At age 34, Cliff Lee is as good (or better) than ever – Phillies Nation

At age 34, Cliff Lee is as good (or better) than ever

There are two things that are certain when it comes to Cliff Lee this year—he is having a monster season so far, and he is not getting any younger.

But he might just be getting better.

I dug up some research on Lee, and tried to put what he has done both this season, and since re-joining the Phillies in 2011, into perspective. I found that age has made no difference in his output, and in many ways he has gotten better at certain things as he has gotten older.

Lee’s command is impeccable

We all know Lee is a strike thrower. It seems like every game he comes in and throws 100 pitches and 75 or so are strikes. In fact, as a side note—as a Phillie, Lee has had 20 starts where he has thrown 100 + pitches and 80 + for strikes, and also has had 20 starts where he has not issued a walk.

But back to this season.


Lee’s control is still spot-on as he works through his age 34 season. PHOTO: AP

Lee’s command is one indicator that he could be extremely effective for several more years, even he were to lose some velocity as he gets up in age. Left-handers can usually get away with less velocity than righties anyway, especially with command like Lee’s.

In 88 1/3 innings this year, Lee has walked just 13 batters, which is tied for tenth in all of baseball among pitchers who have pitched at least 60 innings.  But Lee has pitched more innings than almost all of the starters ahead of him on that list, so if you look at his walks per nine innings, which is 1.43, he jumps to fifth.

From 2008 to 2013, Lee has been in the top seven in the MLB in walks per nine, and in three of those years he finished first. Few walks is half of the result of Lee’s ability to control several different pitches with great accuracy. Strikeouts are the other half.

This year Lee is averaging 5.69 strikeouts for every walk he issues, which is more than double the league average of 2.51.  Here is how Lee’s strikeout to walk ratio matches up with five other ace pitchers who are having tremendous seasons this year. Keep in mind that none of these pitchers are older than Lee. In fact, all are at least two years younger.

Lee- 5.69

Felix Hernandez– 5.59

C.C. Sabathia– 4.71

Matt Harvey– 4.68

Justin Verlander – 3.63

Clayton Kershaw– 3.6

And if you look at all six pitcher’s K/BB ratio since 2011, Lee is far above the rest.

Lee’s absence of walks has helped him to the fourth best WHIP in the N.L. at .96, despite the fact that he is 36th in the league in hits allowed (which is okay, not incredible, but he is not letting those hits turn into runs). But not being in the top 30 fewest hits allowed and still having a WHIP that low just proves how little he actually gives up free passes.

As he ages, many of his opponents batting numbers are actually improving. A lot.

 Yes, it is only two months into the season, but so far there has been absolutely no sign of regression in Lee’s ability to get hitters out as he plays through his age 34 season. In fact, it is the opposite. Lee is putting up some of his best numbers yet in terms of how opponents are hitting off him.

Lee might be slightly under average in strikeouts per nine this season (7.54 compared to the league average of 7.61), but he is getting his outs by pitching to weak contact. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against him is only .268, compared to a league average of .290.  Even if Lee’s plain batting average against were .269 it would still be good, but when you factor out strikeouts it is incredible.

Lee’s strikeouts may be down in 2013, but he is getting more outs from contact than in years past. PHOTO: AP

How incredible?

So incredible that if Lee were to finish the 2013 season with that very same .268 BABIP, it would be his lowest since his age 24 season when it was .248. Just to put into perspective, Verlander’s is almost 100 points higher this season at .359, and King Felix is at .305.

Lee is also on pace to have his best HR/9 ratio (.55 home runs per nine innings) and batting average against (.219) of the past five years. If he kept his current .96 WHIP through the end of the season it would be the best of his career.

Lee’s ability to go deep in games has not wavered

 Make no mistake about it. Lee has been one of the most dependable and durable pitchers in the game during his time in Philadelphia. And guess what? He is only getting better! (I think we are seeing a trend here).

He is second in the league in innings pitched this year (88 1/3 innings in 12 starts), and since 2011 only Kershaw (548 1/3) has thrown more innings Lee’s 532. His age appears to have no effect on his ability to log a ton of innings, throw a lot of pitches, and carry the team deep into the game.

But not only has he been going deep into games on a regular basis, he has not been allowing many runs. In his last five starts he allowed only six earned runs and has thrown at least 7 innings in each of those starts.

In fact, 10 of Lee’s 12 starts this season have been quality starts. In all of baseball, only Adam Wainwright and Hisashi Iwakuma have more (11 apiece).

I’ll throw this one out too even though it is a bit ridiculous, but it reiterates how dominant he has been as a Phillie.  Since 2011 only Kershaw and Doc Halladay have more complete games than Lee’s seven, and all seven of those have been shutouts (not including his 10-inning performance last year in which he gave up no runs but it neither counted as a shutout nor a complete game). No pitcher in baseball has more shutouts over that span.

But here is the crazy part.

Lee’s eight total shutouts with the Phillies (he had one more in 2009, and the aforementioned seven from 20-11-13) have come in only 86 games but he is still tied for fourth in Phillies shutouts since 1970 behind Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling and Terry Mulholland. Carlton had 39 shutouts in 499 games to lead the way. At Lee’s pace, he would have 46 shutouts by the time he reached 499 games as a Phillie (which is not plausible given his age and what-not, but I thought it was still a cool comparison).

Just to put this out as well, Lee has been among the most valuable pitchers in baseball this year in terms of his wins above replacement. His 3.4 WAR is behind only Kershaw, Iwakuma, Clay Buchholz and Wainwright.

His success this year poses an interesting dilemma for the Phillies should they fall further from contention come July. Do they trade Lee and hope to get a nice package of prospects, or do they keep him and hope that he can be a top-tier pitcher for the next several years as he makes his way through his mid 30s?

Lee really might be worth keeping around for the remainder of his contract, despite his age and the money involved. I know it’s hard to say that because of what happened to Halladay only a couple years after being so dominant, but is it worth trading Lee if he is going to be even close to what he is now and could help the team? It is a risk, but  at age 34 he has been having one of best seasons so far to date, and still puts up better numbers than many All-Star quality pitchers that are way younger.

With the number of strikes he throws with his variety of pitches, he can have success as he gets up there in age even if he loses some velocity. Lee has been a lock over the past several years, and in my opinion it might be more worth it to take a chance that he will be very good for a few more years, than to take a chance on some prospects who might not pan out (like our prospects Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies, who they acquired in the last Lee trade).

*All stats from Fan-Graphs, Baseball-Reference, ESPN and MLB



  1. WayneKerrins

    June 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    He can hit and he can run too..

  2. hogey's role

    June 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Keep him.. we’re still in this thing there’s a lot of season left.. if we can get Utley and Ruiz back and get Howard, Rollins revere, m young going we’ll be a good team… besides how stupid will we look for trading cliff Lee twice

  3. Matt

    June 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Enough with the trade lee talk!!!!!! ! He is the best pitcher on the team.

  4. Ken Bland

    June 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    It’s probably not unique, but the fact is tonight, some really good pitchers including some having fine years are coincidentally all pitching.


    a rejuvenated Ubaldo







    Good night to be the headliner in tomorrow’s roundup. Nice field. I guess if you wanted to wager on one guy, it’d depend on the usual stuff. I don’t have to look at anything to know who I wouldn’t bet against.

  5. The Original Chuck P

    June 7, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    It has been a long while since I’ve checked in… I hate that we’re even entertaining the thought of trading Cliff Lee. Why on earth would we consider that? We’re RIGHTFULLY in second place in the division – the Nats are in deep trouble (Stras is out, Harper is meeting with Dr. Andrews, Werth’s beard is still straggly, Gio Gonzalez is a cheater) so we’re looking up at the only the Braves in the division. The Braves are a good team (not sold on their pitching especially without the depth in their bullpen) but they are streaky and they have collapsed in the past… I like the trend that the Phillies are on. Further, I don’t understand why we have to blow the thing up and start fresh if we’re out of it… you have some pieces that you can build around (namely Hamels, Brown, Galvis and some young guys coming up) and with some expiring contracts, you’ll have plenty of wiggle room to reload via free agency. Maybe you trade the guys that you know aren’t coming back but you have to have a plan in place to fill in at any position you’re subtracting from… I don’t think you can replace a Cliff Lee and there’s no one I’d rather see in my rotation next year in the free agency crop. I don’t buy the open/closed window stuff… it’s Rube’s job to put a team on the field that can compete and Cliff Lee is going to allow us to compete for the next 2-3 years. Why would any fan want to trade him?

    I haven’t commented on Dom… just have to say that I’m so happy that he’s doing what he’s doing because I know that many people like myself were saying, “stick by this kid.” Now that’s he’s had time to make adjustments and get regular healthy AB’s, we’re all seeing just how good he can be. He’s done everything asked of him – he has worked on his defense, he has worked on his swing and he has worked on his maturity – and all of that hard work has paid off. Many people wrote him off… I am happy to say that I was not one of those people.

    • Lefty

      June 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      I mentioned you the other day in a comment about how you always believed in Brown even when many of us were starting to have doubts. I never wrote him off, but I clearly had questions and uncertainty.

      As far as Atlanta and Washington, I’ve been saying for a while now, the division is winnable, because the competition has not shown anything thus far. That doesn’t mean one of them can’t suddenly rise up and take over, but I haven’t seen anything that impresses me so far. Bring them on, lots of head to head games making it easier to catch up. The Phils are far from out of this thing.

  6. bacardipr

    June 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Chuck i was thinking of a possible Braves collapse myself or the possibility off one. Though they have a few different characters in this squad. Although a strategy of hoping the other team collapses is not the way to approach it i will take it. lol

  7. Whatever

    June 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    This was on Fangraphs yesterday. Mr. lee must really know how to pitch:

    …Cliff Lee’s fastball has averaged a modest 90.5 mph this season, but Fangraphs has graded it as the single most valuable pitch in MLB…

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