Cliff Lee, Cleveland and Caution: Why Caging Cliff Kills The Narrative

Warning teams against shelling out astronomically huge dollars for Cliff Lee is turning into a cottage industry. Still, it always seems to get only a brief mention that, as a starter in Cleveland, Cliff Lee had some huge issues:

Year Age Tm W L ERA GS CG IP H R HR BB SO HBP ERA+ HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB Awards
2003 24 CLE 3 3 3.61 9 0 52.1 41 28 7 20 44 2 122 1.2 3.4 7.6 2.20
2004 25 CLE 14 8 5.43 33 0 179.0 188 113 30 81 161 11 80 1.5 4.1 8.1 1.99
2005 26 CLE 18 5 3.79 32 1 202.0 194 91 22 52 143 0 111 1.0 2.3 6.4 2.75 CYA-4
2006 27 CLE 14 11 4.40 33 1 200.2 224 114 29 58 129 8 102 1.3 2.6 5.8 2.22
2007 28 CLE 5 8 6.29 16 1 97.1 112 73 17 36 66 7 72 1.6 3.3 6.1 1.83
2008 29 CLE 22 3 2.54 31 4 223.1 214 68 12 34 170 5 168 0.5 1.4 6.9 5.00 AS,CYA-1,MVP-12
2009 30 TOT 14 13 3.22 34 6 231.2 245 88 17 43 181 5 131 0.7 1.7 7.0 4.21
2009 30 CLE 7 9 3.14 22 3 152.0 165 53 10 33 107 3 135 0.6 2.0 6.3 3.24
2009 30 PHI 7 4 3.39 12 3 79.2 80 35 7 10 74 2 124 0.8 1.1 8.4 7.40
2010 31 TOT 12 9 3.18 28 7 212.1 195 84 16 18 185 1 130 0.7 0.8 7.8 10.28 AS,CYA-7
2010 31 SEA 8 3 2.34 13 5 103.2 92 31 5 6 89 0 168 0.4 0.5 7.7 14.83
2010 31 TEX 4 6 3.98 15 2 108.2 103 53 11 12 96 1 109 0.9 1.0 8.0 8.00
9 Seasons 102 61 3.85 218 20 1409.0 1419 661 150 350 1085 39 112 1.0 2.2 6.9 3.10
162 Game Avg. 16 9 3.85 34 3 218 219 102 23 54 168 6 112 1.0 2.2 6.9 3.10
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/13/2010.

Lee's success has never been hard to track. When he transformed from a player optioned to AAA into one that was good for a yearly Cy Young run, he did it by becoming an extreme control/command pitcher. His SO/BB was fourth best in baseball in 2008, seventh best in 2009 and, then in 2010, he posted the best SO/BB in baseball by, well, a lot. Cliff gets compared to Greg Maddux quite a bit, and it's pretty obvious why. Maddux pounded the strike zone just like Lee, especially in his best years. This isn't exclusively a Lee/Maddux formula, by the way. Many (if not most) really great pitchers post huge SO/BB numbers in their best years. You can pull off a great season with poor SO/BB numbers but, anecdotally, it certainly looks like the guys with poor SO/BB numbers are flashes in the pan (here's 191 such seasons) while the guys with nice SO/BB are the best pitchers of all time (here's 214 of those seasons). That's a long walk around to show something you probably already knew.

So, why isn't Lee worth all this money?
I spent some time a couple of weeks ago outlining exactly how good Lee is going to be expected to be, and that's a decent enough reason to not pay him. Just using common sense, Cliff Lee, as terrific as he's been, is likely not Randy Johnson. But, beyond the statistical difficulty of what Lee will be asked to do, it's always been hard for me, as a Cleveland fan, to believe that Cliff has truly transformed into one of the greatest pitchers in the world. His is the strangest Indians story I've ever followed. Just sampling from the last few years. From Jay at the start of 2008:

Lee deepened his improbable run as the game's most effective pitcher with a complete game shutout, as the national media joined Indians fans in collectively dropping their jaws...

 

False alarms:

Cliff Lee, greatest pitcher in the universe.
From Ryan at THT pre-2008: 
If it were my decision, I’d trade Lee and give the job to Laffey. Lee’s reputation rests largely on his 18-win* season in 2005. Since then, his strikeout rates have consistently dropped and his walk rates and SLG% have both risen. Even though it’s always difficult to give up healthy starting pitching, this is an instance where the Indians should sell high.

And from Ryan when Lee was optioned in 2007:

Optioned LHP Cliff Lee to Buffalo (AAA)

In order for the Indians to make this transaction, Lee needed to pass through revocable waivers. Most of the time, teams won't try to block this transaction. Cliff has an option remaining thanks to his early-career success, so he'll have an opportunity to hopefully regroup and figure out how to regain his former prowess. The Indians officially shipped him to Buffalo for Lee to work on his command, but judging from comments like this....

It's the right move," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "He's handled it extremely maturely. His competitiveness has always been a strength for him. He needs to use that competitiveness now to fuel himself to make adjustments."

..some of the adjustments have to come from Lee himself.

Lee's greatness has become so obvious and self-evident at this point that I feel obligated to constantly dig up these quotes to remind myself that he was a  pitcher that I would've given away for pennies on the dollar.

So, nuts and bolts wise, what changed for Cliff? Lee's command got much, much better, he became more deceptive with his delivery, and he apparently mastered his cutter, upping it's use in his pitch mix. And, if you look at the pitch values there underneath the mix, you'll see that his fastball became wildly valuable (obviously). What didn't change? His stuff is the same in terms of velocity, with at most a tick or two added to his fastball, and his iffy status as a health risk. It defies analysis that Lee has changed himself like he has or, more relevantly, that he can continue to operate at this level. If he loses any velocity as he enters his thirties, how will that affect this metamorphosis? Will his long-time abdominal problems rear their head more often as he gets older?

But, leaving rational analysis behind, the narrative of Cliff Lee is so absurd that I find it nearly impossible to believe that it's still transpiring. It all makes me think of the huge body of literature on the impossible pursuit of perfection (like Hawthorne's Birthmark) and the danger of wishes granted (Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw). Perfection or a wish might be granted for a few fleeting moments, but there's danger in the very pursuit of those things, let alone in embracing them as reality. Handing Cliff Lee a monstrous contract is an attempt to make his fairy tale real. His performance of the last few years will be reified by millions of dollars and millions of expectations.

The peculiar chemistry that has allowed Cliff to remain pitching at this level is a strange one, a combination of unique talents, ice-water, and drifter mystique. Lee has moved from town to town and plied his trade, mowing down batters in tough divisions and easy divisions, hitters parks and pitchers parks, regular seasons and playoffs, all with aplomb. He's not associated with any given team, having played with four in only two seasons, an unfathomable number for a pitcher as good as he is. He's the ultimate in baseball myths: the facts show that a fan of any team, from any corner of the league, could reasonably imagine Lee wandering onto their roster one day, becoming a part of their team. This line of thinking is extended when you hear commentators and fans alike drone on about how Cliff is such a joy to watch, how any true fan of the Game loves Cliff Lee. Not a true fan of a given team; a true fan of the capital-G Game. Even if Cliff Lee is handing it to your squad, you're supposed to appreciate the meticulous whooping he's administering. That's because Cliff's not an Indian or a Phillie, and he's not a Mariner or a Ranger. He's an Olympian, a traveling salesman giving out a time machine with every purchase, an itinerant, mercenary Dirty Harry, he's an Arkansas-native more than he's property of any given franchise (seriously-for what other player is that true?), he's the golden ticket that anyone could find, a killer whale in the wild wearing a saddle inscribed with your name, an uncaged bird singing like crazy. He's a fable. 

Is it too obvious that the fable will dry up and wither when this alchemy is adjusted? If, as Jacobs wrote, "fate rule[s] people's lives, and that those who interfere with it d[o] so to their sorrow", isn't an attempt to tether Lee's immortal greatness, heretofore shipped perpetually to and fro like some kind of mail-order personal assassin kit, to a single city and fanbase, an interference with fate, an open invitation to sorrow?

And, if that's the case, aren't the Yankees screwed?

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