We all know that Cliff Lee was outrageous last night, hurling eight innings of shutout ball while yielding two hits and striking out 13. According to Baseball-Reference, there have only been 21 postseason games where a starting pitcher had a Game Score of 90 or higher, and Cliff Lee now has one of them. Sorted by strikeouts, Lee had the seventh-most dominating game in postseason history.
So how on earth did he do it? We know Lee has possibly the most pinpoint control and command in the Majors, but last night he appeared to be superhuman, even by his lofty standards.
Here’s a table of data from the wonderful Brooks Baseball breaking down what Lee threw last night:
As you can see, Lee went to his Cutter most often, got five swinging strikes with it and was able to locate it with pinpoint accuracy, as is his wont. His two-seamer was stellar, and was the strongest pitch of his outing. His four-seamer was also excellent, with an Average Horizontal Break of 5.29 to go with an Average Vertical Break of 11.28 and going for a strike 77.8% of the time. All told Lee generated 14 swinging strikes, which is outrageous, and only saw four balls leave the infield. Lee’s changeup was arguably his least successful pitch last night, but it doesn’t matter when you have four other pitches to go to and can place them anywhere you want in any count.
To wit, also courtesy of Brooks:
That strike zone plot is a work of art. By my count, seven of Lee’s 14 swinging strikes were out of the zone. He only threw one pitch right down the middle. He also didn’t appear to be the beneficiary of a single generous call — somehow every single one of his called strikes was actually in the zone. How often does that happen?
I was going to berate the Yankees for their complete inability to get a read on and adjust for Lee, but after reviewing the numbers and the zone plot, I’m not sure any team could’ve done anything with what Lee had to offer last night. In addition to too many swings at pitches out of the strike zone, it looked nearly every swing the Yankees took was defensive, and were only swinging just because it was Cliff Lee and they figured the ball would be somewhere in the strike zone. While the latter statement was true a majority of the time, guess-hitting is not a good plan of attack, and Lee was able to thoroughly exploit the Yankees’ cluelessness.
After spinning yet another masterpiece against the Yankees — who already covet him something fierce to begin with — I can’t fathom how many more millions of dollars it’s going to take to sign this man in the offseason. During the season it seemed like many had been expecting Lee to command somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million per over five years, though now it seems likely that it’s going to require a bit more than that to get him. Using CC Sabathia‘s 7-year, $161 million deal as a benchmark, I have to imagine Lee is going to command something closer to that amount. I know Sabathia was 28 at the time and Lee is 32, but Lee is better than CC Sabathia, and aside from the occasional abdominal or back issue, seems to have few health issues that would preclude him from being this good for a long time.
Though Halladay has very slightly out-fWARed Lee during that time period, 21.4 to 20.8, Lee’s average FIP from 2008-2010 is 2.84 to Roy’s 3.03. Their numbers are eerily similar for the most part during this three-year period, except Lee gives up even less walks and home runs. And though this accounts for a much smaller sample, Lee’s also been beyond brilliant in seven postseason starts compared to the Doctor’s two career playoff starts.
Per Fangraphs, Lee’s been worth an average of $30 million a year during the last three years. 7.0 WAR, dominating pitchers with five pitches that can be thrown at any
time, anywhere they want in any count they want don’t just grow on trees, and the Yankees are going to have to do whatever it takes to get Lee this winter. I don’t care if it’s five or even six years at $30 million per, Lee’s pretty clearly a once-in-a-generational talent, and pairing him up with CC Sabathia next season is going to be critical in an AL East absolutely loaded with pitching talent.
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