Thursday, June 2, 2011

Did the Yankees Dodge a Bullet By Not Signing Cliff Lee?

Check this out: Cliff Lee's ERA is 3.94, higher than Freddy Garcia's and Bartolo Colon's..

This season—in the year of the steroid-free batter pitcher, that 3.94 actually makes Cliff Lee a below average pitcher. (Albeit not by much, but still....)

And this is in the NL East, which, yes is a competitive division, is in no way, the AL East; the Jose Baustista, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Joyce, David Ortiz division.

Still, pitching in the National League, Lee's WHIP is way up and his BB rate has doubled to 2.14/per 9IP from 0.76/IP. But possibly the most telling stat is Lee's BABIP—specifically against righties. Last year, righties' BABIP was .276. That number is now .356. Righties overall are batting .270 against Lee this season, up from .224 last season. And amazingly, all batters are batting a grotesquely huge .337 against Lee with runners in scoring position, up from .259 last season.

What the heck happened? Well, one theory, courtesy of fangraphs.com is Lee's cutter. All of Lee's pitches are down value-wise this year, but his cutter has become downright bad. Last year, it was a 2.7 value pitch, this year it's a -3.7 pitch. And if you compare the 2 charts (the top is Lee's 2011 cutter heat map, the bottom is the 2010 version), it shows that Lee's cutter isn't as consistently avoiding the meat of the plate. Last year's cutter—as the hot spots show—was either way up in the strike zone, just along the upper part of the box, or lower down in the zone—avoiding the wheelhouse part of the plate. Lee's 2011 hot spot is just a touch higher in the zone, or exactly where the batter would like it. It's not a huge difference, but it's enough to make the batter happy.

The same is even more true for Lee's fastball—a huge value pitch last year at 26.4; this year's it's down to a 7.6 value. And again, comparing the heat charts against righties, you can see that the bright spot last season is down in the zone; this year, most of the bright spots for Lee's fastball are up in the higher half of the zone.

Lee hasn't lost any velocity. His pitches are almost exactly the mph they were last year. it's just that he's not placing them as well as he used to. Strangely, Lee's Ks are way up, but as stated before, so are his BB/9 and BABIP and his FB/HR rate. All of this points to location. Lee still has the stuff—see his velocity, movement and his K/9 rate. However, this year's his location is off. This very well could be a temporary thing—a correctable thing—and something that Lee probably will correct. Lee really only has had 3 truly bad games this season—there's not a lot of hard evidence that this isn't a blip on the 2011 season's radar.

The Yankees have had some incredibly good fortune with their pitching this season—and as Mike Silva wrote this morning—Brian Cashman deserves much of the credit for finding Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, who have answered the bell mightily. And let's not forget Lance Pendleton and Luis Alaya who so far have pitched 25.1 innings of relief and have given up a total of 3 runs. On the whole, it's been a remarkable 2 months of pitching for the Yankees. But can we honestly say we wouldn't want Cliff Lee on our roster right now, even with him pitching sub-par (for him)? No we can't. Right here, right now, the Yankees would love to have him on their team, no doubt. As would any other ball club.

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