Rising to stardom: Cliff Lee
July, 20, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Eric Hartline/US PresswireCliff Lee is 9-6 with a 2.83 ERA in 2011, including an MLB-leading four shutouts.Cliff Lee was born in and attended high school in Benton, Ark., the home headquarters of Wal-Mart. Drafted in the eighth round out of high school by the Marlins, he instead attended junior college in Mississippi. The Orioles drafted him in the 20th round, but he decided to attend Arkansas. After striking out 77 hitters in 65 innings as junior, the Expos selected him in the fourth round of the 2000 draft and he began his professional career.
He spent the rest of 2000 at Cape Fear of the South Atlantic League. As an experienced college pitcher, he should have fared well in the low Class A and he did strike out 63 batters in 44.2 innings, but he also walked 36 and allowed 50 hits, posting a 5.24 ERA. Baseball America named him Montreal's 21st-best prospect entering the 2001 season, writing, "Based on pure stuff, the Expos thought Lee was one of the top three college left-handers available in the 2000 draft. ... He has a prototype pitcher's body with long arms and legs. Lee has two plus pitches, an 88-94 mph fastball and a curveball. ... Lee didn't have much success in 2000 at Cape Fear, primarily because he has an inconsistent delivery that hampers his ability to throw strikes."
The report also mentioned his lack of stamina, a reason he had pitched some out of the bullpen at Arkansas. John Sickels gave Lee a C grade, citing the control issues and possibility that he'd end up in the bullpen. Anyway, even with the control issues, in retrospect the strikeout rate, good build and raw stuff suggests it was a little odd that BA ranked him so low in the Expos' organization.
Lee pitched much better in the Florida State League in 2001, with a 2.79 ERA in 20 starts. He pitched 109.2 innings, allowed 78 hits, but most importantly cut his walks to 46 while striking out 129. It was a good showing, but not enough to impress Baseball America. He didn't rank in their top 100 prospects before the 2002 season. That quickly changed as Lee was promoted to Double-A in 2002. He was leading the Eastern League in strikeouts when he was included in a trade with the Indians along with Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore that sent Bartolo Colon to the Expos. Minaya's Folly proved a boon to the Indians and was the final straw in the destruction of the Expos in Montreal.
Lee earned a late-season promotion to Cleveland, making two starts, and Baseball America named him the No. 30 prospect in baseball before the 2003 season. BA wrote, "His fastball sits 91-93 mph, his slider has good late action, and his curveball and changeup give hitters something else to worry about. Lee is so smooth that hitters don't get a good read on his pitches until they're halfway to the plate." Clearly, he had ironed out his once inconsistent mechanics. BA named him Cleveland's No. 3 prospect, behind Phillips and Victor Martinez, citing only a concern that his fastball velocity had dipped in September, perhaps due to an increase in his overall innings.
Lee strained an abdominal muscle in spring training in 2003. He was eventually sent to Triple-A, but pitched well in nine major league starts that season. From 2004-06, he went 46-24 with a 4.50 ERA in the majors, averging 6.7 K's and 3.0 walks per nine innings. He was a solid big league pitcher, a little prone to the long ball, but hardly a Cy Young contender. Things fell apart for him in 2007. He struggled so much (6.29 ERA) that he was sent to the minors and wasn't included on Cleveland's postseason roster.
But Lee's rise to greatness took another turn in 2008. He won his first six starts, posting an ERA under 1.00, and finished 22-3, 2.54 to win the AL Cy Young Award. He walked just 34 batters all season. A guy who once had so much trouble throwing strikes that many envisioned him as a reliever had become the premier control pitcher in baseball. It sounds simple, but throwing more quality strikes was the key.
"It's easier to be aware of those things when you're keeping your mind in the moment and not allowing your mind to drift," Lee said after winning the Cy Young Award. "Just focus on what you're doing right now and make adjustments on the fly and make them work their way on base." You can see that focus when watching Lee pitch now, his mind a blank state of concentration with every pitch.
Lee has continued to improve his strikeout rate since 2008 -- it was 6.9 then, 9.0 in 2011 -- while maintaining his excellent control. He's developed into a clutch postseason pitcher, going 7-2, 2.13 in 10 playoff starts. Not bad for the 105th pick of the 2000 draft.