02 September 2008

Indians' Cliff Lee Wins 20 - But So What?

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?

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Anonymous said...

Hey Travis....you are a total loser bro. I mean come on the guy has gone 20-2 and you can't give him a pat on the back? I know the season has been miserable but don't ruin our one bright spot. My prediction Cliff Lee is going to end the season with a 23-3 record with a 1.98 ERA. So suck on that one Travis!

Travis M. Nelson said...

Ern, did you even read the article? I said he leads the AL in Win Shares and the majors in VORP, that 20 wins are a big accomplishment, especially considering today's game. Those are all pats on the back. I just said that some of the credit for those 20 wins goes to his teammates, which is of course a complement to them, and that it's a little premature to start hanging the "historic" label on him.

Anyway, thanks for commenting, if not actually reading.

Anonymous said...


I actually read the entire article. But thanks for pointing out that I didn't. Anyone that puts together so much information discrediting Lee's 20 win season must obviously have a problem with it. So why do you? The points that you make about the other 4 pitchers before/after September 1st is completely irrelevant. You make it sound like it is impossible for Lee to finish off a great season. Just because he has been flawless so far doesn't mean he will stumble. It seems to me you are writing an article to justify why Cliff Lee's season is not that great. Are you even an Indians fan? With a name like Travis I could think of a few hobbies that you are involved in....

Anonymous said...

Did you actually spend this much time digging up information on Cliff Lee's season? The guy is 20 and flippin 2. Of course he owes so credit to his teammates but which pitchers don't. Let me guess Travis you are a Yankees fan blogging about the Indians. You seem like a stiff to me.

Travis M. Nelson said...

Wow, you Indians fans are really sensitive.

Sure, I'm a Yankee fan, but I'm also a baseball fan, an dI love to see cool stuff like pitchers going 20-2. They're much more interesting to talk about than the Sean Bergmanns of the world. And for the record, Lee's 20-2 is much more impressive than Roger Clemens' 20-3 record in 2001. (Mike Mussina and Freddy Garcia were both better than Clemens that year.)

I just question whether he can keep it up. It's a simple matter of "what goes up must come down", or in the case of ERA, the opposite of that.

Lee's season has been great, no doubt, but so many things have had to go right for him to get there, his fortunes are almost bound to change. He's only had three blown saves all year even though his team has 19 of them. He's only had three unearned runs this year, though the Tribe averages one about every three games. The Indians have scored more than a run per game over their average when he pitches. And of course he leads the majors in ERA. If any one of those things changes, he could lose a game (or two or three).

I'm not coming up with reasons why his season isn't that great, just reasons why it might be wise to temper your expectations for the remainder of the year. If you've got reasons to believe that he can beat the Red Sox and the White Sox and finish somehting like 24-2, feel free to point them out. But don't tell me I'm a stiff with strange hobbies just because you don't like my name.

His season HAS been great. It just ain't over til it's over.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the season isn't over till its over. However, he has kept the pace up the entire season thus far so why don't you think he can do it over the next 5 games? As for the White Sox, Lee has already beaten them this year and should have beaten them a few months ago in a game they lost 3-2 and he pitched 8 strong innings. This year's Red Sox team is definitely human and hurting really bad with starting pitching. They also have quite a few lefties in their lineup which always helps. Have you ever played sports before? The points you make about the team are valid. However, everyone that has played baseball knows that you step up the intensity when your ace is on the mound. Those guys are obviously playing harder when Lee is on the mound. A great player makes everyone around him better. That is a phrase that rings true in all sports. So yes the Indians perform better when Lee is on the mound.

It sucks if the Yankees don't make the playoffs the final season at Yankee stadium. Should have kept Joe Torre. Skin it.

Anonymous said...


No doubt, Lee has had a phenomenal season and there's no question that he's had some "goodluck" on his side. But isn't that USUALLY the case when athletes are approaching almost never seen before or historical territory. I'm a huge advocate of the "law of averages"......what goes up, must come down. Here, you have a guy who averaged 15 wins/year for 3 years before his blow-up in 2007. Now I'm not saying that every players is going to respond with a historical season the following year after a collapse like Lee's in 2007.....but you could honestly say that "he was due" or "things will even out". In fact, for him to get back on his 3 year average, he'll need another 20 wins next year! The tribe had arguably the best bullpen in the league last year (Borowski, Betencourt, Mastny).......where are they this year? Again, you said it best, "what goes up, must come down". It doesn't happen often, the Tribe (or any Cleveland team at that) has something positive to support. But I guess you NY fans truly don't understand the idea of heartbreak.

Travis M. Nelson said...

Ern, I appreciate your willingness to dialogue. (By contrast, you compatriot from Ohio has taken the unwise tack of resprting to namecalling on a blog on which the comments are moderated. By me. So he's done.)

Anyway, I don't think you can say that players always play better when their ace is on the mound. For one thing, Lee wasn't the ace before CC was traded, and CC only got 4.4 R/Game of support. THat's because CC was matched up against the other team's ace a lot, and they couldn't do much for him. Lee has faced a lot of lower-level pitchers this year, because he started out at the bottom of the rotation, not the top. The starters he's faced off against, in reverse order chronologically, are:

Clayton Richard
Chris Lambert
Zach Greinke
Jered Weaver
Scott Richmond
Matt Garza
Nate Robertson (ND)
Livan Hernandez
Carlos Silva
James Shields
Glen Perkins (L)
John Danks (ND)
Matt Cain
Clayton Kershaw (ND)
Cha Seung Baek (ND)
Dontrelle Willis
Sidney Ponson
Gil Meche
Scott Feldman
Edinson Volquez (L)
Shaun Marcum (ND)
Chien-Ming Wang
Jarrod Washburn
Brian Bannister
Felipe Liriano
Chad Gaudin
Joe Blanton

That means that among his 27 starts, he's faced the other team's ace maybe four or five times (Volquez, Cain, Liriano, arguably Wang or Greinke) and in some of those cases, it was the ace of a bad team anyway. lee just has not faced particularly stiff competition this year.

Or, more precicely, his teammates have gotten to feast on the soft underbelly of their opponents' rotations while Lee has been on the mound.

There are lots of examples of guys who pitched really well but whose teammates didn't "step up the intensity" enough to save him from a lackluster record. Johan and Mark Buehrle last year come to mind. Gil Meche in 2007 was a perfect example. He pitched quite well overall, with career bests of 216 innings and a 3.67 ERA, but since he was the $55 million man, they matched him up against the other teams' aces, and so he went 9-13. After Lee's awful 2007, he came in wiht low expectations, and that helped to fuel the impressive record this year as much as anything.

Anonymous said...

Your comment about the Aces facing Aces is completely off base. I went through Brandon Webb and CC Sabathia last night and they haven't faced anymore aces that Cliff Lee has. Pitching is based on 5 days rest. Maybe in late August or September they are lining up the rotation closer if you are in the playoff hunt. For the most part it is whoever is scheduled to pitch that day that has the correct amount of rest.

Travis M. Nelson said...

That may be, but he's not being compared to Webb or CC when we talk about the CYA and his season in context in general. He's being compared to other AL pitchers. Without actually checking, I would guess that Mike Mussina has probably benefited from the same effect, after a sub-par 2007 showing.

Roy Halladay, in contrast to Lee, has faced a much higher overall caliber of starting pitcher, which helps to explain why his run support is only 4.73 instead of almost six. Among others, he's had to face Chien-Ming Wang, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Vicente Padilla, Sabathia, Greinke, Rich Harden, Jon Lackey, Joba Chamberlain and Matt Garza 2x each, James Shields and Andy Pettitte. Not all aces, certainly, but most of them better than most of the guys Lee has opposed. Overall, their opposition:

Lee: 184-191, 4.46 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 1.96 K/W

Roy: 230-188, 4.06 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 2.10 K/W

Granted, Lee has pitched slightly better overall, but the weak opposition, and by extension, the huge amount of run support he's gotten, has helped a lot. Give Halladay 6 R/G and he's 22-4 instead of 17-9, and suddenly we've got a real race for the CYA.

Travis M. Nelson said...

This is an old post, of course, but history has shown that I was not so full of crap after all. After Lee won his 20th game on September 1st, he went just 2-1 with a 4.03 ERA in his next four starts.

And then won the AL Cy Young Award.