AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee Goes from Trash Heap to Treasure

Nino Colla@TheTribeDailySenior Writer INovember 13, 2008

On Thursday, we find out what most people have assumed for months now.

On Friday, we begin to watch what we assumed would unfold for months.

These events couldn't be more different, but connected in an odd and eerie way.

Cliff Lee dominated the opposition from start to finish. The Cleveland Indians left-hander came into the season as the fifth starter, just hoping to hold on, and left the staff ace just looking to continue his success.

His 2008 success poses a big question.

How did a guy that was sent to Triple-A just last year manage to turn around his career like this?

In 2007, Lee couldn't hold a lead even when he was successful. His offense would put him ahead in a game and Lee would find ways to give that up.

Last year was filled with injuries and frustration. He started the season on the disabled list, which basically took away his Spring Training. He made his debut in the first week of May and in his second start actually pitched a complete game.

But it was all downhill from there.

He had his bright spots, but this was supposed to be the second best pitcher the Indians had on their staff behind CC Sabathia.

Oh that name, Sabathia, the man who won the American League Cy Young award that year, the pitcher who stands to make a ton of cash when Free Agency opens on Friday.

Cliff Lee could've been had for so much less.

Lee was rumored in a deal involving Carlos Quentin, which is reminiscent of a Josh Hamilton for Edison Volquez trade off at this point. But Arizona obviously didn't think Lee would do what he did in 2008.

Then again, neither did the Cleveland Indians.

But they stuck with him, almost by default. If you honestly ask Indians GM Mark Shapiro if he tried to get rid of Lee, he would tell you he explored it. Truth is, Lee was probably the name brought up most in trade talks, mostly out of the fan's angst.

Why though?

Lee's antics had worn thin with the Cleveland faithful.

In the past, Lee has shown his attitude and short temper out on the mound. He's famous for firing his glove into the crowd during a game in Toronto.

In 2007, two acts stood out that summed up Lee's season.

During a game in Texas, Lee had a blow up with his Catcher Victor Martinez. This is the same game in which he gave up five runs in the first inning mind you. After the disastrous first, Lee actually stayed in the game and showed soms rare poise.

Remarkably, he managed to pitch into the seventh inning, and the Indians slowly made a comeback.

At one point however, Lee and Martinez started to argue on the mound after Lee hit Rangers' slugger Sammy Sosa in the head.

The argument actually prompted a closed-door player’s only meeting which actually started to help the Indians turn their season around.

However, Lee's season wouldn't do the same.

In his next start back at home against Boston; Lee blew up, and not in the good way.

He surrendered seven runs in only four innings and was booed off the mound by the home crowd. To show his appreciation, he responded by tipping his cap in a smug sort of way.

It wasn't a flying glove or an angry argument with a player, it was far worse. It was disrespectful.

Lee got sent to Triple-A Buffalo that same night and while he would return to the team and pitch in a few games down the stretch, he didn't make the postseason roster and was an afterthought.

During the offseason, Lee was the subject of many trade rumors.

Not any more.

What exactly did Lee do this past offseason that turned his career around?

Nothing special would be the appropriate response.

Lee simply got back to basics.

Indians pitching coach, Carl Willis, who is expected to have two Cy Young award pitchers in a row under his belt come Thursday afternoon, invited Lee to his home in North Carolina one day.

They didn't re-invent the wheel or anything like that, Willis basically showed Lee what no one else did. He showed Lee he still believed him.

The plan from there was to implement some changes that Lee wanted to make in Spring Training, but never got to because of injury. His 2007 was basically used to catch up and he never got there.

In 2008, Lee's Spring Training was less than stellar. He was in a battle for the fifth spot in the rotation with a struggling youngster who had lost his spot as well in 2007, Jeremy Sowers, and the man who replaced Lee in 2007, Aaron Laffey.

Laffey and Sowers effectively imploded, and rather than winning the job, Lee was pretty much handed it by default. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't building much confidence with the fans.

In fact, in one televised game Lee pitched against the Mets, he looked downright awful.

That's when the 2008 season started and the rest is truly history.

Lee basically changed his mindset on and off the mound. He became more focused as a pitcher and more humble as a player.

Pitching-wise he used his fastball on both sides of the plate. He was also getting his curveball and changeup more involved, most importantly though, he got aggressive.

So aggressive, that at one point the season, catcher Kelly Shoppach said that they had to purposely mix in some balls to keep the hitters honest. He simply wasn't missing the strike zone.

Off the field, Lee began to garner a lot of praise and admiration due to his early season success. To Lee's credit, he didn't really want any of it, he just wanted to win and take it pitch by pitch.

A complete 180 from denying that he wasn't trying to show up the fans when he tipped his cap, Lee showed tremendous strides in his attitude.

Will Cliff Lee be so dominate that his catcher will have to purposely call for a pitch out of the zone so the hitters are kept honest?

No, probably not.

Is this a fluke?

No, no it is not.

What made Cliff Lee successful is what so many pitchers get away from. He just throws the baseball. Lee didn't waste time on the mound in 2008, when he got the ball, he got set and he threw it. He kept himself in a rhythm and hit his spots. Will his control be impeccable from now on?

I'm not sure, as we've seen with Rafael Betancourt, it's probably unlikely that Lee has that kind of control two years in a row, but it won't be a drop-off. Lee's success comes from keeping the hitters off-balance and using his off-speed stuff effectively.

As long as he makes those adjustments that he made last year and continues to adapt, Lee will be fine.

Lee's life has been all about making adjustments and battling through the tough times. Just ask his son Jaxson, who is a leukemia survivor or his daughter, Maci who was born three months premature.

Getting sent down to Triple-A is nothing compared to hearing your child is very sick and has little chance to survive.

However, Lee and his wife Kristen adjusted, and today Jaxson is a healthy young boy.

Just like he did with his son, he did with his career.

He believed.

The Indians, as much as they might have not in November or December, believed in him. Carl Willis especially. Willis deserves credit himself for helping Lee realize he was still a good pitcher.

Willis, who is working on his next turnaround candidate in Anthony Reyes, has a way with words. The raw talent for Sabathia might have been there, but someone had to help turn him into the pitcher he is today.

The pitcher he is today is going to be earning quite the cash rather soon.

On Thursday, Cliff Lee is going to win the American League Cy Young Award. On Friday, CC Sabathia is going to cash in.

Cliff should take today as a time to do what he never did all season. Take it all in and bask in the praise and glory.

Lee may not be getting the big pay-day like his former teammate, but he has something more special than all of that.

He's got one hell of a story.

For more of Nino's Indians' coverage, visit his blog and this story at The Tribe Time Report.


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