Lee is working ahead

Cliff Lee has been the talk recently after being traded to the Texas Rangers and not the New York Yankees over a week ago (for more on the deal, check out Myron Logan’s article here at THT). But my interest in him came before the trade as I found in an article I wrote a few weeks ago about which pitchers pitch in favorable counts the highest and lowest percent.

And the starter who pitched his highest percentage of pitches in pitcher-friendly counts was Lee. That should make sense considering his insane strikeout to walk ratio of 13.86, since pitcher’s counts aren’t the counts with three balls (or one ball away from a walk). As a whole this season, Lee has a slash line of 2.59/2.55/3.37 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) which is bested only by Josh Johnson, who is an amazing pitcher in his own right.

Here is a table showing the percentage of pitches thrown in different categories of ball and strike counts for Lee compared to the league average.

Pitcher’s Batter’s First Even Behind Ahead Full 2 Strikes 3 Balls 1stStr
Cliff Lee 53.60% 17.20% 29.20% 16.30% 15.20% 37.30% 2.00% 29.60% 3.60% 70.00%
League Average 45.50% 28.40% 26.10% 18.10% 23.60% 27.40% 4.80% 27.40% 8.40% 58.80%

Pitcher’s- 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2
Batter’s- 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2

There is no category where Lee is worse than the MLB average. And Lee has pitched in the least percentage of three ball counts out of all the starters, and only Matt Capps has a lower percentage than Lee among the relievers.

So how is Lee is able to do this? Here are some statistics using the PITCHf/x data comparing Lee and the league average for this season.

NAME rv100 cwOBA Strike Foul Whiff CON OCON Zone Swing OSWING
Cliff Lee -1.69 .327 72.8% 22.8% 9.0% 83.4% 67.4% 58.8% 54.6% 31.4%
League Average -0.13 .361 63.0% 17.5% 8.6% 80.9% 65.1% 44.2% 45.1% 27.2%

I could see why Lee is able to get into some many pitcher’s counts since he has a high strike percentage. The high strike percentage might be benefiting from two factors: the high percentage of swings and the high percentage of pitches in the zone, as both a swing and baseball in the zone result in a strike. This also makes for a low pitch coun,t allowing Lee to pitch deeper into games at a high rate, as he has this season.

Instead of comparing Lee to the league average, how does Lee stack up against his pitching comrades? Here is the same table as above except with Lee’s ranking in each category for pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches this season—138 of them.

rv100 cwOBA Strike Foul Whiff CON OCON Zone Swing OSWING
Rank 3rd 26th 1st 3rd 47th 93rd 72nd 1st 1st 9th

Those strike and zone percentages present themselves in this table. Lee is definitely an outlier when it comes to pitches in the zone. The pitcher second to his 58.8 percent is Doug Fister at 52.3 The strike percentage category is a little tighter, with Scott Baker second at 70.8 percent to Lee’s 72.8. I was surprised to see that he led the majors in swing percentage when I ran by the leaderboards. In retrospect I shouldn’t be, since he is living in the zone more than anyone else, meaning batters have to swing or be called on a strike. But after running a quick linear regression, the r-squared is only at .24 so I was way off altogether.

Lee uses a cutting, straight or tailing fastball about 80 percent of the time, a high percentage for a non-sinkerballer or hard fastball pitcher. My theory on why he has been so good since the start of his Cy Young season is that he uses the deception in is delivery while creating even more deception by mixing his pitches well and mixing his location well.

That is topic in need of further review. Regardless, Lee is a good pitcher. He is so good that even after being on the DL for more than three weeks to start the season, Lee is now fourth in WAR in the majors.

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