I’ll never forget Cliff Lee‘s first start with the Phillies.
He was just acquired from the Indians amidst a flurry of rumors that had the Phillies close to getting Roy Halladay. While his arrival carried excitement, many fans couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed for missing out on Doc. I was one of those fans, having only seen Lee from afar, and having considered him more of a good pitcher with a great season rather than a great pitcher.
His July 31, 2009 start against the Giants quieted all nerves. Lee ran out to the mound in his own patented fashion, did that bizarre fake pitch to the outfield that we learned was part of his routine, and prepared to face leadoff man Randy Winn.
First pitch was right over for a called strike. Winn then swung and missed at Lee’s second offering. In what felt like rapid fire succession, Lee then caught Winn looking with a fastball perfectly placed on the inside corner. It wasn’t a debatable pitch or one an ump usually calls a ball on an 0-2 count. It was just a flat out perfect pitch. My friend and I turned to each other with wide eyes. We had never seen anything like this before.
Sure, Cole Hamels was the World Series MVP the year before, but his ace-ness seemed built more on finesse. Lee was aggressive, worked quickly, and after three pitches had me convinced he was going to be the best pitcher I ever watched on a routine basis. Keep in mind I wasn’t alive when Steve Carlton pitched and I was too young to appreciate Curt Schilling during his heyday here.
Lee tossed a complete game that night and even settled for a double after coming close to a home run. He was dominant then, he remains dominant today, and over the last five seasons he has proven himself to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball. Watching him over these first two starts of 2013 has reminded me of what it was like watching him in his first outing with the Phils.
Yet, even with a Cy Young award and a lucrative contract under his belt, I can’t help but feel that Lee is underrated, even in this city. To help shake that feeling, let’s take a look at his brilliant time with the Phillies to put things in perspective.
In Lee’s 64 starts since re-joining the Phillies in 2011, he has thrown 460.1 innings, an average of 7.2 per start. In those frames he has allowed just 414 hits, walked an astronomically low 70 batters, and recorded 459 strikeouts. Yes, that’s basically one strikeout per inning with a K/BB ratio over 6.5. He barely walks anyone, and not in a Kevin Slowey way, where the lack of walks are accompanied by easy-to-hit offerings and an inability to miss bats. Lee also has a 145 ERA+ from 2011-13.
If we go back a couple more years to when he first joined the Phillies, his place among the best in the game is further cemented. From 2009-13, Lee has tallied 25.3 WAR, which ranks second among pitchers to Justin Verlander‘s 28.6. He has the lowest walk percentage at just 3.6%, and by far the highest K/BB ratio at 6.3. Roy Halladay’s 5.6 K/BB ratio ranks second at almost a full strikeout lower.
Lee has a 70 FIP- since 2009, which means his peripheral statistics point to run prevention rates 30 percent better than the league average. Again, only Verlander has him beat in this area, with a 69 FIP- that barely qualifies as “better”.
Last night, Lee threw 8.2 innings without walking a batter. It marked the 19th straight start, dating back to last season, in which Lee threw more than 6 innings with 0 or 1 walks allowed. Nobody has done that in recorded history dating back to 1900. In fact, from a relative standpoint in that this doesn’t happen all that often, nobody is even close. Greg Maddux and Christy Mathewson are the only others to come close to this feat and they managed to accomplish it in “just” 14 consecutive starts.
I’ve long held the belief that when Cliff Lee is on, there is not a better pitcher in baseball. Now, he’s not on all the time, and can become eminently hittable when his pinpoint precision slightly falters, but I stand by that belief. There have been too many instances in his Phillies career where he is literally untouchable for an extended period of time.
From July 31, 2009 to Aug. 24, 2009, his first five starts ever with the Phillies, he did this: 40 IP, 24 H, 6 BB, 39 K, 0.68 ERA, opponent’s batting line of .176/.209/.234.
In June 2011, he threw 42 innings over five starts with just 21 hits allowed, a 29/8 K/BB ratio, a 0.21 ERA and a .151/.197/.173 opponent’s batting line. That summer my research showed it was the best month of June for any pitcher in history. He wasn’t done in 2011, either, as his August and September were equally impressive. To close out the season he threw 77 innings over 10 starts. In those innings he allowed just 55 hits, had 79 strikeouts against just 10 walks, and a 0.93 ERA thanks to a .199/.235/.287 opponent’s batting line.
And don’t forget his performance from August 21, 2012 until the end of last season: 9 GS, 63 IP, 60 H, 4 BB, 65 K and a 1.57 ERA. Were it not for putrid run support and the occasional late-inning struggle — which isn’t all his fault given that the team had to use him or else use a risky, unproven reliever — Lee could have been last year’s Cy Young frontrunner.
He was that good.
Roy Halladay is a future Hall of Famer and Cole Hamels has a shiny new contract but Lee has consistently been the best pitcher in the Phillies rotation since re-signing with the team.