Tomorrow night, Cliff Lee will face CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series. It's possible that the two lefties will face each other two more times over the course of the possible seven game series, as each manager has indicated that his ace lefty could pitch Games 1, 4, and 7 (if necessary).
The two aces share a lot in common besides both being lefties. Both were initially drafted in the 1998 amateur draft, Sabathia by the Indians and Lee by the Orioles. Sabathia was a first round pick who quickly signed. Lee, a twentieth round pick, did not sign, re-entering the draft in 2000 when he was drafted by the Expos. In 2002, before he had reached the majors, he was traded to the Indians as part of a package in the Bartolo Colon deadline deal.
Until 2008, both Lee and Sabathia spent their major league careers as Indians, with Sabathia being the better pitcher, although not by much. From 2001 through mid-2008, Sabathia was 106-71 with a 3.83 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 116 ERA+ over 1528 innings. From 2002 through mid-2009, Lee was 83-48 for the Indians with a 4.01 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 110 ERA+ over 1117 innings.
Even though Sabathia had the better career as an Indian, Lee's peak was better. The two won back-to-back Cy Young Awards as Indians, but Lee had the better Cy Young season. In 2007, Sabathia went 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA over 241 innings. His ERA+ was 143 and his WARP3 was 7.2. In Lee's 2008 Cy Young season, he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA over 223.1 innings. His ERA+ was 175 with a WARP3 of 8.6.
Both Sabathia and Lee were traded in blockbuster mid-season trades that netted the Indians a good portion of a future lineup and rotation. The Indians got Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, and Zach Jackson from the Brewers for Sabathia in July 2008. A year later, they got Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Lou Marson, and Jason Donald from the Phillies for Lee. Both players were then key cogs in getting their new team to the post-season, with Sabathia coming in fifth place in the NL Cy Young voting for his half-year of work for the Brewers and Cliff Lee anchoring an until-then shaky Phillies rotation in the second half of their third-in-a-row NL East championship season.
Both players have been excellent so far this post-season. They've both pitched 3 games, allowed 4 runs, and have a 20:3 strikeout to walk ratio. The big difference, if you can call it big, is that Lee has pitched more innings (24.1 to Sabathia's 22.2), and has allowed fewer earned runs (2 to Sabathia's 3). Thus, Lee has an eye-popping 0.74 ERA compared to Sabathia's merely gaudy 1.19 ERA.
So what can we expect from these two in this series? Both have faltered in their career against the opposing team. In 9 career starts, Lee has a 4-4 record against the Yankees, posting a 5.02 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, and 39:18 strikeout to walk ratio. In 4 career starts against the Phillies (including the post-season), Sabathia has a 1-2 record with a 5.55 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and 17:8 strikeout to walk ratio.
Looking to splits, both pitchers have been better against right-handed hitters over their entire careers, although not drastically so. For Sabathia, he has given up a .694 OPS to righties and .647 OPS to lefties. For Lee, he has given up a .733 OPS to righties and .714 to lefties. This year, however, it has been much more drastic for both pitchers. For Sabathia, .681 for righties and .560 for lefties. For Lee, .734 for righties and .583 for lefties. Both teams' lefties should struggle against these pitchers.
At the new Yankee Stadium, both pitchers have done well this year, although with Cliff Lee having a very small sample size, of course. Sabathia pitched 15 games during the regular season and had a 3.17 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Lee won the 1 game he pitched there this year, letting up 1 earned run in 6 innings, for a 1.50 ERA but a 1.67 WHIP. At CBP, Lee was 3-2 with a 2.52 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.
Sabathia hasn't pitched in Philadelphia yet in his career. [EDIT: Sabathia has pitched one post-season game at CBP and no regular season games. In that one game, he took the loss and had a 12.27 ERA, 3+ WHIP, and a 5:4 strikeout to walk ratio. Clearly not good at all, the "small sample size" bell should be ringing loud and clear.]
Finally, how have the two done against the individual hitters in the opposing lineups? Having been in the AL, Lee has a much longer track record against the Yankees' hitters and many have fared very well against him. Only Raul Ibanez has seen Sabathia a significant number of times, although in limited at-bats the top of the Phillies lineup has dominated Sabathia. (The numbers here include post-season plate appearances.)
With the track record for these two aces being so close, the best prediction is that the games they pitch should be close battles, at least as long as the starters stay in the game.
The only clear loser here is the Cleveland Indians.