Quick Hit: Cliff Lee

by Jimmy Hascup

It’s amazing what a career-year could do for a player and his perception to fantasy owners, right?  Less than two years ago, Cliff Lee was sent to the minor leagues due to a disastrous season where he sported an 11.70 ERA over his last four starts before the demotion (and finished the season relieving- with a 6.29 ERA and a 5-8 record overall). Does anybody even remember that?  I’m not sure what the Indians AAA affiliate (then the Buffalo Bisons and now the Columbus Clippers) was serving Lee up in New York, but whatever it was he liked it.  All jokes aside, Cliff Lee was very, very good last year.  Let his stats tell the story:

22 Wins
223.1 Innings
2.54 ERA
1.11 WHIP
170 Strikeouts (6.85 K/9)
34 Walks (1.37 BB/9)
.305 BABIP

While I’m sure Lee is a nice guy and all and I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but let’s be serious here: there is no way he repeats last season’s production in 2009.  I don’t even see him fitting into the top twenty 2009 SP Rankings this year.  Heck, he doesn’t even belong in the sixth round (where he was drafted in the Mock Draft #2) – and before guys like Beckett, Shields, Liriano, and Billingsley?  Puhhhleasse!  Lee will be a very solid pitcher for fantasy owners this year, but don’t expect him to be one who could carry your team.  If you’re counting on him to be your ace, Cliff Lee has bust written all over him.

If you’re just a baseball amateur, one of the first steps I would advise for evaluating pitchers is to look at a their strikeouts per inning pitched (K/9), hits per innings pitched, and walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP).  Cliff Lee’s 6.85 K/9 was decent, so we know he can miss some bats.  His WHIP was a remarkable 1.11 – and it’s quite obvious where that comes from.  Lee had a career low in walks last season with 34 and posted the best BB/9 in the majors.

Even counting last year, Cliff Lee’s career WHIP is 1.31.  So another year with an elite one is very unrealistic.  Even the smallest increase in WHIP should correlate to a moderate increase in ERA.  Generally, we could say the WHIP increase wouldn’t be too much of a factor, but we’re not talking about a stud strikeout pitcher here who could get away with giving up more hits and still survive with the strikeout.  Since his BABIP from last year is close to his career average, my rationale is that Cliff Lee was very proficient at pitching out of jams and he was lucky (i.e balls were hit right at fielders).

Last year was a career year full of milestones for Lee. One of them was his GB/FB ratio of 1.31.  His previous high in a full season was .81.  His groundball percentage was also a career high of 45.9% (previous high 35.6%) and his FB% was 35.1% (previous low 43.6%).  Thus, his HR/FB ratio was 5.1% – a career low by nearly 3%.  I think it’s safe to say all of those numbers won’t be repeated- and even the slightest moderation will result in inflated ERA and WHIP numbers

Cliff Lee’s Cy Young season was definitely one of the feel good seasons in baseball last year.  Everyone loves the rags to riches stories (see: Josh Hamilton).  However, all good things must come to an end and Lee’s season as a fantasy ace is over.  He may be the Indians ace, but he shouldn’t be your fantasy team’s anchor.

There’s no way he wins as many as 22 games; 15 is more likely.  Cliff Lee is entering the season as a 30-year old, so a career progression shouldn’t be expected.  If Lee had last year’s performance three years earlier, then maybe it would be feasible to say better results could be expected this year.

I’m projecting Lee’s ERA to spike to at least 3.60 in 2009, with a WHIP around 1.20- which are all very good numbers.  But are they the ones that warrant you to consider him as a top fantasy pitcher?  Or are you banking on the Cy Young season hype from last year?

4 comments

  1. Rotoprofessor says:

    For those curious, here are my projections for him this season:

    202.0 IP, 15 W, 3.92 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 142 K (6.33 K/9), 55 BB (2.45 BB/9)

    I agree with Jimmy that there is going to be a big fall-off and I wouldn’t draft him as your fantasy ace. I would disagree that he doesn’t belong in the top 20, however. He may not be one of the elite, but he should be a solid fantasy pitcher once again.

  2. Tripp says:

    I don’t disagree at all that last year was likely his career year — but I guess what I would’ve liked to see in an analysis is how he performed month-to-month throughout the season. Was he consistent? Did he decline in the 2nd half? What does he attribute his sudden success to? New pitching coach, Lasik surgery, better conditioning, new religion, different diet….?

    Comparing his career numbers to last year is almost an apples vs oranges debate, and you will end up where everyone is projecting him: somewhere in-between. Which may be where he ends up, but I guess I was looking for a little more in-depth analysis out of this article (especially since I have him for my team this year!). Maybe his 2008 was so far off of career norms that he’s somewhat analysis-proof right now?!

    I think he’s a very interesting case. I do think 3.92 / 1.28 are monstrous drop-offs, and like to think he learned a little something last year that would result in better numbers. I’m hoping for 3.40 / 1.20. Thanks!

  3. Rotoprofessor says:

    Tripp, ask and you shall receive!

    His month-to-month was actually very consistent, with his worst month being a 3.41 ERA in June. He had three months under a 3 ERA, including his 0.96 April. That is almost unbelievable, considering how poorly he pitched in 2007.

    I think the best word to use to describe Lee is inconsistent, which has been the story of his career. 18 Wins in 2005 followed by a 4.41 ERA in ’06? How about his trip to the minors thanks to a 6.30 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 2007?

    The control was the big story for me, walking 34 batters in 31 starts. That’s just an insane ratio, and a huge drop-off from his career mark of 2.70. That’s still a great number, and I don’t think his control is going to completely disappear, but I just can’t expect him to be able to repeat that same type of performance. The inconsistency he has always shown could easily rear it’s ugly head.

    I just don’t see a 1.20 WHIP myself. With the 1.28 WHIP I projected him at, I had him at a very believable .300 BABIP (last season it was actually .305), to go along with a regression in BB/9. To maintain such a low WHIP, he’d have to continue to walk nearly no one, and I’m just not buying it.

  4. Jimmy says:

    The Rotoprofessor touched on his monthly splits, so I’ll just chime in about what Lee got from the minors. He started off his dismal ’07 season with an abdominal injury which forced him to begin the season on the DL and he just was never the same pitcher. A visit from his pitching coach, Carl Willis, last winter calmed him down and Lee just tried to master the basics of pitching again. It seemed he lacked confidence. In the minors he learned to get back to basics: command his fastball, get ahead in the count, and trust his offspeed pitches. So basically, it wasn’t really any huge groundbreaking event that triggered his resurgence.

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>