MLB Rumors: Why Cliff Lee Belongs in the NL When He Signs Long-Term Deal
It's probably fair to say Cliff Lee struggled down the stretch in 2010. While his bloated ERA and sub-.500 winning percentage with Texas were certainly not all his fault, his Cy Young season quickly evaporated in the Texas heat after a mid-season trade landed him in Arlington. Yet here we are in October, and Cliff Lee is again dominating hitters like few in post-season history.
Tuesday night, for the fourth time in seven October starts, Cliff Lee went 7+ innings, struck out 10+ batters, and didn't surrender a walk. In the 2,545 post-season games not started by Cliff Lee, this has occurred exactly three times. Translation: Cliff Lee is a pretty good pitcher.
Assuming Lee's dominance continues - and remembering how much a good playoff run can pad a contract - Lee is likely looking at a massive deal this winter. The obvious candidate for Lee's services is the New York Yankees, and with Texas' new TV contract, they too might have a shot.
But if Lee can secure an offer remotely close to what he'd be getting in New York or Arlington with a National League team, should Lee think twice? Maybe.
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It's safe to say that Cliff Lee is a flyball pitcher, and that his high GB-rate in 2008 was just a blip on the radar.
Lee does have some ability to prevent his flyballs from turning into home runs. For whatever reason, his HR/FB rate has been far bellow league average for quite some time. Still, he's not invisible, and his struggles in Texas prove that.
American League teams obviously hit more home runs than National League teams, because pitchers almost never hit home runs and DH's hit home runs quite frequently. The difference isn't quite what you might expect - it's only about eight home runs per team per season - but that's still significant.
More significant, however, is that the two American League teams most likely to make a serious push for Lee - the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees - both play in very hitter-friendly ballparks. We already saw the damage Arlington did to Lee's ERA in the second half, and Yankee Stadium was even worse last year, with a home run park factor of 1.42.
Cliff Lee will do very well in a park that allows him to be himself - throw a lot of strikes, get a decent number of strikeouts, and allow a bunch of flyballs that turn into flyouts instead of home runs. Arlington and Yankee Stadium aren't those parks.
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The strikeout is by far the biggest difference in the two leagues. Pitchers strikeout A LOT, giving the National League pitchers a huge edge in strikeouts per nine innings.
In 2010, for example, American League pitchers struck out about 6.8 batters every nine innings. National League pitchers struck out about 7.4 batters per nine innings. For a guy like Cliff Lee, this difference could be even more pronounced.
Lee can strike out batters, as his 11 strikeout performance against the Rays proved. But he's a strike thrower, and throwing strikes is a lot more effective in a league where one out of every nine batters probably can't hit anything you throw, even if it's in the strikezone.
Just look at the effect moving to the National League had on Lee's strikeout rate in 2009. After striking out 6.3 batters per nine in the American League, he struck out 8.4 batters per nine in the NL with Philadelphia.
Speed of the Game
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Of course the National League is more friendly on pitchers from a performance perspective, but the style of the game is also more pleasant for a pitcher than in the American League.
American League lineups more frequently grind-out at bats, partly because of the extra hitter in the lineup who often happens to be a patient, powerful middle of the lineup force, but also because American League lineups are filled with more patient hitters. The style of game is just different.
National League games are faster, and more strategic. They involve the pitcher more (the pitcher doesn't just sit in the dugout half of the time, they need to be ready to hit every couple of innings). And obviously and most importantly they are lower scoring. A run means more in the National League than in the American League, so the pitchers battle to prevent a run is more dramatic than in the American League.
National League games are, at least from the perspective of an outside observer, more pleasant and friendly towards pitchers than American Leagues, and while this might not factor much into Cliff's decision, it's certainly something to consider.
Age and Workload
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Cliff Lee is not old, but he is on the wrong side of 30, and even with his efficient pitching style, work-load could become a concern.
The National League is a friend to older pitchers. Think Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens over the last decade.
Because the National League has one fewer hitter in the lineup, a pitcher gets one free out every two or three innings, leading to shorter innings and fewer batters faced.
Over the course of a season, this could add up to a lot of pitches. If Lee makes 30 starts, and faces two fewer batters per start, on average, even at his incredible rate of just 3.5 pitches per batter, he'd save around 210 pitches a season. That's a couple of games, or about 7% of the pitches he threw all of last year.
Maybe Lee would hold up in either league, but facing fewer batters and throwing fewer pitches could help to limit the wear and tear on Lee's left arm, never a bad thing for a 32 year old starting pitcher.
He Gets to Hit
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This may seem counter-intuitive. Having the pitchers hit could only lead to more injuries, and forces them out of the game in situations where they otherwise could have stayed in to see their team take the lead.
But that's the point. When the pitcher hits, the manager has to make a more responsible decision about whether or not to take them out. It's easier to leave a pitcher in an inning too long when you don't have to worry about their bat coming up in the lineup, and killing a rally.
This too goes to the workload concern. Not only are national league innings easier on the arm, but a national league pitcher is less likely to pitch "too deep" into games.
Maybe more importantly, a manager is less likely to allow a pitcher who may or may not be losing it to stay in the game and blow up their ERA. Not only will Cliff Lee's arm stay healthier, he'll also be able to hand the ball off to a fresh bullpen, more likely than not, before things go too far south.
Plus, hitting is fun.
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The National League is a lot friendlier on pitchers than the American League - that much is clear. For a guy like Lee, who's biggest strength is his ability to throw the ball over the plate consistently, and deceive the hitter, the difference between the two leagues is even more pronounced.
While Texas and New York are both great teams, they do have some obvious disadvantages, the park and league they play in the most obvious.
At the end of the day, the Yankees will likely outbid everyone, and Lee will probably be a Yankee. His performance might suffer, but if he gets a massive long term deal, that's the Yankees problem not his.
Still, all else being equal, Lee is better off in National League.