Lee is close to entering the danger zone for pitchers, but as a lefty who relies more on command & control than speed, he should have a milder decline phase than your average flamethrower. If anything, the “down” season might help boost his fantasy value going into 2013.

After all, how could a pitcher who was only 6-9 be any good?