After a stellar start to the season, Cliff Lee is headed to New York to represent the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2013 MLB All-Star Game. Owner of a 10-3 record and a 2.86 ERA, Lee has been Philadelphia’s best player so far this season and continues to be one of the best pitchers in the game.
But there’s more to Lee than wins and losses. He's the team's ace, their workhorse, and if the Phillies are smart, the key piece that will keep them in the hunt for October.
Lee's first 19 starts tell us a lot about the player and about this Phillies team moving forward.
Cliff Lee is not Roy Halladay
Phillies fans watched in horror as the once mighty Roy Halladay became a shell of his former self this year, posting an ERA of 8.65 before hitting the disabled list in early May.
Halladay is only 15 months older than Lee, but fans should not expect the same rapid decline out of the veteran left-hander.
Like Halladay, Lee's fastball velocity has declined this year. The difference is Lee's heater has actually become more effective according to Fangraphs.
With a Pitch Value of 23.6, Lee's fastball is more than six points from last season. PITCHf/x calculates that per every 100 pitches, Lee’s fastball is saving 2.82 runs more than an average pitch and twice as effective as it has been at any other point in his career.
When he is on his game, Lee paints the corners with a variety of fastballs, most of which are coming in between 89-91 mph. Yet he is able to keep hitters off-balance in a way that Halladay could not.
Watch the footage from Lee’s stellar performance against the Minnesota Twins from June 13th to see how effective he is at locating his fastball to get hitters out.
It's not an overpowering pitch, but mixed with his good curveball and changeup, it's an effective pitch that will keep him producing for years to come.
Cliff Lee is unbeatable with run support
Cliff Lee is the same pitcher he was last year, but the difference between 2012 and 2013 has come down to run support.
In 14 of his 19 starts this year, the Phillies' offense has scored at least three runs, according to data from baseball-reference.com. In his three losses combined, he has received exactly one run in support.
There is a big difference between pitching with a lead and pitching to keep the game close, and Lee is much better when pitching with a lead.
Watch the highlights from the team’s loss to the Indians from May 1. More than once the offense comes up empty with runners in scoring position, and as a result, Lee is pitching from behind the whole game and ends up leaving pitches out over the plate as he tries to overcompensate by making perfect pitches.
If the offense is there, it takes the pressure off Lee and completely changes the way he approaches a hitter.
The Phillies need Lee to be a workhorse
Cliff Lee has been brilliant all season, but the rest of the pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. Six other starting pitchers and a rotating cast of characters in the bullpen have combined to go 36-44 with a 4.38 ERA, according to numbers from baseball-reference.com
Because the bullpen has been such a question mark, and because the team's other starting pitchers have struggled with inconsistency, the Phillies need Lee to pitch deep into every game he starts.
In his 19 starts this year, Lee is averaging about 7.1 innings. Only three times has he failed to make it seven full innings, and only once has been pulled before completing six. Lee’s longevity might be the only thing saving the otherwise mediocre pitching staff.
According to baseball-reference.com, Phillies starters are averaging just 5.2 innings the day before Lee starts. The night after Lee pitches, starters are averaging 6.2 innings per game.
If you do the math, that means Lee has saved the bullpen nearly 50 innings of work compared to those starting around him. That is a big deal for a team that is still searching for answers at the back end of the bullpen.
Lee throws too many strikes
Every pitcher wants to throw strikes, but Cliff Lee takes that to another level, and sometimes it is too his detriment.
As ESPN’s Jayson Stark pointed out, Lee pounded the strike zone in Wednesday night's loss to the Washington Nationals.
The problem is he lost.
In his last two starts Lee is 0-1 with a no decision. He did not allow a walk in either game, but he was knocked around for 17 hits. Opponents were batting more than .300 against him in those two starts, according to baseball-reference.com.
Lee’s best game of the season was his nine-inning shutout against the Marlins on May 22. He was not perfect that night, allowing a pair of walks and even hitting a batter. But by keeping pitches out of the strike zone, he kept hitters off-balance and only gave up three hits.
In his three losses, Lee has given up an average of 8.3 hits compared to just 5.1 in his wins. Walking dangerous hitters takes the bat out of their hands and limits the damage they can do. Lee gave up four home runs on Wednesday night. By walking just one of those hitters he could have changed the course of the game.
Philadelphia can’t compete without him
This should go without saying, but the Phillies need Cliff Lee on the roster to be competitive. Yet many fans and experts assume Lee will be gone before the trade deadline.
Unless the Phillies get genuine major league talent in return, trading him makes no sense.
According to FanGraphs.com, Lee has a WAR of 3.1 this season. Both ZiPS and Steamer project him to finish the year with a WAR over 5.0, meaning the Phillies would be five games worse at the end of the season than they would with him.
If the Phillies are going to make a playoff run this year, Lee is too valuable to give up. The two victories he is worth between now and the end of the season could be the difference between playing in October and missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
As Danny Knobler of CBS Sports reported, Lee is not on the market, no matter how badly other teams want him.
That should not change going forward because Cliff Lee is the key to the Phillies future.