Lee's A Happy Pitcher These Days Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies Starter Profile: Cliff Lee Through June 14th


A Determined Cliff Lee
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night, Cliff Lee dominated the Minnesota Twins. It gave the Phillies one win out of three games against a team, the Twins, that has performed very similarly to the Phillies in 2013. In simple terms, Lee’s pitching performance was great, it earned him his 8th win of the season. Looking at the box score, the Phillies had a picture perfect game from the pitching side. Lee went seven strong innings, followed by bridge-pitcher Mike Adams in the 8th, leading to the money-maker and shut down hurler Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th inning.

Lee’s successive dominant performances sparked my desire to profile the southpaw’s 2013 performance. With the All-star game rapidly approaching, many will clamor for Lee to start the mid-season classic in NYC, making it important to look at where Lee ranks in the NL. I’ll also discuss his performance through Thursday’s game in comparison to last season, and also look deeper into the numbers, teasing out some of the causes of Lee’s success.

Should Cliff Lee start the All-star game?

Starting the All-star game is an honor usually bestowed to the best pitcher in his respective league. Oftentimes the player chosen has incredibly close competition and thus the deciding factor becomes arbitrary, and the two pitchers who follow the starter are seen as equally deserving. While this situation occurs often, currently in the National League, one pitcher has shined just a bit brighter above the rest. In this case that pitcher is St. Louis Cardinals righty Adam Wainwright. Here’s a look at how the three main value statistics see the top NL pitchers:

fWAR rWAR WARP
Wainwright 4 Wainwright 4.1 Wainwright 3.0
Harvey 3.3 Kershaw 3.8 Harvey 2.6
Lee 3 Harvey 3.7 Samardzija 2.3
Kershaw 2.6 Lee 3.6 Kershaw 2.3
Lee 2.1

Whether you prefer the FIP guided valuation of Fangraphs, the ERA guiding one of Baseball-Reference, or  ‘ version, Adam Wainwright has a decent lead in value provided. He would constitute a good choice as ASG starter as the Cardinals currently have the best record in baseball, and he’s been their best pitcher. Still, Matt Harvey pitches for the Mets, and the ASG will take place at Citi Field this year, making him not only a reasonable choice by his production, but also a sentimental choice. At this point, Cliff Lee has definitely earned a spot on the ASG roster, but he hasn’t done enough to warrant the starting job. The All-star game isn’t for another month, in which time Lee could easily distinguish himself as the right man to start the game, but currently, he’s probably not the right choice.

My choice: I’d choose Harvey only because he’d create more buzz than Wainwright, he’s got both the credentials, and the game is being played at his home park.

What’s changed from 2012 to 2013 for Cliff Lee?

In 2012 Lee pitched 211 innings, and as of now, Lee’s thrown just under half that amount at 102 & a 1/3 innings. Lee finished last season with an ERA of 3.16, which constitutes excellent for a starter with who threw more than 200 innings. Still, Lee’s record of 6 wins and 9 losses showed that his team didn’t back him up when he pitched. In 2012 Lee ranked 30th in the NL averaging 3.6 runs in support, but interestingly in 2013 Lee hasn’t moved that far up the rankings. He currently ranks 39th in the NL in run support averaging 3.59 runs per game. So, the Phillies aren’t scoring more runs for Lee, in fact they are averaging almost identical numbers, and it hasn’t significantly moved Lee up the run support rankings.

Instead, the changes have come from Lee’s own pitching. In 2012 Lee 24.4 K% and 3.3 BB%. For some perspective, no pitcher in 2012 walked as few hitters per total batters faced (BB%) than Lee, and he ranked 6th in the NL in strikeouts per total batters faced (K%). This season, those numbers have dipped a bit, with Lee posting a 22.3 K% and 4.3 BB%. These differences in walk and strikeout rate aren’t large enough to constitute significant, especially given the difference in sample size, so if not walks and strikeouts, what’s changed?

Pitchers do not have as much control over hits given up as they do walks, but some it isn’t difficult to see that some pitchers give up more hits than others due to worse control, worse pitch value, worse pitch selection, and worse repeated pitch execution. Opponents hit .253 off of Cliff Lee in 2012, but have mustered a meager .218 batting average off of the lefty in 2013. His batting average on balls in play, which focuses a bit more on the randomness and luck involved in balls put in play has dropped from .309 to .272 from 2012 to 2013. The league average BABIP hovers around .292, and Lee’s career average is .295, so thus far in 2013 Lee’s either found a way to induce consistently worse contact from hitters, gotten better luck, or more likely a combination of the two.

The simplest and most obvious difference in approach for Lee has been his difference in attacking righties and lefties. In 2012 lefty hitters posted a .275 wOBA against Lee and righties a .305 wOBA. In 2013 those numbers have not only reversed, but changed. Now we see lefties posting a .296 wOBA and righties a .230 mark.

Looking at Lee’s PitchF/X data, it seems as though his change in approach to right-handed hitters has been simple. He’s used the cutter, curveball, and changeup less frequently to righties in 2013 than in 2012. This makes me think that Lee felt that those pitches had a greater tendency to miss and end up as “meatballs” in the middle of the plate, allowing hitters to crush those mistakes for home runs or extra-base hits. He’s using the fastball more often because he can locate the pitch more effectively, not needing special movement to jam hitters or force them to reach for pitches away from them. This strategy is essentially a reversion to Lee’s strength of near perfect command and a reversion to simplicity. This change, along with some better luck, has allowed Lee’s home run to fly ball percentage to a near career high 11.8% in 2012 to 5.0% in 2013. This accounts for fewer runs scored against Lee, and has led to more victories.

To get a visual look of how few extra base hits hitters have gotten on Lee’s fastball in 2013, check this link out: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pitchfx/pitcher_profiles/pitcher_profiles.php?player=424324&month=&year=2013&throws=&pi_type=SI&report=iso&color=&normType=

Conclusion

Cliff Lee is the Phillies current ace. He’s in the top 5 in pitcher value in all three commonly calculated versions of wins above replacement, and he has some very solid rankings in the NL in other important pitching categories:

Cliff Lee

NL RANK

Wins

Tied 3rd

ERA

10th

FIP

3rd

K%

3rd

BB%

7th

HR/FB%

7th

BAA

14th

He’s been great for the Phillies, and more importantly he’s made adjustments from 2012, that have been effective in 2013. Lee didn’t just assume, like many, that his 2012 numbers lapsed due purely to bad luck or the Phillies inability to score runs. He made adjustments in approaching hitters due to his evolution as a pitcher in his 30′s. This is the type of pitcher any team would want both as a performer and as a mentor to younger hurlers. Let’s hope he can sustain this excellence throughout the season.

Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and Baseball-Reference for statistics used in this piece

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