Another Phillies Phatality: The Real Story Behind Cliff Lee’s 2012 Campaign

Cliff Lee photo taken from Google Images

I originally wanted to title this piece “The Curious Case of Cliff Lee,” but then realized that would upset some baseball bloggers and a certain Mr. Benjamin Button. there first. Clichéd headline aside, the Phillies’ super starter has had quite a topsy-turvy season thus far, one of many Philadelphia players to underachieve this year. Pitching for a team sporting a 37-50 record, Lee’s ERA sits at an ugly 3.98 with a disturbing 1-5 record. The single win came on the Fourth of July after a string of 13 no-decisions and losses; that’s pretty darn unimpressive for a pitcher whom many analysts picked to win the NL Cy Young award.


Lee’s subpar performance has killed both Phillies fans and fantasy manager alike. I traded away both Nationals’ phenom Bryce Harper and Angels’ slugger Mark Trumbo for the southpaw, and felt sorely disappointed two weeks in. However, I think there is more to the story than the questionable ERA. For any fantasy owners that are as bummed as I am, don’t panic; I’m convinced that he will return to form.


Firstly, take a look at his stats since 2008:


Year Wins Losses Strikeouts ERA WHIP
2008 22 3 170 2.54 1.11
2009 14 13 181 3.22 1.24
2010 12 9 185 3.18 1.00
2011 17 8 238 2.40 1.03


The numbers speak for themselves; Lee has been a fantasy stud for the past four seasons, averaging a 2.84 unweighted ERA and194 strikeouts per year, garnering himself the 2008 AL Cy Young for his 22-win campaign. Frankly, you are silly if his current stat line scares you. He may not net 238 punch-out like last season, but this guy is a proven talent.


If traditional statistics don’t do it for you, the sabermetrics proves that he will bounce back. His 9.06 K/9 ratio is in the same ballpark as last year’s mark (9.21), and this rate is two strikeouts higher than his 7.35 career average, so you should expect Lee to continue whiffing batters at an exceptional clip. The same can be said for his BB/9 rate: 1.62 in 2012, 1.62 in 2011, and 1.85 career exemplify Lee’s exceptional ability to hit his spots and control the strike zone. Together, they produce 5:1, 4.2:1, 10.2:1, and 5.7:1 K:BB ratios from 2008-2011, which are truly impressive. Lee has the reputation of a control artist with nasty stuff, and with about 5 strikeouts for every walk this season, that’s not going change.


More importantly, his 3.00 FIP and 3.06 xFIP currently sit almost a run lower than his 3.98 ERA, which suggests that he has been getting horribly unlucky this season. Injuries have decimated the Phillies, and their defense has become a porous mix of inexperienced rookies and aging has-beens. With Ultimate Zone Ratings (UZRs) ranging between 2.2 and -7.1 for four qualified players (Fangraphs), the Phillies are clearly a subpar defensive team, and have probably let a few gettable balls get away, allowing runs to score. Assuming that pitchers can only completely control strikeouts, walks, and home runs (which is a fair assumption), it’s clear that some untimely mishaps in the field have been killing Lee’s ERA and WHIP.


Notice to fantasy owners: a savvy manager should snare Lee while he appears vulnerable and washed-up. An oblique strain shelved him for a few starts, but that should not deter from trying to pay 75 cents on the dollar for him. After all, the injury was an issue of misuse by the Phillies’ skipper Charlie Manuel, who was clearly dumb to push his starter through ten innings in a relatively meaningless April game.


Don’t be concerned by the wins (or rather a lack of wins). Wins generally correlate with a pitcher’s performance, but the offense and bullpen have a large influence. Out of 7 quality starts before July, Lee had an 0-1 record with 6 no-decisions that could have easily been wins with a good offense and bullpen. In other words, wins don’t matter as much as how a starter can rack up strikeouts and lowering your ERA and WHIP. The Mariners’ Felix Hernandez proved that by earning Cy Young honors in 2009 with only a 13-12 record, but clearly outpitched the field with 232 K and a 2.27 ERA.


Last but not least, consider the fact that the Phillies’ southpaw has the ability to go on incredible streaks. While he coughed up a whopping 22 earned runs in 32.1 innings this June, he held hitters to only two runs through 39.2 innings during the entire month of August 2009. I might be an optimist, but I’d take the first streak as sign of his fantasy value through the rest of 2012. If his 8-inning, 2-run, 9-strikeout gem versus the Mets last week was any indication, he has the ability to light up at any moment, and should be on your fantasy radar as the second half gets underway.

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