Cliff Lee: Pay First, Ask Questions 7 Years Later

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Cliff Lee: Pay First, Ask Questions 7 Years Later
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Cliff Lee throwing for the Texas Rangers in early November 2010

My upcoming articles will look at each free agent this season, signed or unsigned, and try to analyze what the player can be expected to do over the coming years, what the player will probably get (or has gotten) on the free agent market, and what I would want to pay the player if I was in charge. I’ll go in the order of Jeff Passan’s free-agent tracker (here), starting with his top-ranked player: Cliff Lee.

Deal he will get: 7 years, 20 million/year

Deal he should get: 4 years, 15 million/year

 

Lot’s to say about Cliff Lee, but first let’s look at this:

2002-2007: 741.2 innings pitched, 9.3 H/9, 3.1 BB/9, 6.7 K/9, 2.15 K/BB.

2008-2010: 667.1 innings pitched, 8.8 H/9, 1.3 BB/9, 7.2 K/9, 5.64 K/BB

There’s a widespread consensus that Cliff Lee is the best pitcher on the market right now, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable. There are, however, worthwhile questions to be asked about whether he’s going to come at the best value. Estimates for his signing are in the neighborhood of 6 to 7 years for 20+ million annually. My concern is not with the 33-year old Cliff Lee of 2011, but the 38 year old Cliff Lee that looms ahead. If someone wants to be paying 20 million for the 33 and 34 year old Lees, they’re going to have to pay at least that for the 37-38 year old version.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Most of the book that was Cliff Lee's great 2010 season was written in Seattle during the first three months of the season. After moving to Texas he was merely good.

A couple of things are being said in Lee’s favor, one of which is that he “started late.” Well, we don’t really know how much that means. It isn’t as though he never threw a pitch until his 27th birthday. He had logged over 700 innings before 2008. He only became really good around age 28. He wasn’t overused before that, but he did pitch. I don’t like this “late-bloomer” argument. I acknowledge that he has some good years in his future, but we cannot assume he’s going to be as brilliant as he approaches his fortieth birthday. He has thrown 667.1 innings over the last three years (plus another 76 IP in the playoffs). He was not used to that sort of workload prior. He isn’t a Roy Halladay or a CC Sabathia, injuries are a distinct possibility.

Enough of the bad. Cliff Lee is a pitcher who gets guys out with control, and that’s a relatively rare thing when coupled with such great results. He could stand to lose a few mph on his fastball and still get guys out with his brilliant breaking ball and pinpoint control, so there may be reason to believe that the years won't hurt him too badly.

There is something special about Cliff Lee's walk rate. He was a pretty dominant strikeout guy in 2010, with 7.8 per nine innings. Though he faced some weak lineups, to walk 18 guys in 212.1 innings requires some serious talent. Most pitchers probably couldn’t do it even if they tried to throw every pitch right down the middle. Cliff Lee lives on the corners though, so his pitches are not especially hittable, which makes his walk total that much more impressive. His delivery is deceptive (and a joy to watch). His mechanics are sharp, and his success in this respect is not a fluke.

What team will sign Cliff Lee in the end?

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Lee's average fastball was 91.3 mph in 2010. That’s his highest mark for any season of his career. His curveball was 15 mph slower, with outstanding movement. His best pitch was his fastball, though all of his pitches were effective according to fangraphs’ pitch type values. 69.8% first-pitch strikes led the league (one of only 5 guys north of 65%). 72% of pitches out of the zone were hit, which is interesting. You could say he’s getting ahead early and getting guys to reach for balls they cant square up on. Or you could say guys have spared him a dozen or so walks. It’s clear he has good control; what is unclear is the rate at which this will change over coming years. His 56.6% in-the-zone rate lead all of baseball in 2010.

I love the high strikeout, low walk combination. He had 10.28 strikeouts for every walk in 2010. That’s the third-highest mark ever. Only Bret Saberhagen in 1994 and Candy Cummings in 1875 posted better marks. Baseball was different in Mr. Cummings’ day; he threw 416 innings that year, and struck out 1.8 per nine. He allowed four walks (one per 104 innings).

Back to the injury thing, now. It’s bad resource allocation to tie up 15 to 25 or more percent of your payroll for a guy who is as likely to be hurt as I think Cliff Lee is. I know he isn’t Mark Prior, but Cliff Lee makes sense for a team like the Yankees who bleed dollar bills, and not a whole lot of sense for most other teams.

At the end of the day, I think Cliff Lee is going to be a Yankee. I expect the Yankees to tack one additional year onto whatever Texas offers and up the ante by at least 30 million. His friendship with CC Sabathia will probably overpower any forced smile Nolan Ryan can squeeze out of his stiff face. Going forward, the Yankees will probably give him a better chance of winning, and they’ll employ him until he’s 38.

Make no mistake, Cliff Lee will be good. I wouldn’t want to pay him for seven years though. It’s unfortunate that players tend to be paid for what they have done, rather than what they can be expected to do in the future. We know these two things are rarely congruous.

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