While Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers continues his somewhat surprising march toward baseball immortality, each of his subsequent dominant postseason starts helps him climb higher and higher toward the pinnacle of baseball's Mount Olympus.
Already, after only parts of two seasons performing on baseball's grandest stage, Lee has earned himself the right to be mentioned alongside legends of the game like Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford and Bob Gibson, pitchers who excelled when the stakes were the highest.
As baseball fans, we constantly attempt to place our heroes within their proper historical context, by comparing them with stars of the divergent eras in the history of the game. Sure, Albert Pujols is amazing today, but how would he fare in the Polo Grounds, or against spit-ball pitchers? Could Babe Ruth possibly have crushed 714 home runs against today's fire-balling hurlers and relief specialists? Tim Lincecum may be "The Freak," but could his dominance withstand the expectation to throw 300 innings a year?
The comparison between Cliff Lee and Sandy Koufax becomes inevitable, as their names now sit near each other on many postseason baseball leader boards. Obviously, their shared, left-handed throwing hand makes them easy to group together, but more so, the way in which they have dominated their playoff opponents has elevated them above the rest of the field into a class of their own. After eight playoff appearances each, seven starts for Koufax, and eight for Lee, they are at a nearly identical point in their postseason careers, making the comparisons even more appropriate.
These similarities between the two dominant left-handed hurlers practically beg the question: if your team was facing a decisive Game 7 in a playoff series, who would you prefer to have starting on the hill? Cliff Lee or Sandy Koufax?
34:1, as in strikeout-to-walk ratio. No, that's not a typo. That's a ratio representing sheer dominance on the postseason stage. Even if a pitcher is difficult to hit, he can be beat if he allows his opposition too many base-runners via bases on balls. Sometimes, all it takes is one inning, a few free passes and a timely hit. Well, you're going to need to earn it against Cliff Lee.
In his first foray into October playoff baseball during 2009, Lee posted a phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio of 33 K/6 BB. That was incredible enough, as he utilized his masterful command to go 4-0 during the Phillies' run to the World Series.
However, Lee wasn't satisfied, as his team would eventually lose that series to the Yankees in six games.
So, for an encore postseason performance, he's surpassed his own lofty standards from last year in an even more impressive playoff run so far in 2010. Over three starts, he has pitched 24 innings, striking out 34 and only walking a single batter.
This follows a season in which he posted an almost unbelievable 10.28 K/1 BB ratio. In 212.1 innings, Lee struck out 185, while walking only 18 hitters all season long.
Although Sandy Koufax was a far more prolific strikeout pitcher than Lee will ever be, he never even remotely approached a 10.28/1 BB/K ratio. He did lead his league in the category three times, but the best mark he ever posted was 5.38, a far cry from 10.28.
Koufax was certainly no slouch in the postseason, as he struck out 61 batters in 57 innings, while walking 11. While a fantastic rate itself, and better than even the greatest mark of Koufax's career, it still does not surpass that of Cliff Lee.
One has to remember also, how different the game is today with the emphasis on hitters working long, drawn out at-bats, in an effort to drive up pitch counts and earn walks. The emphasis placed on on-base percentage didn't exist in the late 50's and 60's like it does today, making Cliff Lee's phenomenal ability to limit free passes even more impressive.
A pitcher won't always be un-hittable, but even on a day in which he doesn't have his best stuff, a hurler can certainly limit the damage done by eliminating free passes to his opposition. In a climactic Game 7, the last thing you want to do is beat yourself, and Cliff Lee is proving to be a man who rarely will.
Of course, a pitcher can only pitch in the era in which he exists.
Not to diminish the achievements of Sandy Koufax, but the era in which he pitched, especially the second half of his career when he excelled, was renowned for its pitching dominance. Just a few seasons after Koufax's early retirement, Major League Baseball made a league-wide rule change by lowering the height of the pitcher's mound from a not-always strictly enforced 15 inches to the modern height of only 10 inches.
This makes it difficult to distinguish how much of the era's pitching dominance was due to high quality pitchers widely dispersed throughout the league, rather than the pitchers of the era benefiting from a clear advantage due to the height of the pitcher's mound.
One of the oft-discussed attributes of Cliff Lee that helps to make him so dominant in a more offensively-inclined era is his ability to utilize his height and perfect, upright mechanics, maximizing his leverage in order to continually work on a downward plane as he delivers his pitches. I can't imagine how much it might assist him to have an even greater advantage by pitching from a pre-1969 mound height of at least five additional inches.
Whether due to heightened pitching mounds, a dearth of quality hitters in his time, or the prevalence of top-flight pitchers, Sandy Koufax's era was one dominated by a lack of offensive firepower. During Koufax's peak years, National League clubs averaged only 669 total runs from 1961-1966. In that same time frame, the collective OPS in the NL was .698. Also, NL clubs averaged 135 home runs per season.
Over Cliff Lee's last six seasons, in which he has come into his own as a Major League pitcher, American League clubs from 2005-2010 have averaged 774 runs per year, with a .758 OPS. From 2005-10, AL clubs have averaged 170 home runs a year.
There could be several factors responsible for the disparity in offensive production when comparing the eras of Sandy Koufax and the modern era of Cliff Lee. One thing is for certain, the game is certainly different than it was in the 50's and 60's, and pitchers bear the burden of much of the game's evolution.
Sure, there have been some other fine pitching performances during Lee's two year postseason run. However, his near-guaranteed success has contrasted sharply with some of the other pitchers on his starting staffs, only helping to further highlight just how great he has really been.
During the 2009 NLDS, both Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ found trouble with the Colorado Rockies. Hamels, in his start, gave up four runs on seven hits in only five innings, for a 7.20 ERA and 1.400 WHIP. Happ, in two outings, one start, threw only three innings, allowing three earned runs on six hits and two walks, for a 9.00 ERA and a WHIP of 2.667. Lee on the other hand, in two starts, completed 16.1 innings, with a 1.10 ERA and a minuscule 0.857 WHIP. Interestingly as well, all three of Philadelphia's starters in that series were left-handed, so that wasn't the reason.
In the 2009 World Series against the Yankees, Lee won the only two games that the Phillies would in their six game defeat at the hands of the Bronx Bombers. Over his two victorious starts, he threw 16 innings, with an ERA of 2.81 and a 1.000 WHIP. His fellow starters didn't fare so well as Pedro Martinez went 0-2 with a 6.30 ERA, Hamels was 0-1 with a 10.38 ERA, and Joe Blanton was hit hard in his only start, allowing four runs in 6 innings.
This season, during the 2010 playoffs, Lee is once again clearly outshining his fellow starters. In three starts thus far, Cliff Lee is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA, averaging eight innings a start, while striking out 34 in only 24 innings. Only 14 batters have reached base against him in those 24 innings.
By contrast, his fellow Rangers' starters have found varying degrees of success. Colby Lewis has pitched well in his two starts, earning one win with a 1.69 ERA. C.J. Wilson, pitched well in his first two starts, but then lost his command and was hit hard by the Yankees in his third start. Tommy Hunter has been hit hard in both of his starts across two series, and currently sports a 6.14 ERA.
Cliff Lee continues to make it appear easy however.
I bring this up because while Sandy Koufax was posting his dominant postseason performances, he was hardly the only pitcher to do so.
In the 1963 World Series, in which the Dodgers swept the Yankees in four games, Koufax went 2-0 with two complete game victories, an ERA of 1.50 and a WHIP of 0.833. Fellow Dodger Don Drysdale though, in his only start, threw a complete game shutout with nine strikeouts and a 0.444 WHIP. The third Dodger hurler, Johnny Podres, completed 8.1 innings, only allowing one run with a 0.840 WHIP. Pitching dominance was the trend of the day. Even the Yankee starters, while losing all four contests, only allowed 10 earned runs in those four games.
Even during the 1965 World Series, Koufax's most revered playoff performance, in which he won Games 1, 5, and 7 for the Dodgers, while striking out 29 in 24 innings, with a 0.75 WHIP and 0.38 ERA, he wasn't the only Dodger starter who pitched well. Clearly that's dominant, but Claude Osteen was also very good, as he was 1-1 with a 0.64 ERA and a 1.000 WHIP, while Don Drysdale went 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA, with a 1.29 WHIP, while striking out 15 in 11.2 innings. Obviously, neither were in the class of Koufax, but the disparity is not as dramatic as what Cliff Lee is accomplishing in 2009 and 2010.
Since I am an inhabitant of planet earth in the year 2010, I am going to assume that my hypothetical Game 7 takes places in the modern era, with the opponents that my pitcher would be facing owning all the skills, scouting and equipment advantages that this era holds over those of decades past.
Sandy Koufax was primarily a hard-throwing, four-seam fastball pitcher, with a wicked curveball, who also was known to occasionally mix in a changeup and forkball. For the most part however, he was a two-pitch pitcher throughout most of his career. It is safe to assume that a pitcher of his caliber likely could have learned other pitches, but it's impossible to determine that for sure, so we'll never know.
Cliff Lee on the other hand, throws five quality pitches, all with impeccable command, and each rarely wavering in their effectiveness. His four-seam, two-seam and cut-fastballs all travel at nearly the identical speed, making it nearly impossible to read which of his various fastballs is coming, until the late movement gives it away, by that time far too late. Lee also mixes in a devastating knuckle-curve, and a circle change, constantly keeping hitters off balance all game long.
The ability to throw three types of fastball, all with late movement, should not be underestimated. Cliff Lee is not a hard-thrower, but with the command that he has over all of his pitches, batters can never key on one specific pitch. Lee's late action on his cutter and tailing two-seamer constantly befuddle even the most lethal batsmen, and his wicked off-speed pitches makes his repertoire even more dangerous to opponents.
While Sandy Koufax was undeniably dominant during his era, if I need a pitcher to shut down a potent modern-day offensive juggernaut in a playoff Game 7, I want that pitcher to be Cliff Lee.
Today's modern era is dominated by patient hitters, working deep counts, a focus on on-base percentage, and a highly sophisticated approach to game preparation.
All of those make the manner in which Cliff Lee is carving up the top offenses in the game that much more impressive.
Modern baseball, especially in the American League, has seen a drastic change in the "money ball" era, where an emphasis on getting on-base has taken over such old-fashioned means of player evaluation, such as home runs, stolen bases and runs batted in. This approach to the philosophy of the game has deeply impacted the manner in which it is played on the field, seeing hitters continually strive to take as many pitches as possible in order to reach base.
In past eras, one of the prime methods of evaluating a hitter was his basic batting average. Walks weren't valued as much and therefore, most of the players were at the plate, swinging early and often. The view was that you were at the plate with a bat in your hands to hit.
Currently though, with the changes in the way teams use their pitching staffs, one of the prime strategies in baseball is to drive up starting pitchers' pitch counts, in an effort to knock the starter out of the game, to get to the soft underbelly of your opponents' middle relief corps.
A pitcher like Cliff Lee is able to circumvent that strategy however, by always being near the strike zone, and throwing a first-pitch strike 69.8 percent of the time in 2010.
With such impeccable command, he is able to bust the patient approach of modern teams, forcing them into swinging on his terms.
Let's face it. Two of Sandy Koufax's seven career playoff starts, and two of his four career victories came against a crippled, old 1963 Yankees team.
Yes, there were big names present, Mantle, Maris, Berra, and Howard, and those same Yankees stormed through the American League, winning by a 10.5 game margin.
However, by the time the World Series rolled around, the aging squad was a shell of the powerhouse it had been in the few years prior.
Mickey Mantle had spent massive portions of the season injured, as did Roger Maris, who was only able to play sparingly in the World Series. Elston Howard and Joe Pepitone had big seasons, and Howard, the regular season MVP was the only Yankee able to hit at all during the series.
It wasn't only Koufax who was able to completely overwhelm the 1963 Yankees, as the team from the Bronx only managed four runs total in the entire series. The 1963 team was the first ever Yankee squad to be swept in four games in a World Series.
Of course, credit for some of that dominance has to go to Dodger pitching, but that 1963 Yankee team was easy pickings for the boys in blue.
Cliff Lee has never faced such opposition in his short playoff career, but rather, significantly stacked offensive juggernauts full of patience, power and speed. I'd have to imagine if he faced the '63 Yankees, he would have carved them up in a similar fashion.
Seriously, have you ever seen Cliff Lee appear to be even the least bit flustered?
It's rare to watch an athlete perform on his sport's grandest stage and to look as cool and nonplussed while doing it. Sure, many athletes look calm and confident, but there is a serenity surrounding Cliff Lee when he is in action that projects an aura of tranquility that rubs off on his teammates.
I personally never got to watch Sandy Koufax pitch, so I can't say that Koufax didn't have such a calming nature. However, in my many years of observing sports, Cliff Lee is near the pinnacle of the most coolly confident athletes I've ever witnessed.
The guy doesn't get rattled by anything, aside from the odd spring training dust up.
Even last year in the World Series, when he was nonchalantly snagging come-backers and catching pop-ups on the mound with one hand, as relaxed as one could be on the mound during the final round of baseball playoffs.
Tension can get to even the greatest athletes, taking away their ability to perform when the stakes are high. If I'm faced with a Game 7 which would ultimately decide the fate of my team for the year, I want the guy to lead us on the mound that is able to rise above the drama of the moment, leave the stress behind and perform as if there is nothing on the line at all. That man for me, is Clifton Phifer Lee.
Now, I cannot say for sure that they hold rodeos in Arkansas, the state from which Cliff Lee hails. However, considering its close proximity to Texas, a state which I can personally attest to its affinity for the occasional rodeo, I am going to assume that Arkansas shares a similar interest.
Of course, this doesn't have to be a long-time hobby of Cliff Lee's, dating back to his youth. It could be something he has only picked up during the last few months as a member of the Texas Rangers. But, with the obvious skill he is displaying in the picture, bravely riding the wildly bucking Brett Gardner, it appears as if pitching isn't Cliff Lee's sole talent.
Sandy Koufax on the other hand, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, hardly an area known for its rodeo stars. When his Dodger franchise abandoned the Flatbush neighborhood for the opposite coast and settled in Los Angeles, the likelihood of Koufax learning rodeo skills remained very low.
The moral of the story is, if you want a pitcher who can dominate an offense, as well as tame a wild, bucking Brett Gardner, Cliff Lee is your man.
Look, even the usually surly umpire looks like he's enjoying the show!
Now, I take no issue with Sandy Koufax's Jewish faith, or the level of his adherence to its tenets. In fact, if one is a man of a particular faith, I find it respectable that he takes it seriously and lives his life in accordance with his beliefs.
However, if I'm running a baseball team, and expecting my best starting pitcher to shoulder the pitching burden in the most critical games we play, I want to know that my ace will be available to pitch when he is called upon, and has no obstacles in his life that may prevent that.
That is precisely what happened with Sandy Koufax when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, due to the game falling on Yom Kippur. Considered one of the most important holy days in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur represents a Day of Atonement, on which followers are prohibited from working and required to fast, thus preventing Sandy Koufax from pitching on that day.
Of course, in 1965, Koufax did pitch the next day, Game 2, as well as Games 5 and 7, as he led the Dodgers to the World Series victory over the Minnesota Twins. But, if the Jewish calendar had dictated that the revolving date of Yom Kippur had fallen on the day of Game 7, Koufax likely would not have been available for the decisive game of the series.
As I stated, if a man's personal dedication his religious faith is important enough to him to dictate the way he lives, I can completely respect that as his decision. But, I need to count on my ace taking the mound in the most important games of the season, and as far as we know, Cliff Lee wouldn't be prevented from doing that by any specific religious doctrine.
Look, the guy can't even throw from the mound anymore, and we're gonna expect him to face a muscle-bound modern lineup in a playoff Game 7? That sounds like a colossal mistake of the highest order.
Sure, he looks good for a 75-year-old grandfather, but can you imagine the hitting display that would ensue if modern day Sandy Koufax was lobbing batting practice to the Yankees or Rangers in a World Series Game 7?All those other guys better get out the way pretty quickly too, they appear to be in harm's way crowded around the mound like that.
Seriously, just for one moment, imagine it.