Cliff Lee Was Everything You Could’ve Wanted

The 2010 Mariners were a dreadful baseball team, and an unexpectedly dreadful baseball team at that. They were designed to be competitive — they should’ve been competitive — and from a fan’s perspective, I’m not sure I’ve witnessed a bigger letdown. It was a difficult season for countless different reasons, but what’s been most upsetting, both now and back at the time, is that the Mariners being terrible cost me the opportunity to watch more Cliff Lee on my favorite team. I knew he was awesome when he was first brought in, but I didn’t appreciate the extent until I got to watch him every five days.

I bring this up because Lee is in the news:

Lee hasn’t officially retired, and you never know when someone might have a change of heart. Yet it’s never been less likely that Lee will return, so I want to take this chance to offer a quick retrospective. Not everyone is deserving of the treatment, because not everyone is equally interesting, but Lee developed into the perfect pitcher. It took him some time, and he’s not going to end up in Cooperstown, but for a good six-year stretch, there was nothing else you could’ve wanted Cliff Lee to be.

He’s a little like a slightly poorer man’s Roy Halladay. Halladay was young, and he had a lot of talent, and then in between his debut and his development, he had to run an ERA over 10. Lee had to run an ERA over 6, but then for both, on the other side of the nightmare, there was perfection. Seemingly permanent perfection, enduring perfection, until there came a sudden end. Everybody gets to an end, but when you’d watch pitchers like Halladay and Lee, that was an easy truth to forget.

I can only really speak to the fan experience. I know that Lee was considered a good leader and a good teammate. I know he was driven, with an almost unmatchable work ethic, and I know he has an outstanding but dry sense of humor. Lee checked off all of those boxes, but at the end of the day, as a baseball fan, you want to watch players that you enjoy watching play. This, to me, is where Lee really stood out.

Lee put it all together in 2008, and he pitched at an elite level for six straight years, through 2013. Over that span, Lee’s age ranged from 29 to 34, and in the whole history of baseball since 1900, Lee ranks sixth among pitchers in WAR between those ages. He comes in a half-win behind Randy Johnson, and a full win above Gaylord Perry. So, most simply, Lee was great — the most important thing for any player is to be great.

Yet Lee had so much more going for him. It was Cliff Lee who really got me thinking about player and pitcher watchability. There are certain things that can make a pitcher more or less of a pleasure to watch, and Lee didn’t just get hitters out — he got them out quickly, efficiently, without messing around. He got them out in droves, and if you ever looked away, you could miss a whole half-inning. The pace of a typical Cliff Lee start just didn’t feel like the pace of almost any other given pitcher.

The Lee model, as near as I can tell:

  1. throw strikes
  2. all the time
  3. and make them good

Lee didn’t invent it himself, but few pitchers are able to follow the blueprint. It requires a certain confidence and precision, and Lee didn’t waver where other pitchers might. One particular indicative Cliff Lee fun fact: between 2008 and 2013, there were 1,141 individual pitcher seasons with at least 100 innings pitched. All six of Lee’s seasons show up in the top 25 in percent of pitches in the strike zone. He was always on the attack, but he still kept himself from being hittable.

He avoided walks, because he always threw strikes. He avoided runs because he always threw good strikes, and that, combined with his frequently being ahead in the count, led to strikeouts. In 2010, Cliff Lee led all of baseball in three-pitch strikeouts. He led baseball again in 2011. He led baseball again in 2012. He led baseball again in 2013. The following is a pretty representative Cliff Lee sequence. This is from September of a few years ago, but it could be from almost any point in the same stretch.

Three pitches, and a good hitter was gone in barely 30 seconds. When players retire, they’re frequently remembered by their highlights. It’s great to see a hitter’s home runs, and it’s great to see a flame-thrower’s fastest fastballs, but with Lee, I don’t think individual pitches really capture the essence. It’s better to see a few in a row, so you can better understand just how in control he was of nearly every game. Everyone who pitches in the majors is fantastic, but Lee truly mastered the craft. It all came together to allow him to have the most valuable fastball in the sport despite underwhelming velocity.

Among starters, during Lee’s peak, he ranked in the top 10 percent in strikeout rate. He ranked in the top one percent in walk rate, and he ranked in the top two percent in ERA-, and for good measure his pace was faster than average. For fun, I created a little statistic that averages all four percentile ranks. Lee comes out at the top, about tied with Halladay and Cole Hamels. There’s a pretty substantial gap between those three and fourth place. On this simple watchability scale, Lee excels, along with two pitchers he was able to call teammates. Everything good is fleeting, but for a time, Phillies fans were atypically blessed. They already knew that, but it’s good to be reminded of the better times.

Better times aren’t what brought Lee to this place, today. He’s just about retired because of injury, and at some point, for every pitcher, the arm will just stop cooperating. I’m sure he would’ve loved to deliver more for the money he was being paid, and this isn’t how anyone wants to go out. The frustration, though, melts away in a hurry once you acknowledge that it’s over. With Cliff Lee, now, it’s all about looking back. And we get to look back upon a pitcher who won’t be a Hall-of-Famer, but who did pitch at a Hall-of-Fame level for six consecutive years. Cliff Lee was about as perfect as a pitcher gets, a man who made it a pleasure to simply watch him go to work.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Thanks for this. As an M’s fan I was very sad to see the news go by this morning.

In addition to what you mentioned about his pace on the mound, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher hustle to and from the mound as fast as he did too. He had genuine and mature intensity, not just the hyped-up macho “grr man face grr” that is a poor substitute for it. Everything about him on the field, from bullpen warmups to performance in-game, just exuded a sense of cold professional detachment that added up to just make him an all-around badass. Like a shark who could throw 92, left-finned, for strikes.

8 years ago

Also just remembered a silly fan-pride moment of yelling out to him after a pregame bullpen session, right before he was traded from the M’s, “Don’t leave us, Cliff! Or if you do, for god’s sake don’t become a Yankee!” and getting a brief smile from him.