Last night, Cliff Lee dominated the Dodgers, throwing eight shutout innings, while striking out 10 batters without walking anyone. In other words, it was just your normal Cliff Lee start. For the season, Lee now has 38 strikeouts against two walks; this is just what he does. But just because we’re used to Cliff Lee’s ridiculous command doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remember to appreciate it.
Here’s a fun fact you may not know. Since the start of the 2008 season, when Lee underwent his career rebirth, he’s been the most valuable pitcher in baseball, and that doesn’t really change regardless of how you evaluate pitchers.
Here are the top 10 pitchers in FIP-based WAR, since 2008.
And here are the top 10 pitchers in RA9-based WAR, since 2008.
By FIP, Lee has a +1 WAR advantage over second place, and a +5 WAR advantage over third place. By RA9, Lee has a +4 WAR advantage over both second and third place. There are a handful of pitchers who haven’t been much worse than Lee over the last six-plus years, but none have matched Lee’s sustained excellence, whether you’re only counting things that pitchers control the most or all the of the outcomes that occur when they are on the mound. For the last six years, Cliff Lee has just been remarkably and consistently awesome.
And he’s showing no signs of decline. When Lee made his big leap forward in 2008, he did it by pounding the strike zone and convincing hitters to chase when he threw pitches out of the zone. That year, Lee was #1 in MLB in Zone% (58%) and #8 in MLB in opponents O-Swing% (33%); through his first five starts in 2014, Lee is #8 in MLB in Zone% (55%) and #9 in MLB in opponents O-Swing% (36%). He’s followed the league wide trend of throwing more pitches out of the zone, but opponents are still going after them, and now, they just don’t make contact.
Here’s the rate of contact opponents have made when they chase Lee’s out-of-zone pitches over his run of dominance. Note the trend.
This isn’t something Lee is exceptional at, as league average contact rate on pitches out of the zone is just 62%, but as Lee has gotten older, he’s sustained his ability to get hitters to swing at bad pitches, while getting better at getting them to swing-and-miss at bad pitches. As a result, Lee is allowing less contact than ever before, even as age has stolen some of his prior velocity. Over the last few years, Lee has seen his velocity slightly tick downwards, but it hasn’t showed up in his performance. At all.
In the first few years of his career rejuvenation, Lee’s dominance was strongly tied to his ability to limit home runs, which isn’t necessarily a skill you want to build your career around. However, as his HR/FB rate has climbed, he’s offset the higher home run rates with higher strikeout rates, and for the first few weeks of 2014, he’s also just stopped walking anyone, ever.
For the first few years of his career, Lee was a pitch-to-contact fly ball guy with a home run problem. It’s easy to still think of him as a pitch-to-contact guy, given his crazy low walk rates and below average velocity, but hitters are making contact against Lee at about the same rate they’re making contact against Chris Archer, Scott Kazmir, Adam Wainwright, and Justin Verlander. Cliff Lee is not a contact pitcher; he’s a strikeout machine who just happens to be a strikeout machine without ever walking anyone, and does it with by getting hitters to stare at pitches on the corners.
With offense trending downwards in baseball, there are a lot of notable pitchers in Major League Baseball, and many of them are young flamethrowers who get our attention in a hurry. But hanging out in the background, doing his usual thing, remains Cliff Lee. He’s not going away. He’s not even getting worse. He’s just taking the ball every fifth day and shutting down opposing line-ups.
It isn’t fair to equate Cliff Lee to the last pitcher we saw just destroy baseball with strikes and groundballs in this same way — Lee is amazing, but he’s not quite Greg Maddux — but Lee’s run since the start of the 2008 season matches up with the best years of nearly every pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Because he got a late start and because the current voting bloc has established a ridiculously high standard for modern pitchers to clear, he probably won’t end up in Cooperstown, but we’re now on Year Seven of Cliff Lee pitching like a guy who belongs. With a reasonable decline over the next few years, Lee’s going to have a fascinating case for induction, and given that Lee isn’t showing any decline right now, it’s not ridiculous to think that he might end up with career totals that give him a legitimate argument.
Cliff Lee, still an ace. Still as good as ever. Still an absolute joy to watch. He might not throw 95 or have any remaining upside, but the young hurlers we’re all in love with can only hope that they’ll have a run as good as the one Lee is currently on.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.