Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels: A 2012 Tale of Two Pitchers

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Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels: A 2012 Tale of Two Pitchers
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. On paper, they are two of the best left-handed starters in the National League, perhaps in all of baseball. Cole and Cliff. In this tale of two pitchers, for one, it is almost the best of times; for the other, yes, it is the worst of times.

The first guy is having a season that puts him somewhere within the Cy Young Award discussion. The other "C"? Well, let's just say that he's having a season for the ages—for all of the wrong reasons.

Cole and Cliff. The younger lefty is now 14-6 with a 2.94 ERA. Cliff? 2-7, 3.83. It would be a stretch to say that Lee has pitched as well as Cole this year, and I am not making that argument. On the other hand, their performances have not been all that dissimilar, except for those two little columns labeled "wins" and "losses."  And in keeping with that, the following statement has to be one of the strangest statistical oddities of the 2012 Major League Baseball season. Tonight, Cliff Lee will toe the rubber versus the Cincinnati Reds in search of his first home win, and third overall win, of the season. Yes, Virginia, it is August 22, not April 15. (Talk about a taxing season for Mr. Lee).

Not only is this, arguably, the weirdest stat in all of baseball this year, but it is also one of the craziest things I've witnessed in many years of following this wonderful, confounding sport. My main conclusion to all of this is that while Lee has not pitched as well he had in the previous four seasons (His overall numbers from 2008-2011 merited him Top 5 consideration among all MLB pitchers during that span), he has been victimized by some of the worst displays of offense, defense, relief pitching and managing imaginable.

Truly, it's been almost unimaginable—especially for a team that came into the season as five-time-defending NL East Champs. Yes, this is the same team (more or less) whose pitching led them to an MLB-best  and franchise record 102 wins, despite losing eight straight games during what became garbage time.

Just last year, the Phillies celebrated "Big Three" (It was a Big Four of "R2, C2", but Roy Oswalt suffered through various injuries) lived up to its hype, all finishing in the top three in NL Cy Young balloting. In a case where the voters seemed to get it just right: Roy (Doc) Halladay finished second behind the LA Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw. Lee was third, followed by Arizona's Ian Kennedy and then Hamels.

This year? The race seems to wide open, with Kershaw and Hamels in consideration with the Reds' Johnny Cueto, the New York Mets' R.A. Dickey, and seemingly, most of the pitchers from the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals. If you were wondering about Ian Kennedy, the man who arrived last year as an ace, going 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, his ERA has ballooned to a mediocre 4.24 this year, almost a half-point worse than Lee's. His record? A disappointing, but respectable 11-10.

Lee's rather comically unfair 2-7 record even stands out among Philles hurlers this year. The team's main six starters numbers in 2012—using only very basic stats—look like this. For Joe Blanton, since traded to LA, I've used only his Philly numbers. WHIP, for those not familiar, is walks plus hits per innings pitched.

Pitcher

W-L

ERA

WHIP

K/BB

Joe Blanton

8-9

4.59

1.19

115/18

Roy Halladay

7-7

3.95

1.08

95/19

Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Cole Hamels

2-7

3.83

1.16

168/42

Kyle Kendrick

6-9

4.20

1.37

81/39

Cliff Lee

2-7

3.83

1.16

142/24

Vance Worley

6-8

4.11

1.48

100/45

Clearly, these numbers tell the story of a pitcher who has had terrible support during the year, and if you've watched all or most of the games, they barely do justice to the...well...injustice of it all. The above just shows it from a team perspective, but how about from a league perspective. The below charts show Lee's record compared to the pitchers with the most similar earned run averages.

Pitcher

ERA

W-L

Josh Johnson (Marlins)

3.73

7-10

Trevor Cahill (Diamondbacks)

3.75

9-10

Lucas Harrell (Astros)

3.81

10-8

Lee

3.83

2-7

Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

3.87

11-10

Bronson Arroyo (Reds)

3.96

9-7

Wandy Rodriguez (mostly with Astros)

4.00

8-12

The chart shows about a .500 record for all of the other pitchers with similar ERAs, with two of them managing respectable records despite toiling for a horrible Astros team. Do you need more ammo to show how poorly Lee has been supported during his nightmare 2012 season? Cliff is superior to all of these hurlers in: WHIP, K/BB and innings per start.

The next chart shows Lee's record with among those with similar WHIP numbers.

Pitcher

WHIP

W-L

Wade Miley (Diamondbacks)

1.13

13-8

Jonathan Niese (Mets)

1.15

10-6

Gio Gonzalez (Nats)

1.16

16-6

Lee

1.16

2-7

Edwin Jackson (Nats)

1.17

7-8

Paul Maholm (mostly with Cubs)

1.17

11-7

Clayton Richards (Padres)

4.00

8-12

 Per this group, for pitchers not named Cliff Lee, the average record is 11-8. And yes, per this gang of pretty good WHIP-ers, Lee is the best in terms of K/BB ratio and innings pitched per start.

All of these stats and normal baseball logic would suggest that Lee has easily pitched well enough to be about 10-8 in his 21 starts this year, if he had even average support. With good support, perhaps 12-6. No, this is not Cy Young or even Clayton Kershaw territory, but he has hardly stunk the joint out this year. Far from it.

So, how does Hamels play into all this. None of this to detract from Hamels, who has been about the only bright sport for Phillies fans this year. Yes, Chooch Ruiz (until he got injured) and Freddy Galvis' poise and amazing defense at second base (now, ancient history due to his back and injury and 50-game suspension) were about all the faithful had, and even those turned sour. In Hamels' present groove, he could even make a run at 20 wins.

And so, the narrative tends to be set, even during the post-game analysis by the local (Comcast Sportsnet) post game crews over the weekend. In what typifies the trajectories of the two southpaw's seasons the reactions to their most recent starts in Milwaukee was interesting. Hamels was praised for having all his pitches working in a 4-3 win; Lee was questioned for continuing to "pound the strike zone" during what turned out to be a 7-4 loss.He received his 14th "no-decision" in 21 starts. Bullpen help, anyone?

Two things come to mind here:

1. There was an element in truth to the reactions to both pitchers' performances

2. Lee pitched as well as Hamels. No, check that, he pitched the stronger game.

Here were their stats in Milwaukee, which were strikingly similar, with an edge to Lee.

 

Pitcher

IP

H

R/ER

K/BB

Net Pitches/Strikes

Hamels

7.2

8

3/3

10/1

107/75

Lee

7.2

5

4/3

12/0

111-82

 

The craziness of this game is that both pitchers gave up a homer to Aramis Ramirez and another one to Ryan Braun. Check that, Lee gave up two to Braun; Hamels gave up a second tracer to the red-hot leftfielder that somehow did not clear the wall in left-center, just (apparently) not hitting the yellow line at the top. As fortune would have it, Cole was bailed out by a downright moronic, two-out baserunning gaffe by Jonathan Lucroy on the play. First, he fell asleep; then he went back to second thinking that he missed it. He could have scored easily on the play, and the speedy Braun would have/should have an easy double and possibly more.

Of course, Hamels was also bailed out by closer Jonathan Papelbon who came into the bottom of the eight (after a two-out, two-run homer by Braun) for a rare four-out save. In Lee's start, he was cruising in the eighth and threw what should have been a 1-2-3 eighth but for a throwing error by third baseman Kevin Frandsen on a fairly routine play. From there, Lee was pulled and all the usual heck broke loose.

The deep frustration for Phillies fans is that watching Cliff Lee this year has suddenly become a horror show for Phillies fans. Like Hamels, Lee is one very few pitchers who average 7 innings per start, and his numbers, as illustrated, have been those of a reliably good pitcher. It's just that this reliably good pitcher who has always pitched, fielded and run the bases with style, poise, maximum effort and class, has only two wins in 21 starts.

And, so it goes for the still-popular, incredibly unflappable lefty co-ace. The worst of times, indeed, with the hope and expectation that this is a one-year anomaly. It is, right?

 

 

 

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