What Is Asked of Cliff

Cliff Lee is a very big deal these days. Sometime soon, probably in the next week, he'll sign a huge, huge contract and be expected to perform at any incredibly high level. What level, exactly, are his future employers going to expect? And what are they likely to get? 

In 2008, Cliff Lee became one of the best pitchers in baseball. Since that time, he's pitched remarkably well, averaging 222 innings pitched with an ERA+ of 142. This puts him as one of the clear-cut best pitchers of that three-year run:

Rk Player ERA+ IP From To Age GS CG SHO W-L% H R BB SO ERA HR
1 Roy Halladay 157 735.2 2008 2010 31-33 98 27 10 .652 685 244 104 633 2.67 64
2 Felix Hernandez 155 689.0 2008 2010 22-24 99 10 2 .594 592 246 221 624 2.69 49
3 Tim Lincecum 152 664.2 2008 2010 24-26 98 7 4 .690 544 225 228 757 2.83 39
4 Johan Santana 143 600.0 2008 2010 29-31 88 7 4 .615 541 208 164 496 2.85 59
5 Cliff Lee 141 667.1 2008 2010 29-31 93 17 5 .658 654 240 95 536 2.98 45
6 CC Sabathia 139 720.2 2008 2010 27-29 103 14 6 .695 629 273 200 645 3.07 57
7 Jon Lester 139 621.2 2008 2010 24-26 97 6 2 .685 555 239 213 602 3.29 48
8 Ubaldo Jimenez 135 638.1 2008 2010 24-26 100 6 2 .590 529 257 280 584 3.43 34
9 Zack Greinke 133 651.2 2008 2010 24-26 98 10 3 .549 616 265 162 606 3.25 50
10 Matt Cain 131 658.2 2008 2010 23-25 100 9 3 .515 571 252 225 534 3.27 63
11 Dan Haren 129 680.1 2008 2010 27-29 101 6 2 .583 641 279 132 645 3.47 77
12 Ryan Dempster 129 622.0 2008 2010 31-33 98 3 1 .614 568 279 227 567 3.49 61
13 John Danks 125 608.1 2008 2010 23-25 97 2 1 .563 555 256 200 470 3.61 61
14 Cole Hamels 122 629.2 2008 2010 24-26 98 5 4 .529 584 258 157 575 3.46 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

Lee is unique within that group in that he's coming to market this year;  nearly all of the others listed are signed through at least 2013. Reasonably, Cliff's future employer will want him to be one of the very best pitchers in baseball. Using some stupidly quick and dirty guesswork, let's say that Lee will be expected to pitch a minimum of 180 innings a year with an ERA+ of 130. This doesn't strike me as a overly-demanding; it's below the baseline that Lee himself has established. 


How realistic of an expectation would that be, though? Since integration, only 28 left-handed starters Lee's age have met that standard for even one season (about 45 righties have pulled this off):

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Randy Johnson 4 1997 2000 33-36 Ind. Seasons
2 Tom Glavine 3 1998 2002 32-36 Ind. Seasons
3 Steve Carlton 3 1977 1981 32-36 Ind. Seasons
4 Al Leiter 2 1998 2000 32-34 Ind. Seasons
5 Tommy John 2 1977 1979 34-36 Ind. Seasons
6 Curt Simmons 2 1961 1963 32-34 Ind. Seasons
7 Andy Pettitte 1 2005 2005 33-33 Ind. Seasons
8 Kenny Rogers 1 1998 1998 33-33 Ind. Seasons
9 Jamie Moyer 1 1998 1998 35-35 Ind. Seasons
10 Chuck Finley 1 1998 1998 35-35 Ind. Seasons
11 Jeff Fassero 1 1996 1996 33-33 Ind. Seasons
12 David Wells 1 1995 1995 32-32 Ind. Seasons
13 Frank Viola 1 1993 1993 33-33 Ind. Seasons
14 Mark Langston 1 1993 1993 32-32 Ind. Seasons
15 Jimmy Key 1 1993 1993 32-32 Ind. Seasons
16 John Tudor 1 1988 1988 34-34 Ind. Seasons
17 Larry Gura 1 1980 1980 32-32 Ind. Seasons
18 Jerry Koosman 1 1979 1979 36-36 Ind. Seasons
19 Mike Cuellar 1 1969 1969 32-32 Ind. Seasons
20 Bob Veale 1 1968 1968 32-32 Ind. Seasons
21 Whitey Ford 1 1962 1962 35-35 Ind. Seasons
22 Don Mossi 1 1961 1961 32-32 Ind. Seasons
23 Warren Spahn 1 1953 1953 32-32 Ind. Seasons
24 Eddie Lopat 1 1951 1951 33-33 Ind. Seasons
25 Max Lanier 1 1950 1950 34-34 Ind. Seasons
Rk Yrs From To Age
26 Preacher Roe 1 1949 1949 33-33 Ind. Seasons
27 Ken Heintzelman 1 1949 1949 33-33 Ind. Seasons
28 Harry Brecheen 1 1948 1948 33-33 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

Even more disturbingly, only six players met those benchmarks in more than a single season. The obvious response is that, well, how many of the guys on that list were ever as good as Lee has been from 28-31? Fair enough. But, it's obvious that achieving the standard we've set (180 IP, 130 ERA+) are much easier when a player is younger. Again, the lef-handers that did it, but this time from 27-31 (to mirror the imaginary 32-36 contract I've put on Lee):

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Sandy Koufax 4 1963 1966 27-30 Ind. Seasons
2 Cliff Lee 3 2008 2010 29-31 Ind. Seasons
3 Johan Santana 3 2006 2010 27-31 Ind. Seasons
4 Tom Glavine 3 1995 1997 29-31 Ind. Seasons
5 Frank Viola 3 1987 1990 27-30 Ind. Seasons
6 Gary Peters 3 1964 1967 27-30 Ind. Seasons
7 CC Sabathia 2 2008 2010 27-29 Ind. Seasons
8 Randy Johnson 2 1993 1995 29-31 Ind. Seasons
9 Chuck Finley 2 1990 1993 27-30 Ind. Seasons
10 Mark Langston 2 1989 1991 28-30 Ind. Seasons
11 Teddy Higuera 2 1986 1988 27-29 Ind. Seasons
12 Charlie Leibrandt 2 1985 1987 28-30 Ind. Seasons
13 Ron Guidry 2 1978 1979 27-28 Ind. Seasons
14 Whitey Ford 2 1956 1958 29-31 Ind. Seasons
15 Jonathan Sanchez 1 2010 2010 27-27 Ind. Seasons
16 Wandy Rodriguez 1 2009 2009 30-30 Ind. Seasons
17 Joe Saunders 1 2008 2008 27-27 Ind. Seasons
18 Erik Bedard 1 2007 2007 28-28 Ind. Seasons
19 Jarrod Washburn 1 2002 2002 27-27 Ind. Seasons
20 Mike Sirotka 1 2000 2000 29-29 Ind. Seasons
21 Mike Hampton 1 2000 2000 27-27 Ind. Seasons
22 Denny Neagle 1 1997 1997 28-28 Ind. Seasons
23 Al Leiter 1 1996 1996 30-30 Ind. Seasons
24 Kenny Rogers 1 1995 1995 30-30 Ind. Seasons
25 Greg Swindell 1 1992 1992 27-27 Ind. Seasons
Rk Yrs From To Age
26 Jimmy Key 1 1991 1991 30-30 Ind. Seasons
27 Zane Smith 1 1990 1990 29-29 Ind. Seasons
28 Bruce Hurst 1 1989 1989 31-31 Ind. Seasons
29 Bob Ojeda 1 1986 1986 28-28 Ind. Seasons
30 John Tudor 1 1985 1985 31-31 Ind. Seasons
31 Mike Flanagan 1 1979 1979 27-27 Ind. Seasons
32 Jon Matlack 1 1978 1978 28-28 Ind. Seasons
33 Mike Caldwell 1 1978 1978 29-29 Ind. Seasons
34 Doug Rau 1 1976 1976 27-27 Ind. Seasons
35 Steve Carlton 1 1972 1972 27-27 Ind. Seasons
36 Wilbur Wood 1 1971 1971 29-29 Ind. Seasons
37 Sam McDowell 1 1970 1970 27-27 Ind. Seasons
38 Fritz Peterson 1 1969 1969 27-27 Ind. Seasons
39 Chris Short 1 1967 1967 29-29 Ind. Seasons
40 Jim Kaat 1 1966 1966 27-27 Ind. Seasons
41 Juan Pizarro 1 1964 1964 27-27 Ind. Seasons
42 Jim O'Toole 1 1964 1964 27-27 Ind. Seasons
43 Billy Pierce 1 1958 1958 31-31 Ind. Seasons
44 Harvey Haddix 1 1953 1953 27-27 Ind. Seasons
45 Hal Newhouser 1 1948 1948 27-27 Ind. Seasons
46 Eddie Lopat 1 1947 1947 29-29 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

There's hope for Lee in this table, obviously-he's one of the few pitchers to ever put up a run like this from 27-31, and those in his immediate cohort include the champions of the first list: Glavine and Johnson.

If we try to allow for the standards to be relaxed in a given season, but still meet minimums of 600 IP and 130 ERA+, as well as including both righties and lefties between 30 and 36, the list is even more indicative of the players that Cliff Lee's being compared to:


Rk Player ERA+ IP From To Age GS CG SHO W-L% H R BB SO ERA HR Tm
1 Randy Johnson 170 1425.1 1994 2000 30-36 194 50 20 .740 1098 494 471 1914 2.75 130 SEA-TOT-ARI
2 Kevin Brown 159 1497.2 1995 2001 30-36 213 32 11 .654 1266 503 340 1279 2.65 84 BAL-FLA-SDP-LAD
3 Greg Maddux 158 1629.2 1996 2002 30-36 238 32 14 .676 1523 565 244 1170 2.76 102 ATL
4 Roy Halladay 146 961.0 2007 2010 30-33 129 34 11 .661 917 345 152 772 2.91 79 TOR-PHI
5 Chris Carpenter 145 912.1 2005 2010 30-35 132 16 8 .711 793 321 200 730 2.88 67 STL
6 Bob Gibson 145 1892.0 1966 1972 30-36 227 152 36 .650 1513 575 527 1576 2.42 94 STL
7 David Cone 143 1323.0 1993 1999 30-36 189 22 7 .653 1085 522 525 1193 3.27 120 KCR-TOT-NYY
8 Roger Clemens 141 1431.1 1993 1999 30-36 207 26 11 .605 1214 581 550 1443 3.38 106 BOS-TOR-NYY
9 Curt Schilling 141 1597.2 1997 2003 30-36 217 52 11 .631 1406 600 312 1742 3.23 183 PHI-TOT-ARI
10 John Tudor 138 1160.1 1984 1990 30-36 169 29 13 .661 1032 386 267 606 2.66 87 PIT-STL-TOT-LAD
11 Pedro Martinez 136 1089.2 2002 2008 30-36 171 10 2 .672 911 435 285 1136 3.30 103 BOS-NYM
12 Tom Glavine 135 1623.2 1996 2002 30-36 243 19 9 .659 1525 637 561 1023 3.21 134 ATL
13 Gaylord Perry 132 2248.2 1969 1975 30-36 272 174 31 .574 1912 816 608 1526 2.78 174 SFG-CLE-TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/29/2010.

There will be plenty of mathematical formulae put to work in the next month to show us what Lee will have to do, in terms of wins or value added to a team, in order to live up to his eventual mega-contract. However, when we look at this using some straight forward counting stats, it's clear that Lee is going to have a great deal to live up to in the mind of the reasonably well-informed fan (and, perhaps, in the mind of his not particularly statistically-inclined bosses). He will be asked to pitch at a hall of fame level at an age when very, very few pitchers, and left-handers particularly, are able to do so. Those that do are, essentially by definition, hall of famers. In choosing to pay out the nose for Cliff Lee, some team will be betting that he's a guy headed for Cooperstown, like Randy Johnson or Steve Carlton, as opposed to Frank Viola. Though, if Viola ends up what Lee is, that's not all bad. 

The reason I wanted to pull these benchmarks up and to see which players had reached them was because most people are going to be valuing Lee off these kinds of comparisons. There are huge holes in this style of analysis from the perspective of either a logician or a mathematician but, for better or worse, this is largely the type of analysis (combined with his eventual team's playoff performance) that will determine whether Cliff Lee and his contract are eventually deemed a success. When you recognize who he's being compared to, it becomes obvious how intense the pressure on Lee is going to be. Not that pressure has ever bothered him before. 
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