Cliff Lee is still an awesome pitcher

April, 9, 2013
4/09/13
12:15
PM ET

Two stat lines below from 2012. Which pitcher had the better year?

Pitcher A: 211 IP, 207 H, 28 BB, 207 SO, 3.16 ERA, .255/.278/.411
Pitcher B: 199.1 IP, 149 H, 76 BB, 207 SO, 2.89 ERA, .206/.283/.299

Pretty close, no? You can obviously guess from the headline that one of the pitchers is Cliff Lee, and since you know he walks hitters about as often as it snows in Key West, you know he's Pitcher A. Pitcher B is Gio Gonzalez. Both will start Tuesday night in an interesting slate of pitchers to watch: Lee and Gonzalez are coming off scoreless outings, Tim Lincecum attempts to bounce back from an ugly, seven-walk performance, Josh Beckett starts against the Padres after a so-so first game, and Kris Medlen and Jarrod Parker and their nasty changeups make their second appearances.

With Lee and Gonzalez, I left out one key part of their 2012 numbers: Lee went 6-9 and got booed last season, while Gonzalez went 21-8 and finished third in the Cy Young voting. In terms of WAR, Gonzalez was at 4.9 versus Lee's 4.5 (per Baseball-Reference) and 5.0 versus 4.9 (FanGraphs).

I think the most interesting aspect of their 2012 seasons -- aside from Lee's bizarre win-loss record (the only other pitchers since 1920 to pitch at least 200 innings with an ERA under 3.50 and win six or fewer games were Bob Knepper in 1983 and Joey Hamilton in 1995) -- was the perception that Gonzalez had some sort of breakthrough season after coming over from Oakland. But as this article from Jeff Sullivan points out, the improvement was arguably all about Gonzalez's success against retiring opposing pitchers -- they went 1-for-53 against him with 41 strikeouts and one walk. Those 41 K's were the most against pitchers since Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan in 1972.

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As Jeff writes:
Let’s look at those again if we strip away the plate appearances against opposing pitchers. Adjusted strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 21.7%

Adjusted walk rates:

2011: 10.6%
2012: 9.8%


Gonzalez may also have benefited from some good luck. He allowed just nine home runs, after allowing 17 the year before for the A's (in a tough home run park, mind you). His percentage of home runs allowed on fly balls was 5.8 percent -- the lowest mark of all qualified starters. Now, it's possible that Gonzalez will again be really good at preventing home runs. More likely, he was a little lucky in that regard and will serve up a few more; he can balance that, however, by issuing a few fewer walks.

Gonzalez relies on that beautiful curveball of his; you don't really see many good curveballs these days as it seems more and more pitchers are going to the changeup as their off-speed weapon of choice. Anyway, Gonzalez's curve was nearly unhittable in 2012. In 177 plate appearances ending with a curveball, opposing batters hit .127 with one home run, two doubles, 85 strikeouts and eight walks. Yes, that's what we call a wipeout pitch. (In 2011, batters hit .197 off it with two home runs and 11 doubles.)

But Gonzalez still has to locate his fastball to set up the curve. If he's not locating the fastball, hitters can lay off the curveball.

As for Lee, location is rarely an issue. Over the past three seasons, Lee has walked 88 hitters in 90 starts. He's never going to beat himself. In checking out his heat map from his first start, his game plan is pretty simple: Pound the outside against righties, go inside against lefties:

Cliff Lee HeatmapESPNIn his first start against the Braves, Cliff Lee allowed two hits, no walks and fanned eight.


He did give up 26 home runs last year, so when he makes a mistake, it's in the strike zone.

So which guy is the better Cy Young candidate in 2013? I expect both to be terrific once again. Gonzalez has the better team around him, so while I do think Lee is the slightly better pitcher, Gonzalez is probably going to get better run support and better defensive support. But I'm pretty confident Lee will win more than six games.

Of course, if the Phillies fall out of the race ... those wins could come with another team as Lee's name could be hitting the rumor mill once again. But that's for the future. Tonight, let's enjoy two of the best left-handers in the business.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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