Cliff Lee had, by all accounts, a fantastic 2008 season en route to a Cy Young Award. What made his performance more remarkable was how he seemingly came out of nowhere, a back end of the rotation type of pitcher without any history of complete and utter dominance. Unfortunately, his success last season also paved the way for a wide array of speculation with regards to which pitcher will repeat such a turnaround this season.
Double unfortunately, many of those doing the speculating lack some sort of uniform criteria, leading to several names being floated that realistically fail to match the exactitudes of Lee’s season.
Pitchers like Zack Greinke, Josh Johnson and Chad Billingsley are mentioned the most often. All three of these righties have been dominant in April but do not really have that “Cliff Lee” feel in that they are fairly recently removed from prospect status. Lee experienced a bit of success in the majors for several seasons before an injury plagued 2007 and a dominant 2008; guys like Greinke, Johnson and Billingsley simply do not fit that bill.
Greinke suffered from depression early in his career, rebounded for a very stellar 2008 campaign and has allowed just one unearned run in four starts this season. That doesn’t place him in the same category as Lee. Greinke isn’t a non-descript pitcher suddenly becoming an ace but rather an ace in the making living up to his potential. The same can be said for Billingsley, whom many have been high on for over two years now. Johnson looked dominant before injuries got the best of him so he, too, does not belong in such conversations.
If people are really looking to try and find the “next Cliff Lee” they need to include back end pitchers with a smidgeon of success in their past who have looked solid so far. Someone like Wandy Rodriguez comes to mind. If Rodriguez finishes this season with incredible numbers then his season would have a similar feel to Lee’s. Looking for someone to replicate what Lee did goes beyond someone posting incredible numbers who is not an established ace like Johan Santana or Roy Halladay and too many analyses are failing to make this distinction.
Case in point, speculating on which pitchers are going to have breakout seasons and cement themselves as horses capable of carrying a team is fine… just do not label such speculations as searching for the next Cliff Lee. Or if such a label is involved, make sure the pitchers being discussed are actually in the same category as Lee and not just young pitchers coming into their own.