The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Like Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, and many a great pitcher before them, Cliff Lee burned brightly but briefly. Though he lacked a high-velocity fastball, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound lefty — “lean like a knife blade, with a club fighter’s big jaw,” as Pat Jordan described him in 2011 — had a deceptive delivery and precision command of a broad arsenal of weapons. His mid-career addition of a cut fastball, inspired by — who else? — Mariano Rivera turned him from an innings-eater into an ace.
From 2008-13, Lee was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. His 36.8 WAR over that span was nearly four full wins ahead of the second-ranked Clayton Kershaw, who to be fair was a late-May call-up at the start of that stretch (by fWAR, Lee had a 1.5-WAR lead over second-ranked Justin Verlander). Over that six-year span, Lee had the majors’ second-lowest ERA (2.89), the lowest FIP (2.85) and walk rate (1.33 per nine), and the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher with at least 600 innings. During that time, which began when Lee was 29 and fresh off the sting of having spent a good chunk of the previous season in Triple-A while his teammates came within one win of the AL pennant, he won a Cy Young award, pitched for two World Series teams, was traded three times, made four All-Star teams, and signed the third-richest deal for a pitcher to that point.
Lee threw 1,333.2 innings in that span, the fifth-highest total in baseball. Unfortunately, his elbow could only handle so much. A flexor pronator strain limited him to 13 starts in 2014, his age-35 season, and aside from a single spring training outing in 2015, he never pitched in a game again. As I noted in the context of Oswalt’s Hall of Fame case last year, Lee’s total of 2156.2 innings is fewer than all but one enshrined starter — not Sandy Koufax but Dizzy Dean. While not truly a viable candidate for Cooperstown, he nonetheless merits a full-length entry in this series.
|Pitcher||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg. HOF SP||73.2||49.9||61.5|
Clifton Phifer Lee was born on August 30, 1978, the son of a firefighter in Benton, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock. As a child, he aspired to be a baseball player by watching Benton native Wes Gardner — the only other major leaguer from the city since 1929 — carve out an eight-year career (1984-91) in the majors with four teams. Gardner returned to Benton after his career was done and became Lee’s American Legion coach. At Benton High School, Lee was known for his ultra-competitive nature and his willingness to “fight at the the drop of a hat.” He struggled with wildness — “As a junior, he’d have, like, 13 strikeouts and eight walks in a game,” recounted coach Mark Balisterri in 2009 — but threw two no-hitters as a senior. The school drew so many phone calls from scouts that the school principal gave Lee an answering machine, installed in Balisterri’s office with a message detailing when and where he would pitch next.
The Marlins drafted Lee in the eighth round in 1997, but he chose to attend Meridian Community College in Mississippi. A year later, the Orioles drafted him in the 20th round, but Lee bypassed that opportunity to return home to pitch for the University of Arkansas. There he clashed with coaches, struggled with his command, and was demoted to the bullpen, but a relief appearance of his caught the attention of Expos scout Dave Malpasss. “He was so athletic and had such great arm action. It was one of those days as a scout that you never forget because it was so unexpected,” Malpass told the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes in 2008. The Expos chose Lee in the fourth round of the 2000 draft; that same year, they also selected and signed outfielders Grady Sizemore (third round) and Jason Bay (22nd round), but they did not land third baseman Russell Martin (35th round). In 2016, Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book retrospectively called it the year’s best draft, and in June of this year, an Associated Press study found that the 142.8 bWAR produced by the Expos’ draft class that year (including that of players who did not sign) was the highest of any team’s draft year since 1996.
Lee pitched for two seasons in the Expos’ chain, initially struggling with his control (36 walks in 44.2 innings for the team’s A-level Cape Fear affiliate in 2000) but missing plenty of bats (63 that year, and 129 in 109.2 innings for Hi-A Jupiter in 2001). Promoted to Double-A Harrisburg in 2002, he had struck out 105 in 86.1 innings while pitching to a 3.23 ERA when he was traded to the Indians as part of a six-player deal that also included Sizemore, infielder Brandon Phillips, and first baseman Lee Stevens for pitchers Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew — a tremendously lopsided trade given that Colon was dealt to the White Sox for a lesser package at the end of the season while Lee and Sizemore became All-Stars in Cleveland. Lee made a total of 11 starts for the Indians’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates before being summoned to the majors in September. On September 15, he threw 5.1 innings of one-run ball against the Twins but took the loss, as the Indians, who were amid their first losing season since 1993, were shut out by Kyle Lohse, Johan Santana, and Eddie Guardado. Lee followed up with a five-inning, one-run start against the Royals, also in a losing cause.
The quality of Lee’s 2002 season landed him at number 30 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the following spring. Similarly, Baseball Prospectus ranked him 32nd, and in their Annual, called him the game’s top left-handed pitching prospect, gushing:
“Lee has a variety of brutal pitches, from different fastballs he runs into the low 90s, a deceptive changeup that’s just off 80, and two sweet breaking pitches, and he can throw all four for strikes. Which is not to say that he does throw them for strikes… but it happens. Lee is pure stuff at this point, with his control coming and going. He’s a guy who could find consistent command and be a great pitcher, or he could be one of the majors’ flakiest starters and would still be a guy I’d buy a ticket, and a OSHA-approved hardhat, to go see.”
An abdominal strain in the spring of 2003, keeping Lee out of action through the end of May. He spent most of the next 2 1/2 months in the minors, but collected his first major league win in a six-inning spot start against the Royals on June 30, and returned in mid-August. In nine starts, he pitched to a 3.61 ERA and 4.35 FIP, all the more impressive given that he needed hernia surgery as soon as the season ended. The 25-year-old lefty made the Indians’ rotation out of spring training the following year, and turned some heads with a 9-1, 3.77 ERA first half, but due to fatigue and a barrage of homers, he was torched for a 7.91 ERA in the second half, and finished the season with a 5.43 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and just 0.3 WAR. He was much better the following year, delivering a 3.79 ERA, 3.79 FIP, and 2.5 WAR in 202 innings while going 18-5, thanks in large part to a robust 6.4 runs per game of offensive support. His won-loss record helped him place fourth in the AL Cy Young race… won by Colon, who beat out Rivera and the more worthy Santana.
Lee threw another 200.2 innings in 2006, but a rising home run rate and converging strikeout and walk rates raised his ERA to 4.40 (102 ERA+) and his FIP to 4.73. “I was a little predictable about what I was trying to do,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter in 2008. Before he could become the subject of a national magazine profile, he had to go through worse. In 2007, Lee again strained his right abdominal muscle during spring training and missed the first month of the season. While he pitched a complete-game three-hitter in his second start back, he struggled to execute a more aggressive approach, and couldn’t go back to his older style of pitching, either. The result was ugly; he couldn’t command his pitches, and by the end of July, after allowing 28 runs in his previous 20 innings and engaging in a pair of on-field arguments with catcher Victor Martinez, he shuffled off to Triple-A Buffalo with a 6.38 ERA. He was limited to four relief appearances totaling 5.2 innings upon returning in September, finished with a 6.29 ERA, 5.48 FIP, and -0.8 WAR, and was left off the Indians’ postseason roster. The team came within one win of a trip to the World Series without him. To that point in his career, Lee owned a 4.64 career ERA (94 ERA+), 4.59 FIP, and a grand total of 5.1 WAR across 125 starts and four relief appearances.
Despite the lost season, the Indians encouraged Lee to stick to his plan. “[M]ix it up more, throwing my fastball in and out, up and down, and throwing my off-speed pitches off of that,” as he explained to Reiter. Key in Lee’s reinvention was the restoration of a cut fastball that he had learned from Jupiter pitching coach Arthur “Ace” Adams in 2001 but didn’t use often. During his return to the minors, he saw Rivera splintering bats with his signature cutter and asked himself, “Why don’t I use that pitch?”
Lee and the Indians were rewarded for their patience. He didn’t allow a single run in five of his first seven starts, completing a scoreless streak of 28 innings within; at the time he was profiled in SI, he was 6-0 with a 0.79 ERA. Unfortunately, the Indians stumbled out of the gate, and traded CC Sabathia, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, to the Brewers on July 7. They would finish 81-81, but with Lee on the hill, they were nearly unbeatable. The 29-year-old lefty posted league bests in ERA (2.54), FIP (2.83), home run and walk rates (0.5 and 1.4 per nine, respectively), wins (22, against just three losses) and WAR (6.8). He made his first All-Star team — throwing two shutout innings as the starter — and beat out Roy Halladay for the AL Cy Young award. In doing so, he became the first pitcher ever to go from a 6.00 ERA in at least 50 innings in one season to an ERA below 3.00 in over 200 innings the following season.
Lee would continue to follow in Sabathia’s footsteps. Though he couldn’t match his 2007 dominance, he pitched well (3.14 ERA and 3.25 FIP in 152 innings) through the season’s first four months. With the Indians headed to a 97-loss season and the end of Lee’s four-year, $15 million extension for 2006-09 looming (though he did have a club option for 2010), he and outfielder Ben Francisco were dealt to the defending world champion Phillies on July 26 in exchange for a four-prospect package headlined by Carlos Carrasco. In Philadelphia, he bumped Jamie Moyer from an already lefty-heavy rotation that also included Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ, all of whom would soon be joined by righty Pedro Martinez for the final leg of his career. Demonstrating better command than ever before, Lee struck out 74 while walking just 10 in 79.2 innings, finished with a combined 5.4 WAR to go with a 3.22 ERA and 3.14 FIP, and helped the Phillies to their third straight NL East title.
Given the Division Series Game 1 assignment by manager Charlie Manuel, Lee delivered a complete-game six-hit, one-run effort against the Rockies, and added 7.1 innings of three-run work in the Game 4 clincher. He shut out the Dodgers while striking out 10 over eight innings in Game 3 of the NLCS, then threw another six-hit, 10-strikeout complete game in the World Series opener against the Yankees, one that featured a bad-ass behind-the-back spearing of a comebacker off the bat of Robinson Canó:
Though Lee started and won Game 5, that was the Phillies’ only other victory in the World Series; they fell to the Yankees in six games. Philadelphia exercised Lee’s $9 million club option, but just five weeks after doing so, they pulled off a pair of trades, the first of which sent Travis d’Arnaud and two other prospects to the Blue Jays in exchange for Roy Halladay, and the second of which sent Lee to the Mariners for an even less memorable three-prospect package. “If I had my druthers, I’d love to have both of them on the club,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said of Halladay and Lee, but concerns about the latter’s desire to test free agency led him to make the swap while attempting to replenish the team’s farm system.
The Mariners had won 85 games in 2009, and had high hopes that Lee would pair with Félix Hernández to help the team to its first playoff berth in nine years. But while King Félix pitched his way to a Cy Young award and Lee dominated across 13 starts (2.34 ERA, 2.16 FIP) — albeit after missing the season’s first month due to yet another abdominal strain — just about everything else went wrong. On July 9, with the Mariners already 17 games below .500, they neared a deal with the Yankees headlined by catching prospect Jesus Montero, with second baseman David Adams and pitcher Zach McAllister included as well. The Mariners’ concerns about Adams’ high ankle sprain led to a restructuring of the deal, and the two sides couldn’t agree on a third player to replace Adams; the Mariners wanted either Iván Nova or Eduardo Núñez. Yankees GM Brian Cashman wouldn’t relinquish either, so instead the Mariners traded Lee and reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers for a four-prospect package headlined by first baseman Justin Smoak.
Like the Mariners, the Rangers — who had won 87 games in 2009 but missed the playoffs — were trying to turn the corner; they were even more in need of a number one starter than Seattle. Lee pitched much better than his record in Texas would indicate (4-6, 3.98 ERA), and finished the season with an utterly insane 185-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.28) in 212.1 innings, with AL bests in FIP (2.58), walks per nine (0.8) and complete games (seven) as well; his 5.1 WAR ranked sixth. He was dominant in the first two rounds of the postseason, allowing a total of two runs in 24 innings across two starts against the Rays (including a one-run, 11-strikeout complete game in Game 5) and one against the Yankees, with a 34-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Rangers won their first pennant in franchise history, and Lee got the call for the World Series opener against the Giants. On the eve of of his World Series Game 1 start against the Giants, the Denver Post’s Troy Renck described Lee’s approach:
Lee lasers his four-seam, 91-mph fastball on the corners to both lefties and righties. That sets up a devastating cut-fastball that comes from the same arm slot but is 6 miles per hour slower. A lot of guys try to use the pitch but can’t control it. His is more precise than a DNA test, consistently jamming left-handed hitters.
“He’s effective because he works both sides of the plate, hard and soft, up and down,” said Garrett Atkins, a former Rockie who started against Lee in the playoffs last season. “And he can throw any pitch in any count. Not many guys can do that other than CC (Sabathia) and (Roy) Halladay.”
…There’s a cold-blooded nature to Lee’s starts as well. He works so efficiently that some teammates call him a technician. Like a shark, there’s no wasted movement. Just a singular purpose. Already feeling overmatched, opponents feel rushed.
“His tempo between pitches is so fast. He doesn’t allow hitters to feel comfortable,” Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said Tuesday. “And he throws so many strikes, you have to be ready to hit the first pitch. And that makes hitters uncomfortable because you don’t get the pitch you’re looking for.”
Perhaps the Giants read the extensive scouting report Renck included; Lee was cuffed for seven runs in 4.2 innings. Though he pitched much better when the Rangers were up for elimination in Game 5 (seven innings, three runs), they managed just one run themselves, and the Giants took home the championship.
Nonetheless, Lee hit free agency not only with his stock at a high but with no other comparable starter on the market. The pursuit was intense and full of intrigue, with the Yankees and Rangers joined by a mystery team and Twitter losing its collective mind over a flight tracker following a private plane from Dallas to Little Rock, the assumption being that it contained an entourage from the Rangers. The mystery team turned out to be the Phillies, who landed Lee with a five-year, $120 million deal, the third-largest ever for a pitcher after Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees and Barry Zito’s seven-year, $126 million deal with the Giants. Still, the money was less than what either the Rangers or Yankees reportedly offered ($138 million over six years from Texas, and $132 million over six years or $148 over seven, via a player option, from New York). Lee thus joined a rotation that not only included Halladay and Hamels, but also Oswalt, whom the team had acquired from the Astros on July 29 of the previous year.
The rotation lived up to its billing while helping the Phillies to a franchise-record 102 wins and their fifth straight NL East title. Lee made his third All-Star team and went 17-8 with a career-best 2.40 ERA (160 ERA+), good for third in the league behind Halladay (2.35) and Clayton Kershaw (2.28); he was second in strikeouts (238) behind Kershaw (248) and second in complete games and WAR (six and 8.5, respectively) behind Halladay (eight and 8.8). Kershaw beat out both for his first Cy Young, with Halladay a distant second, Lee third, and Hamels fifth. Things didn’t go the Phillies’ way in the postseason, though. Lee was touched up for 12 hits and five runs in six-plus innings in his Division Series Game 2 start against the Cardinals, and he never got another turn, as Halladay lost a 1-0 squeaker in Game 5.
Relative to his previous four seasons, Lee’s 2012 was a step down, but not a huge one (3.16 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 4.4 WAR, 207 strikeouts in 211 innings); he cracked the top 10 in all of those categories while posting the league’s lowest walk rate (1.8 per nine) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.4). Still, his 6-9 record spoke volumes about his lack of run support (3.5 per game, fourth-lowest among ERA qualifiers) and the sudden decline of the lineup’s core as the team slipped to 81 wins. They slid to 73 wins in 2013 as Halladay fell apart, but Lee was stellar, ranking second in the NL in WAR (6.8) while going 14-8 with 222 strikeouts (also second), a 2.87 ERA and 2.82 FIP (both sixth), and league bests again in both walk rate (1.3 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.9).
Unfortunately, that was Lee’s last full season. After pitching well through his first 10 starts in 2014, he landed on the disabled list with a flexor pronator strain. Upon returning two months later, he made just three starts, the last of which he left in the third inning with a recurrence of the strain. He was done for the season, and while both he and the Phillies hoped that he could rehabilitate the injury without surgery, an examination by Dr. James Andrews after his first spring start in 2015 revealed that the tear had not healed. Lee spent the entire season, his final one under contract, on the DL, still unwilling to submit to surgery and the rigors of rehabbing the injury. The Phillies paid the steep $12.5 million buyout of his option for 2016, and while as many as 15 teams were said to be interested in his services, he opted to retire.
From a traditional standpoint, Lee clearly doesn’t have the numbers for Cooperstown. While there are eight Hall of Fame starters with fewer than 200 wins, and 12 with fewer than 3,000 innings — counts that both exclude pitcher-turned-shortstop Monte Ward — Lee’s 143 wins are fewer than any elected starter (Dean’s 150 is the low mark), and his 2,156.2 innings are fewer than any such starter besides Dean (1,967.1).
Lee pitched at least 200 innings eight times, had one more season in which he qualified for the ERA title, and four fragmentary seasons with fewer than 100 innings, three of which included significant minor league stints. Of those nine qualifying seasons, he ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR five times, and missed out on a sixth because he changed leagues; his 5.4 WAR was 16th in the majors in 2009, the equivalent of another league top 10 finish, and three times, he was either first or second. His career total of 43.5 WAR is nearly 30 wins below the Hall standard for starters, but it would hardly be the worst among that august group. In fact, it’s 0.1 more than — wait for it — Jack Morris, who needed 77% more innings to get to roughly the same level of career value. Five other Hall of Fame starters have lower totals than Lee, namely Jack Chesbro (42.5), Catfish Hunter (40.9), Lefty Gomez (38.4), Jesse Haines (32.7), and Rube Marquard (32.6).
Peak-wise, Lee’s hurt by the fact that his seventh-best season (2005) was worth just 2.5 WAR. Thus, his total of 39.8 is 10.1 WAR below the standard, though it surpasses Hall of Famers Addie Joss (39.2), John Smoltz (38.8), Bob Lemon (38.6), Early Wynn (38.5), Herb Pennock (36.4), Gomez (35.9), Hunter (34.9), Whitey Ford (34.6), Don Sutton (33.9), Eppa Rixey (33.9), Chief Bender (33.4), Morris (32.5), Marquard (30.1), and Haines (22.1). He still beats only Pennock, Bender, Morris, Hunter, Gomez, Marquard, and Haines in JAWS, but it’s fair to say that he wouldn’t be anywhere close to the worst pitcher enshrined were he somehow to be elected.
This table, I think, places Lee’s career in the proper context:
Only three starters threw fewer than 2,500 innings and reached Cooperstown. Lee wasn’t quite up to their level, nor was he the equal of Oswalt, who had more solid seasons outside of a similar peak, or the two-time Cy Young-winning Santana. Still, that group is good company, and while Kershaw and Scherzer will soon pitch their way out of it, Lee has a secure spot among the rest of them, great pitchers who will stick in memory far longer than they lasted at the top of their games.
This profile marks the last of the 18 full-length entries in this year’s JAWS series. The 2020 ballot still has 14 other players to cover, none of whom are likely to receive even the minimum 5% required to remain eligible for next year’s vote. I’ll round them up in the more brief “One and Done” format starting next week and continuing into the new year. Ahead of the voters’ official December 31 ballot submission deadline, I will fill out my own virtual ballot as well.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.