Cliff Lee’s Hot Start
On Monday night, Cliff Lee pitched 9 Innings of shutout ball against the Toronto Blue Jays and left the game with a No-Decision. The consolation prize is that the start left Cliff Lee at 6-0 with a 0.67 ERA for the season. That’s 53.2 Innings Pitched over 7 Games Started surrendering only 4 Earned Runs.
Last season, Lee threw 97.1 Innings and allowed 68 Earned Runs finishing with a 6.29 ERA. His record was 5-8 and he was banished to the bullpen in September after being demoted to the minors all of August. Lee surrendered his fourth earned run in the third inning of his season – a two-run shot to Troy Glaus scoring Frank Thomas and giving the Blue Jays a 4-0 lead.
Amazing how much things can change over the course of a year. But, how much have they actually changed? Lee has shown this sort of brilliance in his past. He was 18-5 in 2005 and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He followed with a 14-11 record and a 4.40 ERA in 2006, a noticeable drop but still a solid season overall. So how does a pitcher with two straight solid seasons all of a sudden drop so hard in 2007 and then bounce back in 2008? The answer isn’t easy to find.
Some people will tell you that Lee is simply throwing more strikes, hammering the strike zone, and throwing first pitch strikes. Yet, numbers show that in 2008 he is throwing less first pitch strikes (61%) then in 2007 (62%). His overall strike % isn’t drastically different. 68% in 2008 compared to 65% in 2007, which happens to be the same percentage he threw in 2006 when he threw 200.7 Innings and found a way to win 14 games.
Digging deeper and all numbers show that he isn’t doing much different. Without a doubt he is striking out more batters, giving up less fly balls, and allowing a minuscule .176 OBA. But why? Why is Cliff Lee doing this and how is he doing this?
By the pitch, the numbers show the same results. Hitters, for example, are still making contact at the same rate (81% in 2008 to 82% in 2007). Hitters are swinging less (68% this year compared to 72% in 2007) and that may be leading to more strikeouts with Lee throwing 4.02 pitches/per hitter compared to 3.72 in 2007. But, again, while those numbers show changes they still don’t tell us what Lee is doing differently. And his 2007 percentages are right in line with his previous season averages so it may actually be more confusing trying to figure out what made him so bad in 2007 rather than so good in 2008.
True, offense is down in the American League in 2008. Even with that in mind it isn’t down enough to give Lee full credit. Lee has benefited from facing weaker lineups. He’s faced Kansas City, Toronto, Seattle, and and a surprisingly weak Yankees lineup. Those teams are 14th, 13th, 11th, and 10th, respectively, in Runs Scored in the American League. Against those lineups, Lee has given up 3 of his earned runs. What might be scarier is that he’s been better against the better hitting teams in the league.
The Oakland A’s are 3rd in the AL in Runs Scored with 4.68 R/G. Lee opened the season against the A’s by throwing 6.2 innings, giving up 4 hits and one unearned run. Seven days later he faced the same Oakland A’s and gave up only 2 hits over 8 Innings giving up 1 Earned Run and striking out 8. In his very next start, he faced the Minnesota Twins (8th in Runs Scored) and again threw 8 Innings giving up only 2 hits and striking 8. This time, however, he walked one, but he gave up no runs.
So, while he’s been dominant against the worst teams the American League has to offer, Lee has been just as dominant, if not more so, against the better teams. Of course, Lee still hasn’t faced the Red Sox (1st in Offense) and the Texas Rangers (2nd). Nor has he seen the Tigers or Angels (both rounding out the Top 5 in Runs Scored per Game). But he’ll have plenty of starts against the Tigers, sharing the Central with them, and his Tribe invites Texas to Cleveland the weekend of Friday May 23-May 25. Lee is scheduled to make a start on Saturday May 24. A few starts later he is scheduled to face the Tigers at Detroit. So the offense is coming and maybe then we’ll see if Lee can somehow continue this amazing run.
Until then, we’re left asking, “What has Lee done differently?” It’s possible that he’s been lucky. In his last three starts, Lee has given up 8, 6, and 7 hits (all higher than the 4,2,2,3 hits he gave up in his first four starts). Yet, only in the season-high 8 hit game did Lee surrender more than 1 earned run when he allowed three against the Mariners. One thing to note is that Lee has only allowed 2 free passes in those past three starts. In fact, that start against Seattle remains the only game he allowed more base runners than innings pitched. And every time Lee has shown hints that he is about to cool down from this unusually hot start he goes ahead and shuts down the Blue Jays over 9 innings.
Against the New York Yankees, Lee faced 27 batters over 7 innings. That is 6 over the minimum. Signs that he is cracking considering that in every other start he’s only faced at most 5 more hitters over the minimum (exception being his start against Seattle when he faced 7 more hitters)? No. While he did face a season high 32 batters against the Blue Jays, again, he threw 117 pitches over 9 innings giving up no runs.
Whatever it is Cliff Lee is doing, we can be sure that Eric Wedge, the Cleveland Indians, and their fans are hoping he can continue doing it. In the meanwhile, I’d advise watching a start when you get the chance and see how effective Lee is keeping the ball low and away pitch after pitch after pitch.