With the Phillies currently in last place in the NL East, their fans are getting a tad bit nervous as we enter July. The major target of their frustrations is $20 million man Cliff Lee, who is still without a win this season in his 13 starts. Because of his lack of wins, and an ERA that is currently above 4.00, some fans are jumping all over the thought that something must be wrong with Lee, either physically or mentally. Well…don't be so sure about that.
Despite the 4.13 ERA that Lee is currently toting, his ERA predictors are nowhere near that awful. His FIP is 3.02 and his xFIP are 3.06, both of which are damn fine numbers among the best in the league. His fWAR is 2.2, which is higher than guys like Clayton Kershaw, CJ Wilson, David Price, and Yu Darvish…all of whom have thrown more innings than Lee. No one is talking about what their problems are, are they?
Lee's peripheral stats are right where you'd expect them to be. He's struck out 89 in 89 1/3 innings, and has walked 19…while his 4.68 strikeout to walk ratio is down a full point from last year, it's still the fifth best mark in baseball (oddly, his teammate Joe Blanton is one of the pitchers ahead of him. Bet you didn't expect that). Lee's homer rate has gone up in each of the last three seasons, but his 0.91 rate is still below the league average, and his 10.8% HR/FB ratio is below the league rate of 11.2%. That's not a sign of something being wrong with Lee, that's a sign of regression, which happens in all pitchers. You can't expect a guy to keep a rate under 10% for his entire career, which is where Lee has been for the last four years.
Lee's batted ball numbers are nearly identical to last year. His line drive rate has actually dropped to 18.8%, and his groundball and flyball rates have slightly risen. Well, that doesn't explain much of anything. His velocity is also identical comparing this year to last year. There's no huge drop that would seem to indicate that Lee has a lingering injury sabotaging his game.
But looking at swing rates, you see a slight difference. Hitters are swinging a tad bit more at Lee's pitches, but they're making more contact…oddly, that contact rate is still lower than every year since Lee's rebirth with the Indians in 2008. The same goes for his percentage of swinging strikes, which is down in comparison to last year, but largely consistent with his rates since 2008.
So why is Lee's ERA more than a run higher than all of his predictors? Well, it's crappy luck. His BABIP is .333, 40 points higher than the league average, and his strand rate is just 70.2%, 2% lower than the league rate and more than 11% lower than last season's mark with the Phillies. You can pin those numbers on the Phillies' defense behind Lee, which has been a disaster. Ty Wigginton has been terrible at both corners, Placido Polanco has been bad at third, and Hunter Pence has been a disaster in right. Philadelphia's cumulative defense has been one of the worst in the NL this year, based on both UZR and DRS. But then again, they were pretty bad last year too. As for the strand rate…the Phillies bullpen is terrible. They've allowed 31 of 80 inherited runners to score this year. Compare that to the Nationals, who have allowed 21 of 78 to score, or the Braves, who have allowed 26 of 94 to score, and realize what a terrible mark that is. Regression is a scary monster.
To summarize, there isn't a damn thing wrong with Cliff Lee. Yes, his ERA is up this year. But it has nothing to do with Lee being an inferior pitcher, or being hurt. It's just basic regression, and it happens to every pitcher in the league. Now, if he stops striking out a hitter an inning, starts walking the farm, and has a velocity drop….then, you can be concerned.
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