Looking back from a time when starting pitchers just don’t finish what they start like they once did, a season like Cliff Lee’s 2011 seems all the more incredible.
For better or worse, pitchers simply do not last as long into games as they used to. The idea of a pitcher tossing even six complete games in a season sounds like a stretch nowadays, considering no one has reached that benchmark since Chris Sale in 2016.
But 2011 was a bit of a different time, with three major-league pitchers throwing at least six complete games that year. Lee threw exactly six complete games in his 2011 season, although something was much different about the way he did it — all six of Lee’s complete games were shutouts.
Lee became the first player to pitch six shutouts in a season since Randy Johnson in 1998. And although hundreds of pitchers have thrown at least six shutouts in a single season, Lee is still the only one to do so since the turn of the century. His dominant season was one to remember, and one that may not be matched again.
In his third start since rejoining the Phillies in free agency before the 2011 season, Lee pitched his first shutout of the year. On April 14 at Nationals Park, Lee got Jayson Werth, who had just left the Phillies for the Washington Nationals in free agency, to ground into a fielder’s choice for the last out of the game. Lee struck out 12 Nationals hitters and surrendered only three hits in this complete-game shutout.
The month of June brought three more shutouts for Lee, as part of one of the best stretches a Phillies pitcher has ever had. The left-hander took the mound against the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox in his final three starts of that month. As it turned out, Lee would be the only Phillie to pitch in those games, and would do so without allowing a single run. He went on a run that no Phillie had done since Robin Roberts in 1950:
Three consecutive starts. Three consecutive complete-game shutouts.
Lee shut out the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on Aug. 4. He worked around seven Giants hits over the nine innings to hold the defending champions scoreless to get his fifth shutout of 2011.
Then in a start where he notched his 200th strikeout of the year, Lee threw another gem against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 5. He struck out five and forced two key double plays, including one off the bat of Álex González that Lee snagged off a hop and fired to shortstop Michael Martínez, who threw to first baseman Ryan Howard. Lee once again secured a complete-game shutout, his sixth of the season.
Lee almost completed another shutout earlier in the season. On Aug. 31, one start before his sixth shutout against the Braves, Lee was throwing a shutout into the ninth inning in Cincinnati. With two outs and two runners on base, Lee had an 0-2 count against Reds hitter Miguel Cairo. Just one strike away from the shutout, Lee hit Cairo with a curveball to load the bases. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel brought in Ryan Madson, who got the final out. If Lee threw just one more strike at the end of the game, it is quite possible that he would have had seven shutouts in 2011.
Nonetheless, pitching six shutouts in a season is a remarkable feat — one that was extremely difficult to imagine being accomplished at the start of 2011 and seems virtually unattainable for someone in today’s game.
Since Lee’s 2011, the only pitcher to reach five shutouts in a season was Félix Hernández in 2012. Pitchers have only thrown three shutouts in a season 11 times since 2013, and none have done so since 2017.
The major-league lead for complete games in 2019 was three, just half the number of shutouts Lee pitched in 2011. Complete games and shutouts are now much more of a rarity. With the way the game has been trending, it seems quite possible that Lee may be the last pitcher to throw that many shutouts in a season.
His return to Philadelphia lived up to the expectations, and made for a brilliant season.
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