Knuckleballs

Unpredictable, rare, and occasionally effective…but always entertaining.

Clifton Phifer Lee

with 2 comments


Cliff Lee has been absolutely awesome since 2008.  It came from nowhere, and most people (hand raised) thought it was luck, but he’s kept getting better.  From 2002 to 2007, Cliff Lee threw almost 750 innings in the major leagues.  He posted the following ERA, walk, strikeout, and home run rates per nine innings, respectively: 4.64, 3.09, 6.66, and 1.27.  From 2008 to 2010, Lee has thrown almost 550 innings and posted the following rates: 2.81, 1.35, 7.09, and 0.53.  Basically, he gives up half as many walks and home runs and magically became a better pitcher; who would have guessed?

This season he’s taken it to extremes.  In 87 innings, he’s struck out 76 hitters and walked 4.  Four.  IV.  That’s a 19.0 strikeout to walk ratio.  The closest anyone has come to something like this is Bret Saberhagen’s 1994 season with the Mets, when he struck out 143 hitters and walked only 13.  To top that though, Lee has given up only 3 home runs.

There’s nothing lucky about it either; his BABIPs and strand rates for the past 3 seasons match both the league averages and what he posted earlier in his career.  Check out these numbers though:

Seasons: 2002-2007: 34.3% groundballs, 46.2% flyballs, 19.6% line drives, 0.74 GB/FB

Seasons: 2008-2010: 43.5% groundballs, 36.4% flyballs, 20.1% line drives, 1.19 GB/FB

All of a sudden he became a groundball pitcher; groundballs have a tendency not to go over fences.  But Lee cut his home run rate per flyball in half while allowing 10% flyballs.  There is a distinct change between the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  The numbers from 2002 to 2007 all correspond, and after 2008, the numbers all line up.

So how did he do it?  Well, his fastball started going 2 miles per hour faster(while his changeup and other offspeed pitches stayed the same), so that helps.  He also started throwing his cutter more (at the expense of his fastball); he threw it 4.9% of the time in 2007, up to 6.2% in 2008, 12.4% in 2009, and 17.9% (!) so far in 2010.  He increased the number of swings he got at pitches outside of the strike zone by almost 8 percent.

Before 2008, he threw about 64.4% of his pitches for strikes; since then it’s been 69.3%, up to 72.6% this season.  I would bet the increased strike throwing is an effect of the other success he was having, not a cause.  As he gained confidence, he kept throwing more strikes, and as a result had more success.  The Pitchf/x data I was looking at doesn’t back before 2008, but I bet that Lee has started throwing a lot more to the lower part of the strike zone, reducing both his fly balls and his walks.

It’s fairly impressive to me that someone can do this; it’s completely stupid that it’s Cliff Lee.  My memory of Cliff Lee was that the 2007 Indians let him start 16 games with an ERA over 6 (and a FIP at 5.48) for a team that won 96 games and almost went to the World Series.  They couldn’t even put him on the postseason roster; the deadly Jeremy Sowers/Aaron Laffey combo replaced him for the rest of the regular season.  This was after he went 50-24 the previous three seasons despite an ERA near 4.50.  Then he makes the 2008 as the fifth starter, goes 22-3 and gets traded to Philadelphia the following July for four guys who weren’t the Phillies’ best prospects.  Needless to say, the Cliff Lee era frustrated me.

It’s also strange to think that he might be the best player the Indians got back in the Bartolo Colon trade.  On June 27, 2002, he was traded by the Montreal Expos (thanks Omar Minaya!) along with Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Lee Stevens for Colon and Tim Drew.  Trading Colon was my first experience rooting for a team that was a seller.  Throughout my formative years, the Indians had always been buyers, getting winners such as Jeff Juden, John Smiley, and Kevin Seitzer at the deadline.

The Indians tried to make Phillips their second baseman in 2003, and he hit 0.208 in almost 400 plate appearances…not good.  They left him in Triple-A in 2004 and 2005 and he couldn’t hit there either, so they sent him to Cincinnati before the 2006 season, and Phillips began hitting.  Awesome.  I got to watch this guy be the shortfielder instead.  Sizemore is (was?) great, but I don’t think anyone is sure about his future after injury-riddled 2009 and 2010 seasons.  And 2010 Cliff Lee leads all pitchers in WAR…DESPITE NOT PITCHING IN APRIL.  I hate this game sometimes.

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Written by Dan Hennessey

June 28, 2010 at 7:37 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Finally a Jeff Juden reference. I have been waiting all year.

    Jason Ross

    June 29, 2010 at 3:09 AM

  2. […] but here’s the rub?  For whom does it make sense to give up their top prospects to get a Cliff Lee or other top-notch […]


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