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:
170 Strikeouts (6.85 K/9)
34 Walks (1.37 BB/9)
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?