Player spotlight: Cliff Lee (Part 1)

One of the biggest surprises of the 2008 season thus far has been Cliff Lee. The Indians’ pitcher currently boasts seven wins in nine starts and a 1.50 ERA. It’s pretty clear that his ERA is lucky, but it isn’t all luck. Lee has made some changes and does indeed look like a better pitcher than he has been in the past. Today, let’s take a look at what changes have been made and what Lee’s true skill level appears to be. As we did with Johnny Cueto the other day, we’ll bring Pitch f/x into the discussion to see what Lee has been doing on a deeper level.

Note to readers

After reading this article, I’d love to hear your opinions on some things. I’d be interested to hear what you guys think of the Pitch f/x stuff so far. I think it adds a lot to the analysis, but I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions you guys have. Requests are also welcome.

Furthermore, these posts seem to be running kind of long. I’d also be interested in hearing your take on this matter. I ultimately decided to split this one into two posts. Should I leave them as one going forward? Should I write less and let the numbers and charts speak more for themselves? Or is it okay the way it is? Let me know what you think.

Numbers

Note: All numbers in this article exclude Lee’s start from May 30. I don’t currently have the PITCH f/x data for that start, so for the purpose of continuity, all stats exclude this start. Nothing materially changes, however.

Surface Numbers

+------+----+----+-------+------+------+----+----+
| YEAR | G  | GS | IP    | ERA  | WHIP | W  | SV |
+------+----+----+-------+------+------+----+----+
| 2004 | 33 | 33 | 179.0 | 5.43 | 1.50 | 14 |  0 |
| 2005 | 32 | 32 | 202.0 | 3.78 | 1.21 | 18 |  0 |
| 2006 | 33 | 33 | 200.6 | 4.39 | 1.40 | 14 |  0 |
| 2007 | 20 | 16 |  97.3 | 6.28 | 1.52 |  5 |  0 |
| 2008 |  9 |  9 |  66.0 | 1.50 | 0.88 |  7 |  0 |
+------+----+----+-------+------+------+----+----+

Skill Set

+------+----+----+-------+----------+-----------+------+------+---------+------+
| YEAR | G  | GS | IP    | LIPS ERA | DIPS WHIP | K/9  | BB/9 | K-BB RI | xGB% |
+------+----+----+-------+----------+-----------+------+------+---------+------+
| 2004 | 33 | 33 | 179.0 |     4.73 |      1.43 | 8.09 | 4.07 |    0.26 |   34 |
| 2005 | 32 | 32 | 202.0 |     3.91 |      1.26 | 6.37 | 2.32 |    0.13 |   36 |
| 2006 | 33 | 33 | 200.7 |     4.61 |      1.38 | 5.79 | 2.60 |   -0.07 |   32 |
| 2007 | 20 | 16 | 97.3  |     4.85 |      1.46 | 6.10 | 3.33 |   -0.14 |   33 |
| 2008 |  9 |  9 | 66.0  |     2.92 |      1.02 | 7.36 | 1.23 |    0.62 |   46 |
+------+----+----+-------+----------+-----------+------+------+---------+------+

Luck Indicators

+------+----+----+-------+-------+--------+-------+------+------+----------+
| YEAR | G  | GS | IP    | BABIP | LOB%   | HR/FB | LD%  | RS   | TEAM R/G |
+------+----+----+-------+-------+--------+-------+------+------+----------+
| 2004 | 33 | 33 | 179.0 | 0.309 |  70.17 | 12.35 |   21 | 5.78 |     5.30 |
| 2005 | 32 | 32 | 202.0 | 0.282 |  72.03 |  7.91 |   21 | 6.46 |     4.88 |
| 2006 | 33 | 33 | 200.7 | 0.300 |  70.92 |  8.79 |   19 | 6.50 |     5.37 |
| 2007 | 20 | 16 |  97.3 | 0.304 |  62.78 | 10.49 |   15 | 6.84 |     5.00 |
| 2008 |  9 |  9 |  66.0 | 0.260 |  83.64 |  4.76 |   19 | 4.75 |     4.09 |
+------+----+----+-------+-------+--------+-------+------+------+----------+

We see that from 2004 (Lee’s first full season in the majors) to 2007, he was never really a great pitcher. He flashed some potential at times, striking out 8.09 batters per nine in 2004 and walking just 2.32 in 2005 and 2.60 in 2006, but he never was really able to do well with both at one time. Additionally, given that he consistently put up below-average groundball rates, success always eluded Lee.

Then 2008 came, and something seemed to click. Not only has Lee posted his highest strikeout rate since 2004, but he’s also showing incredible control. To add to all of this is his above-average 46 percent ground ball rate. He has never broken 40 percent before, and now he’s more than half-way to 50 (Note: After his most recent start, this rate has actually increased to 48 percent).

His 1.50 ERA is obviously very lucky, but his 2.92 LIPS ERA confirms that he is indeed having a magnificent season. Even if he were receiving neutral luck instead of his current .260 BABIP, 84 percent LOB%, and five percent HR/FB, he would still have one of the best ERAs in the majors. In fact, that 2.92 LIPS ERA actually leads all pitchers with at least six starts.

He’s receiving just a little bit of luck in terms of run support, and surely the 1.50 ERA is helping things, but Lee should continue to collect wins.

His 0.88 WHIP is a little lucky, but even with that low BABIP, a regression would only see his WHIP rise a little bit to a still-stellar 1.02. His control rate is big in keeping it this low.

The control is one of the biggest questions surrounding Lee. The strikeout rate isn’t really unprecedented for him, but can he keep up a walk rate this low, or close to it?

Well, for what it’s worth, just two pitchers have held a BB/9 over 1.23 or lower in the past two years (Greg Maddux in 2007 and Ben Sheets in 2006). If we look back to 2004, we see nine more pitchers, though. And if we raise our standards to 1.50, we get 24 pitcher seasons total (assuming at least 12 starts made in the year). So while Lee would be in a pretty elite club, it isn’t unfathomable that he could keep it this low. Perhaps Pitch f/x can give us a better idea if this is sustainable, but first let’s look at his True Quality Starts.

True Quality Starts

If you’re new around here, you can read up on True Quality Starts here. If you’re not looking to read a long, detailed explanation, True Quality Starts basically uses linear weighted run values on a pitcher’s skills (strikeouts, walks, batted ball breakdown) to calculate a “TQS Score” and takes a standard deviation approach to classify every start a pitcher makes into one of six categories: Great, Good, Above Average, Below Average, Bad and Awful.

Here are Cliff Lee’s TQS numbers.

True Quality Starts

Year	GS	Great	Good	AbAv	BlAv	Bad	Awful	TQS*	GG*	BA*	GG/BA*
2004	33	0%	9%	33%	42%	15%	0%	42%	9%	15%	0.60
2005	32	0%	9%	44%	38%	9%	0%	53%	9%	9%	1.00
2006	33	0%	6%	27%	48%	18%	0%	33%	6%	18%	0.33
2007	16	0%	6%	19%	50%	19%	6%	25%	6%	25%	0.25
2008	9	33%	22%	33%	0%	11%	0%	89%	56%	11%	5.00

Note 1: Lee’s starts were plugged into the 2007 run environment because it is simpler this way and deals with a larger sample size. It is also probably more reflective of what the final 2008 run environment will look like than the current 2008 run environment would be.

*Note 2: TQS is the number of Above Average or better starts. GG is the number of Good plus Great starts. BA is the number of Bad plus Awful starts. GG/BA is simply a ratio of the two.

TQS shows just how unexpected this year’s breakout was. Lee improved from 2004 to 2005, but didn’t really dominate in either year, never turning in a TQS Great start and not even posting that many Good starts. Then he dropped off in 2006 and again in 2007, posting his first couple of Awful starts and seeing his True Quality Start percentage fall to 25 percent. That means just 25 percent of his starts were merely above average. That is horrendous, yet in 2008, he has posted several Great starts. More than half have been either Good or Great, and he’s had just one that was below average.

Lee has truly been amazing this year, and his TQS stats show that he’s been consistently good.

Concluding thoughts

As I said earlier, I ended up splitting this article into two parts. Part two should already be up if you haven’t noticed it yet, so go take a look. Or, just click here for part two, using Cliff Lee’s Pitch f/x data to see how he has been doing the things we just discussed.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: TUCK! sez: Big Hurt’s To-Do List
Next: Player spotlight: Cliff Lee (Part 2) »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>