Cliff Lee spent the first month of the season on the disabled list, not making his season debut until April 30th. While most starting pitchers have already started 11 or 12 games this season, Lee has started just seven. And he still leads all American League pitchers in Wins Above Replacement.
211 batters faced, 4 walks. 71 percent of the pitches he has thrown have been strikes. 69 percent of the batters to step in against him have seen a first pitch strike. Since the start of the 2008 season, he’s walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings. No one in baseball has better command than Lee.
Unlike a lot of guys who pound the strike zone, Lee has swing and miss stuff. His fastball isn’t overpowering, but his change-up is devastating, his curveball is a knockout pitch, and everything is located perfectly. He lives in the strike zone, and yet, he’s still gotten a swinging strike on 8.9 percent of his pitches this year. He’s 9th in the American League in K/9, ahead of high powered strikeout machines Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.
If his season ended today, it would be only the fourth time in major league history that a pitcher had posted a K/BB ratio over 12 in a season with at least 50 innings. Dennis Eckersley did it twice (1989 and 1990), while Mariano Rivera did it in 2008, but of course, they both pitched out of the bullpen.
Inspired by the ridiculous performance Lee has had so far this year, I set out to try and find the best stretch of seven starts, using walks and strikeouts as the criteria, by other pitchers in recent memory. Here’s the best two that I came up with:
Not surprisingly, those are two of the best pitching seasons in the history of the game. Lee’s numbers from this seven start stretch don’t quite match up, but that he’s even in the discussion is a testament to how well he’s pitching. While he might not have the track record of Johan Santana or the fastball of C.C. Sabathia, it’s hard to argue that there’s a better left-handed pitcher alive than Cliff Lee right now.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.