Cliff Lee: Still Studly

I have a H2H league with my old college teammates that’s a little bit…funky. It’s a 6×6 league that includes K/BB with the usual five pitcher categories. We also roster about 1.5 times more pitchers than position players. In most leagues, it’s typical for owners to spend about 70 percent of their budget on position players. But for my league, the optimal split favors pitchers.

I ran my own models, used the tools available at Last Player Picked (currently defunct) and Baseball Prospectus and kept coming away with the same result – Cliff Lee was the most valuable player in the league with a suggested auction price in the upper $50’s. While I had my doubts about the valuation, I happily selected him for $34. According to Zach Sanders, he returned over $25 inĀ normal leagues last season and I have every confidence that he blew away the $34 I paid for him in my league.

The reason he was so valuable in that particular league – besides the usual value split being very abnormal – was his predictably elite K/BB ratio. For those in more typical leagues, Lee strikes out about a batter per inning (8.97 K/9) and barely ever walks anyone (1.29 BB/9). That means a low ERA with a robust WHIP. Last season he posted a 2.87 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. The only category that is up in the air is wins, but he managed 14 last season after winning only six in 2012.

A one mph decline in his sinker velocity (his primary fastball), may be cause for mild concern. Lee is entering his age 35 season and velocity decline is not uncommon for pitchers of that age. It could signal injury or a related drop in performance, but the link between velocity and performance is not as strong with starters as it is with relievers.

Lee velos

Lee is somewhat risky from a health perspective. He’s had issues with back and oblique injuries over the years. Core injuries can cascade into arm injuries, especially given his overall workload. He’s thrown over 210 regular season innings in each of the past six seasons, including four seasons over 220 and two over 230. He actually threw over 270 innings in 2009 including the playoffs, but that might be reaching too far back for a health risk. Between the oblique injuries and age, Jeff Zimmerman projects a 44 percent chance of Lee landing on the disabled list.

On the plus side, Lee is extremely efficient. He generally throws about 14-15 pitches per inning and has a knack for avoiding high leverage situations. That goes back to his stinginess with allowing base runners. Low leverage pitching is theoretically less stressful on the pitcher, which can reduce workload related injury risk.

As my story in the intro highlights, Lee is perhaps most valuable to owners in leagues that track more than the usual five stats. Even in the typical 5×5 setting, it’s hard to find pitchers who are projected to produce elite totals in three to four categories, with wins being the wild card. Most of the supposedly good pitchers that we draft are reliable strikeout artists who we hope will outperform their ERA and WHIP expectations. Lee’s elite walk rate makes him a shoo-in to post gaudy rate stats.

Bottom line, he’s going to cost a lot and his history of core related injuries makes him an above average risk to land on the disabled list. Last season he cost $24 in Yahoo! leagues according to Fantasy Pros and he’ll probably be right there again in 2014. At that price, I consider him to be one of the best values in the draft. Rarely is elite performance available at cost.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

14 Responses to “Cliff Lee: Still Studly”

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  1. cass says:

    Cliff Lee is elite but Stephen Strasburg is not quite?

    Cliff Lee (2014 Steamer)
    K: 23.4%, BB 4.4%, HR/9 0.89, ERA 3.28, FIP 3.04, WHIP 1.10

    Stephen Strasburg (2014 Steamer)
    K: 26.6%, BB 7.5%, HR/9 0.69, ERA 3.13, FIP 2.90, WHIP 1.14

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    • mcbrown says:

      Steamer is also projecting 11% more innings for Lee than Strasburg, and personally I would take the over on that.

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    • 3Hunna says:

      Oh, Steamer, well can’t argue with those things that never happened I guess.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        +1. If we could evaluate players based solely on their Steamer projections, I wouldn’t have a job.

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      • THOR says:

        pointing out similar projections, with a question mark, is the same thing as arguing in favor of things that never happened?

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      • cass says:

        The irony here is that I only used Steamer because I thought I’d get criticized for using raw data for previous years to evaluate the future.

        You can come up with similar results if you look at the past couple years of stats. Strasburg has a better K rate and HR rate but Cliff Lee has a much better Walk rate. Cliff Lee obviously throws more innings, but their FIP/ERA for the past two seasons is basically a wash.

        Given that Strasburg is younger, I imagine that would make up for the IP game over the past couple years. But I was just trying to figure out the distinction that makes one elite and the other not.

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      • RT says:

        Age doesn’t have any effect on the number of points they provide my fantasy team with…

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      • cass says:

        I think it had quite an effect on the number of points Roy Halladay put up.

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  2. Tom B says:

    I’ve been using the Rotochamp software to create draft boards, and it has been telling me this same exact thing for the past 3 seasons. Cliff Lee should basically be the first player off the board in K/BB leagues.

    No one has actually done it yet… because it just seems so crazy.

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    • Ian says:

      My league also has K:BB as a category, yet I was still able to get Lee in the 4th round last season, probably the 7th or 8th SP off the board. It defies logic. He can single-handedly win a category for you each week, as long as you aren’t stupid with the rest of your staff. How many players can win a category each and every week?

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    • cass says:

      It doesn’t seem crazy to me. Cliff Lee is easily the best K/BB pitcher around and has been for awhile. While K/BB has some flaws for evaluating production (K-BB is better, from what I’ve read), if you use K/BB, then definitely get Cliff Lee. Even by conventional metrics he’s a great pitcher and has been for awhile. The biggest risk is age.

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  3. JoeyB says:

    His last 5 starts of 2013: 54/1 K/BB

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  4. Rob says:

    I am not an expert, but I have always felt that Lee’s mechanics look very repeatable and safe.

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  5. Colin says:

    In a K/BB league too. It definitely changes the values in some extreme ways. I find overall it tends to polarize my elite SP values and negate the auction value of the mid tier. So I might wind up with 8 SP you could reasonably pay over 30 for with maybe only another 5-8 you would pay over 20 for as an example. There are probably only 10 or so in a given year over 3 k/bb but a lot of them usually fall way over it into 4-5 range.

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