Here’s a challenge for you. Try to find someone out there with a bad thing to say about Cliff Lee. Good luck to you.
We’ll get into some things that you may need to consider in a little while. Let’s start with what we like about Lee.
- WHY WE LIKE HIM
One word: Numbers. One more word: Consistency.
With Lee, it really is that simple. So, let’s let the numbers do the talking for a little bit, shall we?
Lee had a bit of a rocky start to his career. He posted plenty of good seasons from 2002-2007, but had just as many mediocre years, or just flat out bad ones. But in 2008, he won the American League Cy Young Award and since then has been about as good as baseball has to offer. Don’t believe me? Well, again, we’ll let the numbers do the talking.
|Total||1333.2||1203 (8.1)||197 (1.3)||85||2.89||1.086|
|2008||223.1||170 (6.9)||34 (1.4)||22||2.54||1.110|
|2009||231.2||181 (7.0)||43 (1.7)||14||3.22||1.243|
|2010||212.1||185 (7.8)||18 (0.8)||12||3.18||1.003|
|2011||232.2||238 (9.2)||42 (1.6)||17||2.40||1.027|
|2012||211||207 (8.8)||28 (1.2)||6||3.16||1.114|
|2013||222.2||222 (9.0)||32 (1.3)||14||2.87||1.010|
Not only has Lee remained steady, but the changes to his game have actually been good. He went from a pitcher who pounds the strike zone who can strike hitters out to a genuine strikeout pitcher, all while continuing to relentlessly assault the strike zone.
What makes Lee work is that he doesn’t get himself into trouble. I’ve talked plenty in this site’s history about how valuable pitchers who don’t beat themselves are. It’s not exactly deep insight, but it can never be said too often.
When forced to swing the bat, a good hitter will fail seven out of ten times. The pitcher knows what pitch he’s going to throw and where he’s going to throw it. The hitter has less than one-half second for a hitter to react to a pitch. A hitter’s best chance comes when pitchers either walk them, or fall behind in the count and make the pitches and locations predictable. Lee just doesn’t get into those situations too often.
But, pitchers who throw strikes tend to be a little weaker in areas like strikeouts, relying more on their defense to make the plays. Lee doesn’t need to do that.
Now it gets tougher.
- THE BAD THINGS WE CAN SAY ABOUT HIM
Alright, I don’t know Cliff Lee. He seems like a fine person but for the sake of this discussion, we’re talking about his fantasy value. So, what do we not like?
It’s not exactly Lee’s fault, but the Philadelphia Phillies just don’t appear to be that good. In 2013, they were 27th in the MLB in both bullpen ERA and runs scored. Their biggest acquisition in the off-season? Marlon Byrd, at least so far. So, they don’t appear to be a team that will offer him much run support and when Lee does leave a game with the lead, the chances aren’t great that it will be held.
Like it or not, this does diminish Lee’s fantasy value, unless your league does not count wins. It’s still one of five categories in a standard fantasy league and barring some changes to the look of the team, it’s hard to see Lee eclipsing much more than his 2013 total of 14 wins.
Lee is entering his Age 35 season. To be fair, he’s never shown many signs of aging. But there’s another pitcher who Lee probably knows pretty well. Much like Lee in 2013, his Age 34 season was pretty good. After that? Well, let’s see.
|Age 34 Season||233.2||220||35||19||2.35||1.040|
|Age 35 Season||156.1||132||36||11||4.49||1.222|
|Age 36 Season||62||51||36||4||6.82||1.468|
You probably know that those numbers represent the 2011-2013 campaigns for Roy Halladay, Lee’s former teammate who just retired.
The two situations aren’t exact parallels. Halladay had more innings pitched (2531) entering his Age 35 season than Lee’s had (2075.1). Halladay also dealt with injuries at different points of his career and a lot over those last two years, and those differences aren’t insignificant.
The point is that downfalls happen fast. When you get into your mid-late 30’s, it takes longer to heal and even minor injuries keep pitchers on the shelf more.
WHERE WE COME DOWN ON LEE IN 2014
Let’s see what the numbers from Tanner Bell of Smart Fantasy Baseball tell us right now.
Cliff Lee: Early 2014 Projections
Generally speaking, I have no reason to dispute those numbers. Predicting 14 wins is a little tricky, since he only won 6 games in 2012, but that’s not going to happen that often to a pitcher as good as Lee, even if his team doesn’t give him good run support and the bullpen is shaky.
The age is a bit of a concern, but when evaluating someone’s fantasy value, I need to see him actually show signs of slowing down before going crazy on it. Eventually, Lee will get too old to be a great pitcher. Heck, eventually Mike Trout will get too old to be a great hitter and Jose Fernandez will get too old to be a great pitcher. It happens in life, and is never as prevalent as in the world of sports.
But Cliff Lee gets the same benefit of the doubt that Roy Halladay got before he began declining in 2012. With a guy who’s been as great and as consistent as he’s been for this long, you have to see the actual struggle before you assume they’ll happen.
With Lee, we just haven’t seen any significant signs of struggle. So, continue to expect big things from him heading into 2014.