Cliff Lee is one of the best pitchers in baseball...and he is only getting better.
Four year ago, Lee came out of absolutely nowhere and, as if by flipping a switch, became one of the best pitchers in baseball. One year removed from a 5-8 record and a 6.29 ERA, Lee turned in a Cy Young performance, going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA.
More importantly, Lee virtually stopped walking batters. After having walked 36 batters in 97.1 innings the year before, in 2008 Lee walked only 34 batters in 223.1 innings. He was a whole new pitcher.
Well, in 2011 Lee has transformed himself once again: He is a strikeout pitcher, striking over a batter per inning for the first time in his career.
Frankly, we do not get it.
Let's take a look at where Cliff Lee ranks amongst the top 10 strikeout pitchers in baseball.
Enjoying what has been, hands down, the most dominant season of his career, Justin Verlander currently leads the American League in wins, winning percentage, games started, innings pitched and strikeouts.
However, Verlander's strikeout rate (strikeouts per nine innings) has dropped off since peaking at 10.1 in 2009 (an amazing number).
Verlander is having an amazing year, and the fact that his strikeout rate may have dropped a bit means that he may be becoming a better pitcher—which is scary.
Many people expected 22-year-old Michael Pineda to be ready to make some sort of contribution at the major league level in 2011.
We're not terribly sure any expected him to perform like this.
Pineda currently has 137 strikeouts in 136 innings, giving him 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings, which is excellent. Pineda has been losing steam a bit in the second half, but he still has five starts of nine or more strikeouts—in his first major league season.
In his second full season at the major league level, Gio Gonzalez has taken his pitching to the next level, improving significantly upon last season's strikeout rate (from 7.7 to 9.1 per nine innings) as well as his K/BB ratio and his ERA.
If the A's were a minimally competent offensive team, Gio's record would be better than 9-9.
A lone bright spot for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, Matt Garza has quietly struck out 138 batters in 134.2 innings and is currently the only member of the Cubs rotation with an ERA under 4.00.
This comes following a career in which he has never struck out more than 8.4 batters per nine innings; last season he struck out only 6.6 batters per nine innings.
Last season, Anibal Sanchez struck out 157 batters in 195.0 innings pitched.
In 2011, Sanchez is already up to 150 in 144.2 innings pitched and is also walking fewer batters per inning. For the first time Sanchez's K/BB ratio is over 3.0; in fact, it is over 3.5, at 3.57.
At the age of 27, Sanchez is finally emerging as a very good strikeout pitcher.
Given that this is Cliff Lee's second massive transformation in four years, we cannot wait to see what his next transformation is going to be.
Here is an interesting stat: Lee has struck out 102 batters at home in 95.2 innings pitched and only 75 batters in 76.1 innings pitched on the road.
That is odd, considering Citizens Bank Park is widely accepted as a hitter's park.
Only 27 years old, Tim Lincecum already has three strikeout titles in his pocket and is looking to get his fourth in a row (currently in fourth).
The strange thing about Lincecum is that his strikeout rate is consistently dropping—from 10.5 in 2008 to 10.4 the next season, then to 9.8 and now to 9.5 in 2011.
What makes this strange is that Lincecum has nonetheless maintained his consistency and is enjoying a better season in 2011 than he did in 2010.
Honorable Mention: Lincecum's teammate Jonathan Sanchez is one of the game's best strikeout pitchers but is not currently qualified for the ERA title.
There must be something in the water in the Atlanta Braves farm system these days, because they are figuratively bleeding talent all over the place.
Tommy Hanson came up for the Braves in 2009 at the age of 22 and immediately established himself as one of the strikeout artists of the future, striking out 116 batters in 127.2 innings.
After a mild sophomore slump in 2010, Hanson is now averaging almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings pitched (142 K's in 130.0) innings, and earlier this year he struck out 14 batters in seven innings in a start against the Houston Astros.
Honorable Mention: Put Hanson's teammate Brandon Beachy on your radar now. In 97 innings pitched in 2011, Beachy has 105 strikeouts.
Doesn't it feel like this guy has been in the league for years?
In truth, this is just the fourth season for the Los Angeles Dodgers' 23-year-old ace.
Clayton Kershaw currently leads the NL in strikeouts with 184 and in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.9.
If he can keep it up, he will be the first player other than Tim Lincecum to lead the NL in strikeouts since 2007 (when Jake Peavy was the NL leader).
The best pitcher that no one has heard of.
Brandon Morrow has a Rogers Centre problem; specifically, Morrow gets lit up in his home ballpark to the tune of a 5.95 ERA, while pitching to a much better 2.97 away from home.
But his ability to strike out opposing batters is unquestioned. Morrow leads the league with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings—his second straight year over 10.0—and currently has 521 strikeouts in 463.2 innings pitched for a remarkable 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings over his career.
Think about that number like this: Only three players have ever averaged over 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings for their entire careers, and they are Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood.
The next three guys on the career list are Nolan Ryan, Trevor Hoffman and Sandy Koufax.
Morrow is in some elite company.