Baseball is a presentation. It’s a thing that is part of our lives, but isn’t our lives. It lies in the world of the else. It’s theater, it’s drama, it’s entertainment. Because of this, we tend to romanticize it some. This is a totally normal response. We pull for teams, we root for certain guys, we sometimes wish others would fail. Just like any drama, there are heroes and villains and fools and underdogs. Every story has characters and every character has an archetype.
I’ve written about labels in baseball in the past. It’s a subject that interests me. Labels are just like any other word really, they only have meaning because we say they do. The thing you are looking at isn’t really a computer screen; it’s a thing we call a computer screen because we needed to call it something, so we picked that. We couldn’t call it a dog because we already named something else a dog. Words are placeholders, they are helpers. There’s nothing intrinsic about the words computer or screen beyond the value and definitions we place on them. I’d go deeper into this, but it would probably end with me telling you that you’re just a battery fueling the system of our robot overlords. Plus, I need to start talking about baseball.
The idea of a workhorse pitcher has been around the game for some time. You perhaps have read an article or a hundred articles about the death of the workhorse pitcher — how the days of Seaver and Carlton and Feller are over, how our pitchers are now babies and/or being babied. The reasons for this phenomenon are fairly clear and aren’t something I’m terribly interested in discussing at the moment, but the basic facts are true. Pitchers are pitching less innings than they used to. Because of this shift, certain pitchers who do perform at a greater frequency are still revered.
And this isn’t without good reason. We know that the ability to pitch a good deal of innings is a valuable skill. It keeps the pressure off the bullpen, and helps teams keep the amount of pitchers they need to use during a season low. High-volume pitchers are usually good performers as well, as even a pitcher with the rubberiest arm wouldn’t go that many innings if he was always getting lit up by the fifth. There are a lot of useful skills a pitcher can have, durability is one of them.
Cliff Lee gets a lot of praise in these pages, and for good reason. I’m sure some of us feel a need to remind people of his prowess, considering that he is neither the Next Big Thing nor pitching on a team that is doing particularly well in the standings. But he has been great the last handful of seasons, and we like talking about great pitchers here. Lee is great for a good number of reasons. He barely walks anybody, he strikes out a good deal of batters, he doesn’t serve up a lot of home runs. He’s a FIP darling. He also pitches a lot of innings, and has for some time. Since 2009, only three pitchers have pitched more innings than Lee; James Shields, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander. CC Sabathia comes in fifth, and then there is a fairly significant drop off from there. Of that sample, Lee trails only Verlander in Wins Above Replacement. He’s been one of the best and most durable pitchers of this era, and it may all be coming to an end.
Lee has been placed on the disabled list with a strained throwing elbow. It’s his first time on the DL with an arm injury. A strain is a tear. Cliff Lee has a tear in his elbow. This is not the end of him yet, and I don’t mean this as a eulogy. But it is a reminder that even the workhorses break down.
Roy Halladay was long the poster boy for durability until his
arm back gave out, his fastball dropped to batting-practice speeds, and he retired. Sabathia may miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Verlander, while never needing a DL stint, saw significant drops in his numbers last season. Nothing gold can stay.
This is perhaps expected with Lee. He is 35 years old. His career was winding down no matter what. But his breakdown, at least compared to his high-inning peers, comes as a little unexpected. He may be a workhorse, but he’s a very efficient workhorse.
We still don’t know for sure what all the ingredients are that make up a pitcher injury. If you can figure it out, you’ll make a lot of money, in fact. We have inclinations that high velocity and high breaking-ball usage seem to be factors to a certain extent. In this regard, Cliff Lee has avoided the pitfalls. His fastball never breached 92 MPH. His curveball usage has stayed below 10% for the most part, and his slider usage is very minimal.
On an April 9th broadcast for the Houston Astros, the announcers mentioned comments by Houston pitching coach Brett Strom regarding his plans to keep his young pitching staff healthy. Strom brought up the idea of looking less at pitching totals for the game, and more on pitching totals per inning. The idea of high-stress innings — innings in which a pitcher throws 30 or more pitches — was something he was monitoring. This makes sense. Pitching is always going to be stressful on the arm, but doing it more within a short period of time — without the natural rest that comes between innings — can exacerbate the situation.
With help from Jeff Zimmerman, I looked at all the pitchers since 2009 who had these high-stress innings. Here are the top 10:
Cliff Lee’s name isn’t on here, because in order to get him to show up I would have had to include 84 more rows. Lee has only thrown 18 high-stress innings since 2009 — about 1.5% of his total innings in that span. This is both impressive somewhat expected.
To keep pitch counts low during an inning, a pitcher has to be efficient in every at-bat. Cliff Lee is really good at being efficient in an at bat.
These two charts cover the same 5+ year span as the previous one. It’s easy to see how Lee was able to limit his high-stress innings. He lead all starters in Zone% and was second in first pitches thrown for strikes during this stretch as well. Lee stays in the zone and doesn’t manage to walk many batters in the process.
All in all, Cliff Lee has still thrown a lot of pitches. He has pitched for the better part of 10 seasons, as well as 11 postseason games. Early reports say his flexor tendon is the problem, not his UCL, so there’s a good chance Tommy John surgery won’t be needed right now. Assuming the prognosis doesn’t get worse, he’ll most likely pitch through the end of next season when his contract is set to expire. What happens after that is up to him, but if he keeps up his efficient ways, he may have some good late-30s years left in him. This would be good for the Phillies, their fans, and anybody else who likes watching a true master go to work.