"In his dugout in Clearwater, stern Lee lies waiting (for winzzzz)." - USA TODAY Sports
The alternate title to this preview is "Fiscal Cliff," for reasons that might become clear.
2012 season: 6-9, 3.16 ERA, 30 games, 211.0 IP, 207 H, 26 BB, 207 K
ZIPS 2013: 12-6, 3.06 ERA, 28 games, 200.0 IP, 184 H, 184 H, 29 BB, 198 K
Bill James 2013: 15-10, 3.17 ERA, 32 games, 224.0 IP, 217 H, 32 BB, 193 K
Contract Status: 2013, $25 million; 2014, $25 million; 2015: $26 million; 2016: $27.5 million club option with a $12.5 million buyout. (Courtesty of Cot's Contracts)
Stop me if you've heard this one: Cliff Lee was a better pitcher in 2012 than his win-loss record suggests. Okay, now stop me if you've heard this one before: Cliff Lee has an unbelievable ratio between walks and strikeouts, that in fact his K/BB ratio was the best of any single pitcher in baseball last year. Yes, as you may have expected, Lee led the majors with a 7.39 K/BB, a metric that shows that he was far and away the best pitcher in baseball -- starter or reliever -- in controlling the strikezone. In 171.2 more innings than Mike Adams, Lee racked up 162 more strikeouts. Which makes sense! He also issued only 9 more walks. That stretches the very bounds of belief. If you buy Defense Independent Pitching theory, Cliff Lee was as good and indeed better than anyone in baseball at two of the three things a pitcher can control: strikeouts and walks.
And yet, truth being stranger than fiction, number two on the K/BB leaderboard was Mr. Joe Blanton, with a 4.88 K/BB ratio. If you guessed that right, please talk to your stewardess to receive your lovely door prize. Now, let's see if you can guess what else Lee and Blanton had in common last year. Guesses? If you guessed "massively problematic home run tendencies," you will not receive a prize. We're not about to celebrate this. In 2011, Cliff Lee allowed .70 home runs per nine innings; in 2010, he allowed .68 per nine; and in 2009 he allowed .66. That's less than one a game, for simplicity's sake. In 2012? He allowed 1.11 HR/9, which is, you may have noticed, a whole heck of a lot higher. In 21 less innings, Lee allowed 8 more home runs than he did in 2011 in 2012. This explains in part why his ERA jumped up 76 points (2.40 in 2011, 3.16 in 2012), and explains quite well why his FIP jumped up 53 points (2.60 to 3.13). Lee was homer happy.
The question, since this is a preview and not a review, is whether Lee can a) keep his K/BB at his insane rate, and b) regress back to his norm in HR/9. There's reason to be hopeful on both fronts. His K/BB is a bit high, but we're talking about a guy who has posted the following ratios from 2008-2012: 5.00, 4.21, 10.28 (!!!), 5.67, and 7.39. Recall that the second lowest ratio this last year was 4.88, lower than all but Lee's totally terrible and utterly forgettable 2009. Lee is going to do what Lee does, which is pitch with pinpoint control. Lee also should allow fewer home runs. The percentage of home runs that become fly balls is not generally considered controllable from year to year by pitchers -- usually it hovers somewhere around 9.5% on average. There are outliers, like Matt Cain, who has been able to maintain a 6.8% over his entire career, much to the chagrin of saberists everywhere. But generally, pitchers regress to the mean. The good news is that regression can be good, too! Lee's career HR/FB% is 8.6; last year, it was 11.8%. Probably he'll do at least a bit better.
But let's be honest: while we're not as concerned with Lee as we might be about Halladay, and while it's hardly controversial to call a good season for Lee well in advance of opening day, the man is no spring chicken (in baseball years). He's 34 years old, and will be 35 by the end of the season. He is also making $25 million, and is guaranteed $88.5 million, with a chance to make $103.5 million through 2016. That's a lotta scratch for a pitcher's age 34-38 seasons. If Lee earns 5 fWAR a year, then that's market value; he earned 6.7 in 2011, but he sadly earned only 4.9 in 2012. If his skills are in decline -- and that's totally possible, let's be honest -- then that's not going to look like a great contract. On the other hand, you have to overpay for an ace, and Lee is a bonafide ace.
So, in the end, we should keep an eye on Lee, but not in fear. Rather, we should keep an eye on him in anticipation. If last year is the new normal, then that's a total bummer, but it's a conditional bummer. By fWAR, Lee was the 9th most valuable pitcher in the majors last year; by ERA, he was the 15th best; and, if prediction is your game, by FIP he was the 8th best. And that's while he allowed almost twice as many home runs per nine innings. Even if he doesn't bounce back, Lee will be a joy to watch, and even still take heart: the way I'm reading the stats, it seems as if he has a good shot at coming back just fine. I have said before that Lee will be Lee, and philosophically, I maintain this as a strong prediction. In reality, it's a harder call. But even if he is only the sub-ace of the team now, then he's still going to be great. My dad has said he's his favorite pitcher to watch since Carlton. Aesthetically, he's certainly tops in my book, too.