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2012 Phillies Exit Interview: Cliff Lee

In contemplating the Rorschach test of Cliff Lee's complicated good season, only one word comes to mind: whatever.


Cliff Lee -- Baseball Reference

Cliff Lee -- Fangraphs

One of the interesting things about the evolving analytical and coverage cultures of major league baseball is the cycle of reaction and counter-reaction. Jim Rice is elected to the Hall of Fame while Tim Raines languishes on the outside: BOOO!!!! Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award with a win-loss record barely over .500: YAY!!!! Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown while Mike Trout clearly has the better season: WHAAA??? The emotional investment and moral certitude of the stathead community in its later generations increasingly and depressingly resembles that of the benighted old guard pricks against whom it once kicked; Daniel Patrick Moynihan probably didn’t have bloated, embittered sportswriters and sexually frustrated saber types in mind when he suggested the Iron Law of Emulation, but it still holds.

And yes, this is a piece about Cliff Lee. As you’ve probably heard, the laconic lefty had a weird and overall pretty unpleasant season in 2012, much like his team as a whole. Unlike the team, though, Lee was highly effective; it just didn't show up in the standings. The Phillies lost a majority of Lee’s starts, and he finished with a 6-9 record personally, despite an overall performance that can only be described as excellent and fully worthy, in baseball terms, of the enormous salary he earned this season: 211 innings, a 3.16 ERA, an almost unfathomable 207 strikeouts against 28 walks. Lee’s 4.2 Wins Over Replacement (WAR) tied with Cole Hamels for the team lead among pitchers, and if you accept the idea that each WAR is worth about $5 million, the Phillies got about a million dollars of value over the $21 million they paid Lee for his services in 2012.

The craziest thing? Lee very nearly allowed fewer walks (28) than home runs (26) for the year; after the all-star break, he surrendered 16 homers against just 8 walks, and racked up more than 13 strikeouts for every base on balls. The totality of this performance has led some to suggest Lee should be the National League’s Cy Young Award winner, or at least merit serious consideration; to conclude otherwise would be to punish Lee for the criminal non-support rendered him by miserable offense and putrid relief pitching.

Not to go all Joe Morgan on you, but this strikes me as an overstatement. Was Lee better than his won-lost? Obviously. Did he pitch well this season? Of course. Did his teammates let him down? Um, yeah. To put him in the Cy Young conversation, though, requires a lot of forgiveness for those 26 home runs, as well as Lee’s significantly worse numbers late in games. (The eighth inning was his worst by far, as Lee pitched to a 9.72 ERA in 12 games; that’s not unusual, but the sixth was his second worst, with a 4.34 ERA in 29 games.) Even here, you could say Lee wasn’t at fault: Charlie Manuel left him in too long because he (rightly) didn’t trust his crappy bullpen. But the numbers are clear that Lee fell short of his own 2011 performance: his ERA+ dropped from 160 a year ago to a still-excellent 127 this year.

The big takeaway from Lee’s 2012 is probably his great second half, when he pitched to a 2.45 ERA and pretty much put every offering where he wanted it. At the All-Star Break, it was an open question how the Phillies’ rotation would look in 2013 and beyond: Lee was near a 4 ERA, Roy Halladay was injured, and Hamels was three months from free agency. Halladay remains a question mark, but with Lee on track and Hamels re-signed, the Phillies enter next year with two of the best lefties in the game leading their pitching staff.

And now, the exit interview:

1. How did you let your teammates down this season?


Mr. Lee? Cliff?

I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?

Of course. How did you let your teammates down this season?

Wow—I actually did hear you right. Well, let me see.

(Long pause)

Okay, how’s this: last year I hit two home runs. This year, zero. So my offensive production really dropped off. That’s my job, right? To put up big offensive numbers?

2. I’m sensing a little sarcasm here. Please understand these are questions we’re asking everybody on the team. So let’s move on. How did you let your manager and GM down this season?

Um. Hmm. Oh, I got it—by justifying the decision to bat me ninth, behind Michael Martinez. Like I said, I didn’t homer this year. Oh, and I guess by getting hurt after pitching those ten shutout innings in San Francisco back in the spring. Among the games I didn’t homer in was that one. I can’t remember how that game turned out—did we win? Did we score? If not, that was my fault. I’m really, really, REALLY sorry.

3. What do you have to say to all the fans you let down this season?

I’ve already spent two weeks in the batting cage. I’m speaking literally here: no sleep, no food, no relieving myself—which, come to think of it, would have been a great way to win more games. Nobody else did very well relieving me… I’m sorry, here I am making excuses for myself, and obviously everything that happened this year was my fault.

So like I said, I’ve been in the cage. Next year, my goal is not to make an out at the plate. If I’m called upon to sacrifice, I’ll beat that shit out. Then steal second, third and home. Clearly, I failed to produce enough offense to support my own pitching. To the fans, I say that we understand you have many choices for the disposition of your entertainment dollar, and we’re determined to make you glad you’ve chosen to spend it on the Phillies.

4. The other two teams you were considering as a free agent two winters ago, the Rangers and Yankees, both made the playoffs this season. Any regrets about signing here instead?

No way! Why would I have wanted to join up with teams featuring guys like Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter rather than the amazing offensive support of Placido Polanco, Ty Wigginton and the great Michael Martinez? And sure, they’ve got Mike Adams and Joe Nathan and David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in their bullpens—but give me Josh Lindblom and Joe Savery any day. Hey, how is Chad Qualls doing?

5. Let’s end on a positive note. What was your best memory of the 2012 season?

I didn’t pitch in that Houston series, right?