Yeah, yeah, another Cliff Lee story. But this one doesn’t focus on his humble beginnings or the smooth transition from Cleveland to Philadelphia, it is about a pitcher who transformed himself from “playoff roster afterthought” to AL Cy Young.
The Early Years
When he arrived in the major leagues in 2002, Lee was a pitcher with great potential and poor command. Over his first two seasons with the Indians, the lefty appeared in eleven games (all starts), posting a respectable 3.30 ERA. But the 28 walks he issued in 62 innings of work were a concern. Lee showed that he was capable of missing bats and making batters chase, as evidenced by the 32% swing rate he induced on pitches outside the strike zone in 2003, compared to the league average that year of 22.2%.
The Middle Ages
The next year, 2004, was Lee’s first full season in the bigs. He made every start, compiling a deceiving, “Eaton-esque” 14-8 record. The walks plagued him again, he averaged over 4 per 9 IP. And he began doing what most fly-ball pitchers with shaky command do – allowing home runs. He gave up thirty that season, to be exact.
2005 marked the beginning of Lee’s dominance, but despite an 18-5 record and a fourth-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting, this was not yet a dominant Cliff Lee. The difference between ’05 and the seasons before it was that Lee finally started walking fewer hitters. His BB/9 rate went from 4.07 in ’04 to 2.32 in ’05. In 23 more innings of work, Lee issued 29 fewer walks and allowed eight fewer home runs.
Lee’s improved control continued over to 2006, but as he threw more strikes, hitters began to make contact more often. A pitcher who allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in three out of his first four seasons, Lee allowed 224 in ’06, in 200 innings. The homers were also up, to 29. But the biggest difference between his (18-5, 3.79) season in 2005 and his (14-11, 4.40) campaign in 2006 was the team he played for. The Indians went 93-69 in ’05, but struggled the next year, finishing 78-84 (despite a staggering 89-73 Pythagorean win-loss record.)
2007 was the lowlight of Cliff Lee’s career. He strained his groin during spring training and began the season on the DL. When he came back, his command didn’t suffer, but the homers were becoming a major problem (he allowed 17 in 16 starts.)
After posting a 4-9 record with a 5.38 ERA, he was optioned to Triple-A and not recalled until rosters expanded in September. The Indians had so little confidence in their once prized lefty that they refused to start him upon his recall. When the Tribe won the AL Central, they decided to leave Cliff Lee off the postseason roster.
If these first six seasons proved anything, it was that Lee had defined Joe Morgan’s favorite word, inconsistent. He was an up-and-down pitcher who entered the league wild, improved his command, but allowed too many homers to be as dominant as everyone thought he could be. So naturally, he recognized that he needed to do something about these home runs.
Between 2007 and 2008, Cliff Lee reinvented himself. He transformed from a fly-ball pitcher into a ground-ball pitcher. We’re not talking about a slight difference, here, either. Lee went from one extreme to the other.
Through his first six seasons, Lee’s flyball rates were: 45%, 44%, 45%, 44%, 48%, 50%. In 2008 and 2009? 35% and 36%. Staggering.
Naturally, his groundball rates have moved the opposite way, from an average of 35% from 2002-07 to 46% in 2008 and 43.2% in 2009.
As a result of the massive decrease in fly balls, Lee has stopped allowing homers. In his magnificent 2008 season, he allowed 12 in 223.1 innings, for a league-leading 0.5 per 9 innings. This was completely a result of the flyball-groundball transformation, not because Lee stopped pounding the strike zone. In 2008, he also led the league in BB/9, allowing only 1.4.
This season, Lee was punished in his first two starts, then went right back to being the guy he was in 2008.
Since those first two outings, his numbers look like this: 151 IP, 152 hits, 30 walks, 103 strikeouts, 9 HR allowed, 4 complete games, 2.56 ERA.
A hit per inning ain’t bad. In fact, it’s very good. One walk every five innings shows that his command is still remarkable. Few hits, few walks, few baserunners. And to top things off, the homers are still low, showing that 2008 was no fluke, he has sustained almost all of his effectiveness.
This is why Cliff Lee can and should be mentioned in the same breath as Roy Halladay. This is why he is an elite pitcher, and will reach new levels of success in the pitcher-friendly National League. He wasn’t a “one-year wonder” and he is not a guy with an unsustainable past.
Lee doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but he spots it well. He creates his own pace by working fast, he hides the ball, paints corners, and all five of his pitches have great movement. Not only does he have all the components of an ace, but by reinventing himself twice during his career (once with control, once with GB/FB ratio), Cliff Lee has shown that he is one of the most intelligent pitchers of the last decade.
This is the kind of guy you want on the mound in October. A guy who has seen the peaks and valleys of major league baseball, fought himself and overcome. A guy who knows how to get you out in a variety of ways because he has HAD to throughout his career. A guy who has the smarts and willpower to pinpoint his weaknesses and make them strengths.
A self-made Cy Young.