Well, last night was a tough one. Those seem to be becoming more and more frequent. It's deep into June, and the Nats haven't been able to reel off a winning streak that signifies to the rest of the league that the team is a legitimate...
Well, last night was a tough one. Those seem to be becoming more and more frequent. It's deep into June, and the Nats haven't been able to reel off a winning streak that signifies to the rest of the league that the team is a legitimate playoff contender, at least in my view. While the talent is there, the results (and Bryce Harper) currently aren't. That Cliff Lee is pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies tonight also doesn't help matters.
Early Career to Present
Lee didn't blow the doors off prospect rankings, but Baseball America had him as the 30th best player in the minor leagues in 2002. Before 2002, Lee was actually a part of the Expos system, having been drafted by Montreal in the 4th round in 2000. He's pitched for Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle, Texas, and now Philadelphia again.
So, Lee's been pretty good, as you're probably aware. Including 2008, his last four seasons have by FIP- been pretty incredible: 67, 72, 61, 67, 80 (lower is better, and 100 is major league average). Lee's strengths are his control -- that is, his ability to throw strikes and avoid walks -- and his command -- or, his ability to locate the ball in particular locations inside and outside the strike zone.
It's not just control and command, though. Lee has struck out an above-average number of hitters by K%, making for a pretty complete package and a very uncertain at-bat.
2013 has been much of the same. In just over 102 innings pitched, Lee's earned a 2.55 ERA, 2.49 FIP, and 3.23 xFIP. The sum total is +3.0 fWAR pitcher, which is nearing half-way to his career-high +7.1 fWAR 2008. The strikeouts are still there (22.3%), and he's remained stingy with the free passes (4.3%).
Pitches, Velo, Usage, Value
Lee attacks with a four seam, sinker, change, curve, and cutter. He's seeing some historic results on his sinker so far this year, which I'll explain a bit more below.
Right, the sinker. That value is the best in baseball this year when you compare it to other sinker and two seam values across the sport. Since 2007, Lee has amassed a +73.5 value with the pitch, far and away the most during that period (and the second best hard offering overall, behind Clayton Kershaw's four seam). And just to round it out, his career high -- and the single-season major-league high -- value for the pitch was +21.9 in 2011. He's nearly 3/4 of the way to that mark before the All Star break. Even the most ardent anti-value commentators would agree that the pitch is a "plus plus" offering; I think there's a decent argument that it could be the best in baseball.
Lee's sinker has the fourth most vertical movement among major-league starters this year, but one shouldn't chalk up his success to just that. Joe Blanton, he of the 4.42 FIP, gets about the same "upward" movement from his sinker. Unsurprisingly, it's likely a combination of many things that leads to Lee's success with the offering.
Batted Ball Profile
Lee doesn't throw terribly hard. Indeed, he's somewhere around 40th (out of 88 qualified pitchers, > 200 pitches) in sinker velocity, and similarly middle of the pack with everything else. But without elite velocity and mostly modest movement, Lee's still getting the below batted ball results:
So how does he do it?
Let me be aggressively straightforward here and compare Lee's K/BB ratio to former Braves' pitcher Greg Maddux.
Looking at just this statistic from age 30 on, Lee and Greg Maddux aren't that far apart. Take this at face value, to be sure -- this ratio doesn't really tell us