Before I get into this, let me first say: Congratulations!
The Cleveland Indians' unexpected ace, Cliff Lee, got his 20th Win against just two losses yesterday with a 5-hit shutout of the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox. Twenty wins is no small accomplishment in today's game, in which pitchers usually don't start more than 35 games in a season. A lot of things have to go well for you.
Two years ago, for the first time in a full season in history, no pitcher won 20 games in either league. Heck, nobody in the Senior Circuit won more than 16 games. So 20 wins is nothing to sneeze at, and is even more amazing when you consider that the boy went just 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA last year.
With that said, however, I'm going to need some tissues.
For one thing, Cliff Lee is not, as ESPN.com asserts, "putting together one of the best statistical seasons in baseball history." Well, he may be, but
1) It's only September 2nd. There's a whole month of baseball left to play. And...
B) Lee's 20 "Wins" are owed as much to his teammates' performances (and more than a bit of luck) as they are to him.
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think his 20 wins are a mirage or that he doesn't deserve credit for them. He leads the majors in VORP and leads the AL in Win Shares, too, so the modern statistics (for once) bear out what the archaic ones would have us believe.
But Lee probably has about four or five starts left to make this year, and the chances are very good that his MLB-leading 2.32 ERA will rise a bit in that span. Additionally, and even more likely, his two meager losses are bound to have some company by October. He'll likely have two starts against the Royals, one against the Twins, one against Boston and perhaps one against the White Sox on the last day of the season, which will likely be cut short unless the game turns out to be a statistically meaningful one.
The chances of him keeping this kind of thing up for another month seem pretty minute. For one thing, anyone who has had 20 wins as of September 2nd (in the last 15 years) has not fared as well after Labor Day.
Pitcher Year As of 9/1 After Sept 1st
McDowell 1993 21-7, 3.31 1-3, 3.74
Clemens 1997 20-4, 1.73 1-3, 3.57
Schilling 2002 21-5, 2.77 2-2, 5.87
Smoltz 1996 20-7, 2.85 4-1, 3.50
A few caveats and explanations:
1) Only four pitchers have had 20 wins as of September 1st in the last 15 years. This is an extremely small sample size. I picked 1993 because most people seem to agree that the run-scoring environment across MLB underwent a big change that year. If you go back further, you get some really remarkable September campaigns by certain players, like Bob Welch in 1990 and Doc Gooden in 1985, but it was kind of a different league back then, and I didn't want to muddy the waters with, you know, facts.
B) I'm probably shooting my argument in the foot here since three of those four guys won the Cy Young Award. The one that didn't, Schilling, only missed out on it because of one of those incredible September campaigns. His teammate Randy Johnson, who entered September 2002 with a 19-5 record, went 5-0 with a 0.66 ERA that month.
iii) While they all saw some kind of drop in performance, it's not like they all went completely in the tank either. I am NOT saying that Cliff Lee sucks and that we just need another month for me to prove the point.
However, it should be noted that the Royals, on a scale of one to ten, do suck. So that should be at least one win in those two starts, maybe two. On the other hand, the Twins, Red Sox and White Sox (their recent shutout notwithstanding) are all good teams, and Lee's Indians are, well...not. At least, they're not a good team when Lee's not pitching.
The Tribe has averaged 4.85 runs per game in 2008, just 8th in the 16-team American League, but when Lee pitches, that number jumps to 5.97 runs, the 9th best number in the AL. That means that when anyone else pitches, they get just 4.6 runs of support per game, on average. Which would explain why nobody else on the team has a winning record except Fausto Carmona, who's just 7-5.
If the Tribe just averaged their usual 4.85 runs per game when Lee pitched, his record would be more like 18-4, which is still pretty darn good, but nobody would be using wacky phrases like, "best statistical seasons in baseball history." Baseball Prospectus suggests that his "Expected" W-L record should be something more like 16-5, even less "historic."
So how has this happened? Well, besides the Run Support, Cliff has gotten a lot of help from his fielders. The Indians rank just 20th in MLB in Defensive Efficiency (the rate at which they turn playable balls into outs), but when Lee has pitched, they've allowed only 3 unearned runs. Nobody else in MLB with at least 170 innings under his belt (there are 34 of these) has fewer than three unearned runs. Or, put another way, Brandon Webb has almost the same number of innings pitched as Lee and only one less Win, but he's allowed 11 unearned runs, which have undoubtedly contributed to his six losses. Additionally, his bullpen has been exceptionally good, allowing slightly fewer of his leftover runners to score than you would normally expect.
So congrats to Cliff and I wish him the best, but before we start calling his season "historic", let's at least wait until the season's actually history, OK?