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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.