Considering that he was THE story of the previous winter, I guess it’s only right that Cliff Lee embodied the 2011 Phillies season. Like the team as a whole, he turned in a brilliant performance over 162 games that sadly went overshadowed by a bitter playoff disappointment. The kicker, of course, is that Lee’s inability to hold an early 4-0 lead in Game Two of the Division Series was a big reason why the Phils didn’t cap their 102-win regular season with a deeper push into the playoffs. Lee surrendered all five runs over six-plus innings in the Phils’ 5-4 loss. He didn’t pitch again in 2011.
The game itself was representative of Lee’s few "bad" outings last season. A strike-throwing machine who comes right at batters, Lee can be beaten by lineups that feature hitters with pop who excel at putting the ball in play; the 2011 Cardinals circa October were pretty much the dictionary definition of that sort of lineup. Luck factored in as well: I’ve seen his walk of Lance Berkman, on successive borderline pitches, to lead off the three-run fourth that got St. Louis back in the game again and again in my head this winter.
Mostly, though, it was Lee who inflicted the damage in 2011. The lefty posted career bests with a 2.40 ERA, 232.2 innings pitched and 238 strikeouts to go with his sparkling 17-8 record, and finished third behind Clayton Kershaw and teammate Roy Halladay in National League Cy Young Award balloting. Sitting at 4-5 with a 3.94 ERA through the end of May, Lee eviscerated the league the rest of the way with a 13-3 record and 1.59 ERA. Twice he claimed NL Pitcher of the Month honors, going 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA in June (and finishing the month with three straight shutouts) and 5-0, 0.45 in August.
The big weapon Lee has added as he’s moved into his 30s is the cutter. Even in his 2008 AL Cy Young year with the Indians, he threw it only 6 percent of the time; by last year, the percentage had jumped up to 22. Lee used his fastball considerably less in 2011 than in any previous season of his career, throwing it just 53.5 percent of the time; but his average velocity on it was the highest of his career.
There’s reason to think Lee was slightly lucky in 2011: he stranded over 81 percent of runners, and his BABIP was a bit below his career norm. Then again, Lee and the Phillies probably would take a bit less luck from April through September in exchange for better fortune come playoff time.