Cliff Lee‘s season seemed to follow the same narrative from month to month: he pitched very well, received no run support, and picked up very few decisions, let alone wins. It became something of a running joke to wonder when Lee would, in fact, “win” his first game of the season. His lack of wins also spurred my own research into finding out if any starter has ever finished a season with more WAR than wins.*
He sported an 0-5 record through June in perhaps the perfect invalidation of the win statistic. If W-L record was truly intended to measure the number of good games pitched vs. the number of bad games pitched — and really, what the hell else purpose would it even serve — then Lee’s 0-5 mark was absurd. It was largely indicative of the level of run support he received and not his actual performance.
*Yes, Jerry Koosman finished with 3.3 WAR while going 3-15 for the 1978 Mets.
The absurdity continued as Lee began to heat up. After a very good July that saw him post a 2.75 ERA with 30 strikeouts against a mere five walks, Lee was virtually unhittable over the season’s final two months. He made 12 starts in August and September and threw 85.2 innings. In slightly over 7 IP/GS, Lee put up a 2.31 ERA with a 22.0 K/BB ratio. Yes, he struck out 88 batters over those 12 starts while walking four.
In the end, Lee had another great season. Sure, it was down by his own elite standards from the last four years, but he finished 3rd among senior circuit pitchers in WAR even after missing three starts with an oblique injury. He led the league, or was among the league leaders, in a number of important and meaningful statistics both traditional and advanced.
However, the most traditional of traditional stats, and the one that unfortunately lacks real meaning — W-L record — is absolutely going to prevent Lee from winning his second Cy Young Award. It’s also probably going to prevent him from even placing in the voting.
Despite finishing 6-9 in 30 starts, Lee was arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League this season, whether we realized it or not.
Let some of these numbers sink in for a moment. Lee had the highest K/BB ratio in the National League at 7.39. Behind him was Kentucky Joe, at 4.88, which isn’t really even close. Making that ratio even more remarkable is that Lee also finished with the 6th-highest strikeout rate in the league. This wasn’t a ridiculously high ratio born out of a low strikeout rate and a low walk rate, a la my favorite pitcher, Greg Maddux. Lee struck batters out left and right — he just didn’t walk anyone. His 3.3% walk rate was the lowest in all of baseball.
While his torrid second half helped his ERA cosmetically, Lee led the National League with a 3.00 SIERA. That ERA estimator, which I co-created, measures pitching performance independent of defense and the associated luck in order to get to the bottom of how a pitcher really pitched. Lee finished the season with 211 innings over 30 starts, and while that innings total doesn’t lead the league, his IP/GS average topped the senior circuit. His 4.9 WAR ranked third, behind Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez, but if Lee made those three missed starts, he most likely finishes atop that leaderboard.
What-if’s obviously can’t factor into this equation, but Lee really didn’t get enough credit this season, especially from his own fanbase. Perhaps it was the timing of some of his home runs allowed that contributed to the negative vibe. Or maybe many simply couldn’t look past his meaningless W-L to realize that he was having a terrific year. Those same people blamed Lee for giving up two runs over eight innings in a 2-0 loss, making their case by saying he didn’t pitch to the score or some such nonsense.
The timing of some of his runs allowed was suboptimal, as he coughed up some late leads or ties. That happens to everyone. Lee would have had to pitched absolutely flawlessly this season to make up for his lack of run support, and that’s a lot to expect out of anyone, vintage Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander included. Either way, Lee’s name has barely popped up in award talks, and I would wager that many members of his own fanbase haven’t thought of his season that way.
What’s very interesting is comparing Lee to another pitcher who finished with a much better W-L record, despite having essentially the exact same season.
Lee: 30 GS, 211.0 IP, 24.4% K-rate, 3.3% BB-rate, 3.16 ERA, 3.00 SIERA, 4.9 WAR
Mystery P: 31 GS, 215.1 IP , 24.9% K-rate, 6.0% BB-rate, 3.05 ERA, 3.22 SIERA, 4.5 WAR
The mystery pitcher is Cole Hamels, who finished with a 17-6 record, and has been mentioned as a dark-horse Cy Young Award candidate. A case could be made for either one having the better season, but Lee’s is easier to make. In one fewer start he provided almost a half-win more in value this year. Nothing should be taken away from Hamels’s great season, but it’s a shame that Lee isn’t viewed in the same light, despite performing equally or better. Had he received even a bit more run support, he probably would have finished with something like a 14-7 record. While others “won” more games than that, voters may have found it easier to cast their ballot in Lee’s name if his mark in this meaningless metric was more appealing.
Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award a couple of years ago with a mediocre-looking record, but that was a different situation. He still finished with double-digit wins and posted an above .500 record for a terrible team. Lee pitched for a disappointing team that made a second-half surge, but he fell below 10 wins and below .500 as well. His W-L record informs us of nothing about his season at all, yet it’s what will get held against him mostly because of a game aspect completely out of his control — the Phillies offense itself.
When the season ends and awards are handed out, the NL Cy Young Award will probably come down to R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw or Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel had a historic year for relievers and both Dickey and Kershaw had great seasons as well. Lee was arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League this season, and his season will likely go unnoticed come awards time. For all the progress that was made with Hernandez’s award, Lee’s 2012 season will serve as an example of how meaningless numbers still find their way into value discussions in extreme circumstances.
At least it wasn’t completely for naught, as that’s an important reminder, as disappointing as it is that Lee’s season won’t get the credit it deserves.