Cliff Lee Revisted Again

Does anyone remember a stranger season in recent memory than the one Cliff Lee is currently putting together? As we’ve covered extensively here, Lee came out of the gates pitching like 1988 Orel Hershiser, dominating opponents with ridiculous performances that seemingly came out of nowhere, but lately, he’s been hit hard and watched his ERA rise significantly – he’s just barely edging out Shaun Marcum for the AL Lead as of today. However, his core performance hasn’t regressed nearly as far. Look at his by month performances:

April: 0.48 BB/9, 7.65 K/9, 0.24 HR/9, 1.80 FIP, .195 BABIP, 81.6% LOB%
May: 2.10 BB/9, 6.55 K/9, 0.52 HR/9, 2.99 FIP, .346 BABIP, 79.7% LOB%
June: 2.20 BB/9, 10.47 K/9, 1.10 HR/9, 2.99 FIP, .437 BABIP, 70.3% LOB%

He got lucky in April, so maybe karma is coming back to haunt him, but really, a .437 batting average on balls in play is not regression to the mean – it’s regression so far past the mean that it can’t even see it with a telescope. It might be tempting to look at Lee’s 5.51 ERA in June and determine that he’s back to being what he always was, but the old Cliff Lee was never a 2 BB/10 K/1 HR pitcher. His core stats from June would fit right in with Johan Santana’s career line. June is simply not an example of Lee reverting to previous form.

As Lee continues to post months with a FIP below 3.00, we’re going to have to continue to revise our estimate of his true talent level upwards. This is a classic example of why I couldn’t care less about a pitcher’s ERA. His run prevention results of late hide the fact that he just continues to assert that he’s a better pitcher now than he’s ever been.

We hoped you liked reading Cliff Lee Revisted Again by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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NadavT
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NadavT

In your first Cliff Lee post, you said that his underlying pitch data (as shown at baseballreference.com) didn’t support his drastic improvement in core performance. If he really figured out how to pitch better, we’d probably see a big swing in his baseballreference.com pitch data, but at the time his strike percentages were essentially the same as in previous years, indicating that he was just getting better results from the same underlying performance.

Through May and June, however, his overall pitch data hasn’t really changed — he’s still not missing too many bats and is depending on called strikeouts more than the average pitcher. Does that suggest that his ability to get called strikeouts using precise control is a sustainable skill, or do you still expect his core pitching stats to regress, based on his pitch data?