Since signing a 5-year, $120,000,000 contract on December 15, 2010 Cliff Lee has made his money the old fashion way – he’s earned it. The veteran lefty just made his 100th start on his second go round with the Phils Friday night against the Washington Nationals. Lee has been a model of consistency, taking the ball every five days and giving the Phils a chance just about every time he goes to the mound.
In 2011 Cliff Lee joined an already formidable staff that was led by future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. The media dubbed them the “Four Aces” and they didn’t disappoint. That year Halladay was runner up to Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young Award, right behind Halladay was Lee and coming in 5th was Cole Hamels. Oswalt had some back issues that year but still did had a decent season. Rounding out the rotation was Vance “The Vanimal” Worley who finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting. The Four Aces and the Vanimal went on to post a 70-36 record with an amazing 2.75 ERA in 953 IP. It was one of the best starting fives since the five-man rotation became the norm over 30 years ago.
Halladay and Oswalt have since retired and Vance Worley was traded after the 2012 season along with Trevor May for Ben Revere. Only Hamels and Lee are still donning red pinstripes for the Phils. Next to the word consistent and/or excellent in the dictionary should be a picture of Cliff Lee. Not just consistent, but excellent consistence personified. Since rejoining the Phillies in 2011 Lee’s record is 40-27, with 33 no decisions, but he’s pitched far better than his record tells us.
Lee’s ERA in the past 100 games is 2.81. It’s only been above 3.00 once, in 2012 when his ERA “ballooned” to 3.16. His lowest ERA since returning was the 2011 season when Lee’s ERA was 2.40. His WHIP over the past 100 games has been an incredible 1.065. When looking at all the starting pitchers in baseball who’ve made at least 90 starts since 2011 there is only one pitcher that has a better ERA and better WHIP than Lee, the inimitable Clayton Kershaw.
In fact there’s only two pitchers who have either a lower ERA or lower WHIP than Lee (Kershaw aside) since 2011. One is Jared Weaver of the LA Angels. In 93 starts since 2011 Weaver has a 1.057 WHIP, beating Lee by 0.008 walks and hits per inning pitched. He’s close in ERA too, but behind Lee at 2.84. The other pitcher is Justin Verlander who has a 2.79 ERA in 107 starts, besting Lee by 0.02 earned runs per game. In WHIP Verlander comes in at a very strong 1.102, still higher than Lee’s 1.065.
Other statistics Lee dominates is SO/BB ratio and BB/9. In SO/BB Lee’s finished 1st in 2012, & 2013. In 2011 he finished 2nd to team mate Roy Halladay This year Lee’s currently 3rd in SO/BB behind Zach Greinke and Tim Hudon. Since returning to the Phils in 2011 Lee’s averaging 6.59 SO/BB, good for first in MLB over that period. In BB/9 Lee has again finished 1st in 2012 and 2013, while coming in 2nd in 2011 and currently sitting in 3rd place. Once again, the consistency of Lee amazes as he leads all of MLB in not issuing free passes since 2011. Since entering the league in 2002 Lee is second in both stats among all active pitchers.
In his last 100 starts Cliff Lee has just 40 wins even though he’s thrown 52 WG’s (WG = winnable game. A winnable game is defined as pitching a minimum of 7 innings and giving up a maximum of two ER’s). Lee has literally had some of the worst run support over the past 3+ seasons of any pitcher in major league baseball, but you never hear him complain or see the frustration he must feel after pitching brilliantly only to lose or get a no decision.
An example of each happened just this season. On April 16th against Atlanta Lee pitched a complete game, struck out 13, walked one hitter and lost 1-0. You can’t do much more as a starter than what Lee did that night. On Friday against the Nats Lee went seven innings and left with a 3-2 lead (though Lee had given up just one earned run). He out-dueled Stephen Strasburg, one of MLB’s most feared pitchers, to give his team a chance to get a series opening victory. Imagine how he felt just 18 pitches later when Mike Adams and Jake Diekman had allowed five consecutive hits and the Nats took a commanding 5-2 lead in the 8th inning. When asked, Lee supported his team mate Adams saying he’d like to see him with the ball every game in the 8th inning. A class act to go along with the professionalism Lee brings every 5th day to the mound.
Since returning to Philly Lee’s had some of the most amazing months ever for a starting pitcher. In June of 2011 Lee took to the mound five times. In those five games Lee gave up just one earned run for an ERA of 0.21. He averaged over 8.1 IP per start, finishing the month with three straight complete game shutouts and 33 straight scoreless innings. He went the first two innings in his first July start to bring his scoreless inning streak to 35 straight before finally allowing a run.
After July Lee went at it again in August of 2011. This time he gave up two earned runs for the month and his ERA was 0.45. Among his five August victories there was only one complete game this time. Lee came in 2nd with six CG’s in 2011. Only Roy Halladay had more with eight. All six of Lee’s complete games were shutouts in 2011. Only one of Doc’s CG’s was a shutout however.
In 2012 Lee’s record was 6-9 despite being 9th in ERA in the National League. Lee’s support was so bad that he was winless through June, finally picking up a W on July 4th. The rest of the season the Phillies offense was just as unkind to Lee as it had been to start. Entering September of 2012 Cliff Lee was just 3-7 on the season. In seven games, six in September and one in October, Lee went on a run. Nothing like the two months he had in 2011. Those were mind numbing, record setting months. Still, in the next seven games Lee got five decisions with four being victories. His ERA for the last seven games of the season was 1.46 and he struck out 51 batters while walking just three over 49.1 innings.
It was a tough season for Lee and the fans as the Phils five year reign as NL East champs ended. Along with ending the year with the 9th best ERA Lee had the 8th best WAR for pitchers, was 6th in WHIP, 1st in BB/9, 9th in SO/9, 7th in IP, 1st in SO/BB, 8th in adjusted ERA+, 4th in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 4th in strikeouts. When a pitcher finishes in the top 10 of so many important statistical categories he shouldn’t have a losing record, but a losing record Cliff Lee did have.
In 2013 it was more of the same excellence we’ve been taking for granted from Lee. In a year where the wheels fell off the Phillies wagon Lee was again a force to be reckoned with every 5th day. He ended the season 14-8, led the league in SO/BB and BB/9. Lee was also 4th in WAR in the NL and 2nd only to Kershaw among pitchers. He was 6th in ERA, 10th in wins, 10th in Win-Loss %, 4th in WHIP, 6th in SO/9, 3rd in innings pitched, 2nd in strike outs’s, 5th in CG, 4 in shutouts, 6th in batters faced, 5th in Adjusted ERA+, 6th in FIP, etc etc etc.
Lee went for yet another month for the ages to end the 2013 season. Last September Lee made five starts. His record was 3-2 and his ERA was an excellent, yet human 1.85. So what made this month a standout for Lee? How about striking out 54 batters while allowing just one walk in 39 innings pitched. It’s tough getting attention playing for a last place team in September with all the pennant races going on, but Lee found a way to keep his name in the spotlight with another record breaking month.
It’s clear Lee’s been a dominant force since returning to the Phils after Amaro sent him packing for a bucket of balls and a batting practice donut. Had Lee stayed for the 2010 season we’ll never know what may have happened. Lee came back to Philly and reportedly left millions of guaranteed dollars from the NY Yankees on the table because he wanted to play for and win in Philly. Generally speaking I’m not a fan of big money, long-term contracts, but Lee is the exception that proves the rule. Lee’s been worth every dollar he made in a Phillie uniform. He competes every time he goes to the mound and he rarely misses a turn. He’s undoubtedly been a top 10 pitcher since returning and is more likely a top five pitcher the last 3+ years.
Aside from Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and perhaps Felix Hernadez there are very few veteran pitchers who’ve done it better than Lee these past 3+ years. In fact since 2011 Hernandez has not been better than Lee in ERA (3.15) or WHIP (1.153), but I love watching him pitch and believe he’s also a stud, like Lee. Young arms like Clayton Kershaw (hard to believe he’s only 26), Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Julio Teheran and others will rule the mound for years to come, but in the last three years there was only one pitcher I would take hands down over Lee and that is the incomparable Clayton Kershaw.
Some say if the Phils are out of the race in July that Lee will dealt. It makes sense, so I’m going to savor the rest of his starts between now and the trade deadline. Who knows how many more times I’ll see Lee before he calls it a career. Lee is probably the third best pitcher I’ve seen in a Phillies uniform behind Lefty and Halladay. Cole Hamels is an excellent pitcher and is home grown, but he doesn’t have Lee’s consistency or command. Lee and Halladay were very much alike. They were both pitching versions of Chase Utley. Guys that brought it every time they took the field. They never let the millions they made change the way they approached their craft. They pitched hard and smart, and won our hearts while here.
If Lee is traded I hope he gets the World Series ring he came to Philly to get. He’s that special.