Finishing one out short of his sixth shutout of the season Wednesday night, Cliff Lee capped off a magnificent August by holding the Reds scoreless over 8 2/3 innings. He turned in the following numbers for the penultimate month of the regular season: 39 2/3 innings, 23 hits, 2 earned runs, 8 walks, 39 strikeouts.
He kept 48 percent of balls put in play on the ground and kept runners off base to the tune of a 0.78 WHIP. All told, his gaudy 0.45 on the month produced a 12 ERA-, meaning it was 88 percent better than the league.
And yet, Lee’s August paled in comparison to his June this season, when he posted a 0.21 ERA that, when normalized for season and league, actually represents the best mark for that month in the Retrosheet era. The Phillies broadcast displayed a graphic the other night showing that only three pitchers have won five or more games without losing, and with a sub-1.00 ERA in two different months: Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson and Lee. Even if the win-loss record qualifier was removed Lee would still find himself in limited company in this regard.
Overall, Lee has performed up to high expectations this year with the Phillies. Roy Halladay garners much of the attention in that dynamic rotation, but Lee has been fantastic. He has thrown 194 2/3 innings over 27 starts, with a 9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 46 percent groundball rate and a 2.59 ERA supported by his 2.75 xFIP and 2.68 SIERA. His elite level numbers invite the question of why Clayton Kershaw, who has similar numbers, is getting plenty of award consideration, while Lee is consistently overlooked.
Seriously, take a look at their numbers next to one another:
Lee: 194.2 IP, 2.59 ERA, 2.68 SIERA, 9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 46% GB, 5.5 WAR
Kershaw 198.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, 2.72 SIERA, 9.6 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 44% GB, 5.8 WAR
Kershaw has better strikeout numbers but not a substantial lead. Lee can say the same in the walks department. They induce grounders at the same clip. Their ERA and estimators are right in line, and their innings pitched are almost identical, especially when you consider that Lee has made one fewer start. So why is it that Kershaw has jumped to the forefront of the ‘dethroning Roy Halladay’ conversation, while Lee is more of an afterthought for the Cy Young Award?
Most of it has to do with context. Kershaw is, in a sense, a big fish in a small pond on the lowly Dodgers. While the performance of the team leaves much to be desired, he stands out as one of their two bright spots. Plus, while MVPs tend to come from winning teams, Cy Young Award winners come from all over the spectrum — individual performance is weighted heavier than team results. Add to that how Kershaw has improved upon his numbers over the last two seasons and it just feels like he is doing more.
On the other side, Lee is producing his terrific numbers in the shadow of Halladay. It’s as if the Phillies already submitted Halladay as their award contender for the year, so fans and writers shouldn’t bother paying any attention to other pitchers on the same team. While Halladay still ranks as the best pitcher in the league, this makes it tougher for Lee and Hamels to stand out and, individually, garner the attention they deserve.
Kershaw exemplifies that sentiment. Give him Lee’s exact numbers — and as we explored above, they are practically one and the same right now — and he is a viable award candidate. But Lee probably isn’t a candidate with his own numbers unless he has a majestic September that rivals his June and August.
He has more work cut out for him since voters will have a tough time justifying a vote for a Phillies pitcher not named Roy Halladay.
Roy Halladay doesn’t have to win the Cy Young Award, but Lee should receive as much praise as Kershaw right now. Statistically, they are having just about the same season.