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2012 was a fluke for Cliff Lee
by Scott Butler 4/26/13

$3.58 million per win. That is how much Cliff Lee earned last season for the Phillies. After going 17-8 the year before with a career winning percentage of .617 and an average of 15 wins per season, Lee finished with just 6 wins in 2012. So was it just a case of bad luck or was it possibly the signs of a declining pitcher?

Cliff Lee probably calmed all fears with a 1.52 ERA and an average of 7.9 innings in his first three outings, but should we be concerned with 5 earned runs in 5 innings on Saturday and a blown lead yesterday in a tight game?

Save your concerns for the Phillies 9-14 record, their 10th ranked NL offense, their league leading 23 double-plays, or go right on down the list of players not hitting (Revere, Brown, Kratz, Howard....), because there is no need to worry about Cliff Lee.

It was just one of those years and one of the strangest starts to a season for a starting pitcher. Cliff Lee was winless in his first 13 games before a July 5 victory due to a combination of a fairly high 4.13 ERA and poor run support of 2.6 runs/9 while he was the pitcher of record. Even so, the difference wasn't large enough to explain a goose egg in the win column. Consider it a case of the wrong place at the wrong time 13 straight times.

Lee certainly does not escape culpability considering he blew leads and failed to step up in some of the closer contests, but he deserved a much better fate. Even after his nightmarish start, he still only went 6-4 with a sparkling 2.44 ERA.

What matters more to Phillies fans than wins and losses is whether or not his 2012 season was an indication of a pitcher approaching a rapid decline. As much as I would love to provide an in-depth analysis and pinpoint exactly what Lee was doing to cause a drop of 11 wins in a single season, I need to throw up my hands here.

As you can see from the standard statistics, on paper Cliff Lee looked like pretty much the same guy.

Cliff Lee Standard Statistics
Year W L W-L% ERA G GS CG SHO IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP
2012 6 9 .400 3.16 30 30 0 0 211 207 74 26 28 207 1.114
162 Game Avg. 15 9 .617 3.58 34 34 3 1 224 219 89 23 50 185 1.206

Sure, most of his numbers were down, but certainly not enough to turn heads.

So, I dug a little deeper and found very little that jumped out for Clifford. Even when you break it down to the more advanced statistics it is hard to decipher any significant pattern.

Advanced Cliff Lee Stats
Year H/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 AVG BABIP LOB% HR/FB ERA FIP
2012 8.8 8.83 1.19 1.11 .253 .309 78.6% 11.8% 3.16 3.13
162 Game Avg. 8.8 7.43 2.03 0.94 .252 .295 73.5% 8.6% 3.58 3.54

Believe it or not, his strikeout and walk totals were better in 2012. The only real difference on the negative side are home runs, extra-base hits percentage, and BABIP.

His home runs per nine innings in 2012 was 1.11 compared to his career rate of 0.94 and his home/run to fly ball rate was 9.4% vs. his 7.7% career rate. Even so, it only resulted in 3 more home runs (26) than his career average (23).

The real culprit besides limited run support (3.6 run/game) was his BABIP. Throughout his career, Lee's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .295 and right around the league average of .291. But in 2012, Lee's BABIP rose to .309.

BABIP is widely generally considered to be a luck stat, with any number above or below average attributed to good or bad luck. Although an increase of 18 points is fairly significant, it is not drastic enough to explain away an entire season.

Oftentimes, you can find the real answer by looking at the type of hits. A high percentage of line drives indicates solid contact and a greater amount of flyballs might be problematic, as well.

Batted Ball
Season GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB IFH%
2012 1.22 18.1% 45.0% 36.9% 11.8% 6.0%
Total 0.99 19.6% 39.9% 40.4% 8.6% 6.4%

Once again, nothing to show Lee should have been any worse in 2012. You could even argue he should have been better considering his ground ball rate increased while his fly ball and line drive rates dropped.

Pitch Type
Season FB% CT% CH% CB% SL%
2012 54.3% 20.0% 15.6% 9.4% 0.7%
Total 65.2% 11.3% 12.6% 8.6% 2.3%

It is interesting to note that he threw less fastballs and fewer cutters in 2012, according to Fangraphs. That can also be misleading because cutters and fastballs can be easily confused since they are similar in speed and movement. If you combine the two, Lee threw 74.3% fastballs/cutters last season compared to his career rate of 76.5%, which is very close.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it was the same old Cliff Lee who throws a lot of strikes, pitches deep into games, and gives his team a chance to win. The stats are all very encouraging because from all accounts there were no signs of a declining pitcher.

Maybe it was just one of those years.

Previous article: What do the stats tell us about Ben Revere?

Next article: No smoke and mirrors: Kyle Kendrick is the real deal


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