Ubaldo Jimenez has gotten all the attention this season, but Cliff Lee might be the best pitcher in baseball. He can probably finish the season as such, win another Cy Young Award and get very rich this offseason if his manager stops abusing his left arm.
Lee has posted a stellar 2.34 ERA, and is fourth in WAR, just ahead of the aforementioned Jimenez. His strikeout to walk ratio is a possibly record setting 15.6/1, nearly 250% higher than second place Roy Halladay's ratio. At this pace, Lee will destroy the record ratio, presently set at 11/1 by Bret Saberhagen in 1994.
Lee also leads all of baseball in WHIP and the AL in adjusted pitching wins, ERA+, HR/9, and shutouts.
It is the last of these that is of concern.
Lee has thrown complete games in four of his last five starts, including three straight. During that stretch, he's thown 539 pitches. His five complete games (one short of his career-high) lead all of baseball. But, only one of those complete games is a shutout.
It's important to remember that Lee started the season on the disabled list: making his first start of the season on April 30th. He also had arm troubles in 2007 which almost ended his tenure with the Indians.
You would think the risk of possible injury before July 31st would be a matter of concern for the Mariners, because Lee is prime trade bait.
A free agent after this season, Lee is perhaps the most valuable pitching trade bait since CC Sabathia. While his amazing season likely guarantees a fantastic new contract for him, another injury would severely damage those prospects.
Let's take a closer look at Wakamatsu's decision making during Lee's starts this year.
On May 5th, against Tampa Bay, Lee started the 8th inning tied 2-2. By the end of the inning, he'd given up 4 hits and the Ray's led 5-2. However, Wakamatsu did not remove him during the inning and he let Lee come out for the 9th inning.
On May 11th, Lee pitched into the 8th inning despite the Mariners leading the lowly Orioles by four runs after the 6th inning.
On May 21st, Lee threw 115 pitches in a game the Mariners won 15-8. They led 15-3 after the 5th inning.
Lee's last five starts, though, have been the most egregious.
On June 7th, the Mariners led the Rangers 4-0 when Lee started the bottom of the 9th. At well over 100 pitches, he promptly gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning. Still, Wakamatsu left him in the game. The Rangers then scored, ending the shutout, but Lee remained in the game. In the end, Lee gave up two runs and finished the game.
On June 23rd, Lee pitched his second straight complete game despite the Mariners being up five runs in the sixth.
This script repeated itself earlier this week when Lee pitched another complete game despite the Mariners leading 7-2 after the sixth inning. In addition, Lee continued to pitch through a meaningless ninth inning in which he allowed three hits and two runs to the first four hitters.
Someone needs to tell Don Wakamatsu to save Cliff Lee's left arm for the Mariners' sake and Lee's career.
If Lee gets hurt or struggles from overuse he will not be as valuable to the Mariners at the trade deadline. Injury or a poor second half would also hurt Lee's negotiating position for his next, possibly career-making contract.
Leading baseball in pitches per start could severely damage both prospects.