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Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Caution: Pitching 'technician' at work

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- As Texas pitcher Cliff Lee continues to pile up postseason wins, strikeouts and admirers -- not necessarily in that order -- the baseball people who have watched him dominate opposing lineups this October are finding it increasingly more difficult to put his achievements into words.

No less an authority than Rangers co-president Nolan Ryan has marveled at Lee's ability to dominate hitters to this extent without overwhelming velocity or a signature pitch. According to FanGraphs, Lee's average fastball velocity of 91.3 mph placed him in a tie (with Tim Lincecum and three others) for 42nd highest among major league starters. Lee doesn't have a John Smoltz slider, a Kevin Brown sinker or a Pedro Martinez changeup, but he's running through opposing lineups with a mastery that Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, two of the greatest pitchers in history, displayed on the biggest stage.

Texas reliever Darren O'Day refers to Lee as a "technician," because he never, ever strays from his approach no matter how many runners are on base or how stressful the circumstances. While many pitchers feel an adrenaline rush in big spots and react as if they're in a high-speed chase, Lee is able to control his emotions, maintain his mechanics and continue to tool along at 5 mph over the speed limit.

After Lee vanquished Tampa Bay 5-1 in the American League Division Series clincher, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux described him as "halfway kamikaze" for his relentless ability to carve up the strike zone.

Cliff Lee

Is he a freak mechanically? I don't think he's a freak. But I don't know another guy with the velocity he has who can control the front side of his delivery like he does.

-- Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp

"He personifies filling up the zone and being on the attack," Maddux said. "He's a baseline for what every pitching coach preaches: Trust your stuff. Attack the hitters. Command the count. He doesn't try to miss bats. He comes at you and says, 'If I make my pitch, you're out.' He thoroughly believes in himself."

The Rangers acquired Lee by trade from Seattle in July with hopes that he could be a difference-maker in October, but even they are bowled over by the results. Lee is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA this month, and 7-0, 1.26 over the past two postseasons. Only two pitchers with at least five postseason starts have lower ERAs: Koufax ranks first at 0.95, and Christy Mathewson is second at 1.06.

It's an understatement to say that Lee pitches with dispatch. He has a 34-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio this month, and he's thrown 71.4 percent of his 346 pitches for strikes, even while adjusting and becoming more circumspect early in counts. After throwing first-pitch strikes to 21 of 27 hitters in his 2010 playoff debut against Tampa Bay, Lee is only 38-for-60 in that department in his last two outings. It appears he's backed off a tad with the expectation that opposing lineups will come out swinging, but he still finds a way to swing the pendulum back in his direction quickly enough.

As Lee prepares to take the mound against San Francisco's Lincecum in a dream World Series Game 1 matchup, we thought it might be instructive to survey some outside observers regarding what makes him so successful. So ESPN.com solicited input from three respected pitching coaches -- Bryan Price of the Cincinnati Reds, Rick Knapp of the Detroit Tigers and former Atlanta and Baltimore pitching coach Leo Mazzone -- and asked them the following question:

"What precisely is it that allows Cliff Lee to do the things he does?"

The general consensus: a combination of athleticism, concentration, emotional calm and precision mechanics that lead to great deception and control.

"Is he a freak mechanically?" Knapp asked rhetorically. "I don't think he's a freak. But I don't know another guy with the velocity he has who can control the front side of his delivery like he does."

It's always tempting to make comparisons, and Mazzone and Price mentioned the same Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher as a fitting comparison to Lee. Strangely enough, it wasn't Koufax, Steve Carlton or one of the obvious names that spring to mind. Lee is a 6-foot-3 lefty, and Greg Maddux is (or was) a 6-foot righty, but they have some very important things in common. Most notably, there's no wasted motion from the moment they begin their delivery until the ball leaves their hand for home plate.

"They're both 'leverage' pitchers," Price said. "When their front foot lands, their arm is in that perfect 'L' position. That's what you preach to your pitchers -- to allow your arm to work and maximize its effort in front of you. When that arm comes forward, the arm speed is all in front of your body. With a lot of pitchers, they start to drift and that front side will come open early, and they don't get through the ball as consistently as you would like.

Cliff Lee

[Lee] can either freeze you with a fastball away, or lock you up with a fastball in, and he'll throw his off-speed stuff in any count. He has an extreme amount of trust in himself, which leads to confidence, which leads to control.


-- Former pitching coach Leo Mazzone

"Guys like Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden were great with their ability to create 'plane' to the catcher's mitt and drive the ball downhill. But Maddux and Lee are the two best I've seen in my time in the big leagues. Their mechanics and the timing of their arm stroke is so consistent, they just dial it in and lock up on those two corners. They go back and forth with sink and cut on both sides, and they're so meticulous with their command. It's so efficient -- it's almost like watching a video game."

For all the talk about Lee's golden arm, his strong foundation plays an equally important role in his success. He's able to repeat his delivery time after time because he's so consistent with his legs, his hips and his bottom half. When Lee rocks back in his motion, or lands with his right foot, or follows through with his left, or steps back to receive the throw from the catcher, there's precious little variation in where his cleat lands.

"The terminology for what we want pitchers to do is 'Stick your landing,"' Knapp said. "When your front foot hits the front side of that ground, it's soft enough that your knee is gonna give, but you want to remain under control enough that your body is squared up and you don't fall sideways. I remember watching Nolan Ryan pitch years ago and he was like that. He'd leave spike marks in the ground and there wasn't even a footprint."

Mazzone, who had the privilege of working with Maddux, Smoltz and Tom Glavine for years in Atlanta, said Lee's ability to conceal the ball and throw with such a smooth delivery enhances the quality of his stuff. His fastball gets on hitters so quickly, it seems faster than 92 or 93 mph.

"He can either freeze you with a fastball away, or lock you up with a fastball in, and he'll throw his off-speed stuff in any count," Mazzone said. "He has an extreme amount of trust in himself, which leads to confidence, which leads to control.

"A lot of pitchers walk guys because they don't trust that the pitches they're throwing are going to work. The key, to me, is command of the fastball. Maddux used to tell me, 'Leo, everybody says I'm the smartest pitcher in baseball. It's amazing how smart you can be when you can put your fastball where you want it any time you want.' That's what I think about when I see Cliff Lee."

Lee's smorgasbord of offerings runs the gamut. He can throw his two-seam fastball down and in to lefties or away from righties, and ride the four-seamer up in the zone. He has a slow curve for lefties, and a cutter that sails in on right-handers' fists -- in a reverse Mariano Rivera. Since Lee is usually ahead in the count, he has the ability to dictate pitch sequence and keep hitters guessing.

Lee also possesses a certain something pitching coaches can't teach. That tunnel vision might make him a boring interview, but it's allowed him to become a heck of a big-game pitcher.

"You can have the bases loaded and nobody out against him, and you're excited," Price said. "But you think, 'Are we really at that big of an advantage?' Chances are he's still not going to give in and give you something good to hit. He's still going to feel like he's in the driver's seat and look like he's in complete control."

A contrarian might argue that Lee is due to show his human side eventually in the postseason. And the focus on Lee should in no way be perceived as a slight to Lincecum, who struck out 14 Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series and is capable of doing wonderful things each time out.

But at the moment, it's a Cliff Lee October, and connoisseurs of great pitching can only revel in what they're watching.

"I see a guy who's supremely confident, who has an idea exactly what he wants to do, and he's doing it," Price said. "I don't know how you disrupt that right now."

The Rays and Yankees took a crack at Lee, and they're sitting at home. Now it's the Giants' turn.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.