If you watched the Phillies in 2012, you know that Cliff Lee was both incredible and the unluckiest pitcher’s in baseball. For the 5th straight season Lee pitcher more than 200 innings, while posting a sub 3.20 ERA, racking up more than 200 strikeouts and walking only 28 batters. Lee was outstanding, his lone blemishes being his win-loss record, 6-9, and his propensity for giving up home runs (11.8% HR/FB).
So, you might be wondering why I, or any Phillies fan would expect Lee to improve in 2013. If he were to post a similar stat line from 2012 in 2013, the Phillies would be getting everything they paid for when they signed the southpaw. Well, with the recent issues, both arm-related and not, to Roy Halladay, the Phillies most effective weapon, their starting rotation, seems to be faltering. Since Halladay’s status as ace is realistically up in the air, it’s up to the other two aces, Hamels and Lee, to step up. The next logical question is, what can Lee and Hamels do to improve on their already stellar performances?
Since analyzing both pitchers is the stuff of two articles, let’s focus only on Cliff Lee for now. Lee dominates hitters with pinpoint control; in fact, it’s not just his calling card, but hit bread and butter. In 2012, Lee’s four-seam fastball came in at about 92 mph, but since Lee barely ever throws his four-seamer, the best velocity to use for his “fastball” is that of his two-seamer, which came in around 89 mph. Lee isn’t blowing anyone away with his pitches, he relies on hitting the corners and mixing up the rest of the pitches in his arsenal, his changeup, cutter, and curveball.
According to PITCHf/x data from www.brooksbaseball.net, Lee gets the most swing and misses, or whiffs, from curveball and changeup, which explains why he throws those pitches more often in 2-strike counts as opposed to the beginning of at bats. He has the best control with his sinker, which he throws, early, often, and to both righties and lefties. His sinker, otherwise known as a two-seam fastball, has solid movement, not too much to make it a swing-and-miss pitch, but enough to make the pitch effective. Few pitchers can locate their four-seamers as well as Lee locates his sinker, so hopefully he doesn’t tweak that pitch.
So, what can Lee do to improve for 2013? The only issue with his performance in 2012 was he had crazy bad luck. Lee’s numbers from 2012 resemble his 2010 numbers except for the spike in home runs. He gave up 16 home runs (6.3% HR/FB) in 2010 but 26 in 2012. A lot of this can be due to luck. For example, if the wind was blowing out on more days when he pitched in 2012 than in 2010, those fly balls that were being caught on the warning track in 2010 turned into home runs in 2012. Citizens Bank Park, a home run haven, didn’t affect Lee as much as one might think. In 2011 Lee gave up 10 home runs on the road and 8 at home, while in 2012 he gave up 14 at home and 12 on the road, a minor difference.
One area that Lee, and most pitchers can improve on is pitch sequencing. A lot of this comes from the experience and preparation of the catcher, who calls the pitches, but the pitcher has a huge say in which pitch he will throw. Going back to Lee’s PITCHf/x data from 2012, we see that Lee has a propensity to throw his curveball predominantly to left-handed hitters and almost always in 1 or 2 strike counts. He doesn’t get many called strikes in these cases, either missing with the pitch or getting a swinging strike. Hitters tend to swing more often at pitches like curveballs in 1 and 2 strike counts because they are taught to protect the plate, in the hopes that they can spoil tough breaking balls and make solid contact with a rare fastball.
Hitters can look at the video, or even check the stats and find that Lee tends to throw his curveball in certain counts, and if they don’t swing, there’s a decent chance the pitch will be a ball. If hitters catch onto this, Lee could see his pitch count rise, making him less and less valuable. In 2012 Lee threw 28 curveballs to start an at bat, throwing it for a called strike about 54% of the time, showing us that he has the ability to throw it for a strike when he wants. Maybe he should try this strategy more often to keep the hitters off balance because from season to season hitters tend to adjust to pitchers they see most often, and it is the pitcher’s job to remain effective.
Cliff Lee had, by almost any standard, an awesome 2012 season, but suffered from bad luck. Some tweaks to his pitch sequencing won’t change his luck, but it might allow him to improve in 2013. This may seem like asking too much from a pitcher who already performs at the highest level, but Cliff Lee is a leader, and the Phillies desperately need him to, at the very least, continue his dominance in 2013 if they are to head back to the postseason.