If the Rangers had almost any other pitcher in baseball taking the mound in Game 3, the story line of the ALCS would be different. The Yankees would have overcome two terrible pitching performances to split the opening games on the road, wresting home field advantage from the Rangers in the process. With Andy Pettitte, the most experienced postseason pitcher in the history of baseball, on the mound for the Bombers in the first game in the Bronx, the Yankees would be set up perfectly to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of 7-series, with two more games in the Bronx to put the Rangers on the ropes.
Unfortunately, the Rangers will counter the Yankees with Cliff Lee. The Yankees have beaten Lee this season, and they handled him well in Game Five of the 2009 World Series. Lee, however, is one of those rare pitchers who rises to the occasion consistently enough, and commandingly enough, that the conventional wisdom is that the Rangers have the advantage heading into Game Three.
Two things are certain before Monday’s game: 1) The pitching match-up on paper is as good as it gets. 2) The Yankees may win or lose against Lee and the Rangers, but they will definitely face Lee (unless he’s injured). With that in mind, let’s take a look at Lee’s arsenal and see what he’ll be throwing at the Yankees on Monday.
All data are taken from Fangraphs. The first table shows the proportion of the time Lee throws his various pitches. The second table shows the average speeds of his pitches. The final table measures the relative effectiveness of the pitches, in terms of runs above average.
Lee is an excellent pitcher for a variety of reasons. Most of all, he has five pitches that range from his slider or changeup, which are perfectly average, to his fastball, which is devastating. It is unusual for a pitcher to have five reliable pitches. The list of those who do is a who’s-who of the best pitchers in baseball (Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and Roy Oswalt, for starters).
In addition, Lee’s pitches all have varying speeds. He can go from an average 91mph all the way down to about 76mph. That alone is a healthy velocity range, but Lee achieves these speeds a variety of ways. His cutter and changeup, for example, have similar speeds, but the two pitches have different breaks. This helps him to finish off lefties and righties differently, and also allows him to make a batter think he is getting the cutter for example, when in fact it is Lee’s relatively quick changeup, which will break differently. If a batter is onto Lee’s primary offspeed pitches, he can also mix in his curve and his slider, to make it that much more difficult for the hitter to figure out what’s coming.
Lee can also throw each of these pitches for strikes, in just about any count. He never walks batters, and seems to be improving his accuracy with age. In 2008 he averaged 1.37 walks per nine innings. Last season that figure jumped up, a bit, to 1.67, but it has plummeted in 2010 to a mind-blowing 0.76. The combination of five average to excellent pitches and pinpoint accuracy neutralizes most hitters. Although Lee relies primarily on his fastball, cutter and changeup, he can still mix in his curve and slider for strikes, which is enough to keep batters off guard and guessing.
Lee’s best pitch is his fastball, which Fangraphs rates as the 4th-best in all of baseball. He throws both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, varying the two pitches in speed from 90-95mph. That alone will be difficult enough for most hitters, but Lee’s specialty is his control. A 93mph four-seam fastball isn’t unhittable in and of itself, but it becomes unhittable if the pitcher paints the corners, which is precisely what Lee does. He buzzes lefties and righties inside with the fastball, mixing in his array of mostly average, but well-controlled off speed pitches.
The combination makes for one of the best pitchers in baseball. Lee locates his pitches, changes speeds, and gets ahead in counts. He works quickly, and gives up few home runs. He’s left-handed to boot, making him one of those rare pitchers who is well-suited to face the Yankees. And he handles pressure, on top of all that.
Although Cliff Lee will pose as big a challenge to the Yankee offense as you can face in baseball, the team has gotten to him before, and has faced him enough times to have a developed plan heading into the game. If the Yankees’ approach against Carl Pavano was any indication of how they approach pitchers who don’t walk many batters, the team may swing early in the count against Lee. Also, expect them to step out of the box frequently to try to slow Lee down, who is a fast worker. Lee won’t beat himself, the way Phil Hughes did in Game Two, but neither will Andy Pettitte. The Yankees are coming back to New York with home field advantage, and every opportunity to win what promises to be an amazing game.
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