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 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.
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.
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.
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