Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay are yesterday's news. There is a bearded gentleman who goes by the name of Cliff Lee making the best case to be this year's National League Cy Young Award winner, and when you crunch the numbers, it isn't close.
With the amount of fanfare surrounding his return over the winter, you would have thought that the left-handed starting pitcher was some kind of war hero. Fans praised his every move, citing his tactical takedown of the monotonous New York Yankees through psychological warfare, denying their larger offer for his services to return to Citizens Bank Park, which many Philadelphians have lovingly called "home."
After all, Lee had liberated the fans. They'd been through much hardship after an unexpected trouncing out of the National League Championship Series by the San Francisco Giants. With the unconquerable Halladay temporarily conquered and an excellent supporting cast of Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt unable to finish the job, new talent was necessary.
It couldn't be just any talent, though. This man had to have an impact on the club that no other player could provide. He needed a swagger that outlasted and outshone Hamels' "Hollywood" persona. He needed a level of respectability both in the clubhouse and off the field, as Oswalt had proven with his gamesmanship and reputation as a good teammate.
Most of all, however, he needed Halladay's focus. He needed Doc's surgical precision that carves the opposition like a turkey on Thanksgiving. This player needed a preparedness that few others could match, and the level of talent necessary to execute his plans.
With an offense slated for a favorable rebound, the team needed that big game pitcher, and a quick glance at the free agent market made it painfully obvious that although that guy was available, he was the one that got away.
Along with Halladay's postseason no-hitter, Hamels' various dominant performances and Oswalt's versatility, the club needed a proven winner. They needed the man who, in 2009, led them single-handedly to the World Series, cruising to a record of 4-0 and a minuscule ERA of 1.56. They needed Cliff Lee.
But many fans had already conceded. It just wasn't meant to be. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had betrayed his trust by sending him to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for three unproven prospects. After acquiring him for pennies on the dollar, the club sent him packing for an equally small amount. Just months after he became a local sports legend, Lee was sent to the American League to continue his storybook career.
After the Mariners flopped like a fish out of water, they sent him to the Texas Rangers, who like the left hander's former club residing in the National League, were led to the World Series by their new crusading general. And though, like the team he had left, he could not slay the Giants, he gave hope to another franchise.
Finally, as a free agent, Lee controlled his own destiny. There would be no more nonsensical trades to teams scraping at the bottom of the barrel who were only interested in his services as a placeholder, so that he may be able to land them a bevy of prospects at a later date. With two consecutive trips to the World Series and no rings, it was painfully obvious that what he wanted was a championship.
With larger offers from the Rangers and Yankees, it looked like he was going to get that opportunity. Both teams were in a position to succeed. Despite that, and maybe almost foolishly, that city that was by this point just a temporary pit-stop in his career held out hope that he may return. After all, they had much in common, including a common enemy in those Giants.
By keeping their negotiations a secret until the 11th hour and the player taking a slight discount, fantasy was made reality. A few days later, as Lee once again donned red pinstripes and fastened a cap emblazoned with a curly, white "P" on his head, it all sunk in. The hero had returned. A new commander had returned to the fight, along with Halladay and a starting rotation that already had lofty aspirations.
The Philadelphia Phillies had signed Cliff Lee.
Of course, the rest is all but history. The team entered spring training with a set of goals that only the best of teams could place upon themselves. While not a single member of the Phils wanted to come out and say it in public, the media, fans and team alike all new that it was going to be a World Series title or bust.
Now 34 starts into the 2011 season, Lee has certainly lived up to his end of the bargain. After baffling the Atlanta Braves in his first start for the month of September, he improved his record to 16-7. Considering that prior to the All-Star break and the few weeks after his record was hovering right around the .500 mark really puts the coincidental fact that he has now matched Halladay's win total into perspective.
For the first time in his career, Lee has abandoned that generalization as a "contact pitcher," and punched out the opposition more than 200 times—about a strikeout an inning matched with his total of innings pitched, already having eclipsed 200.
Lee's ERA of 2.47 is third best in all of baseball for qualifying pitchers, and his FIP of 2.64 shows that the former number is rather accurate, when the outcome of each pitch that leaves his hand is determined by the fate of Lee and he alone. He has induced more ground balls than Kershaw and walked fewer, and when lining the statistics up side by side, may face his biggest competition for the Cy Young Award in a man he calls his friend and teammate, Halladay.
But the race for the NL Cy Young is so close that it may come down to something of a tiebreaker. How can you justify giving the award to the lone member of the National League that was scored upon in the All-Star Game? Well, you look at his longevity and dominance .
Lee's months of June and August—when he posted records and ERAs of 5-0, 0.21 and 5-0, 0.45 respectively—could only be compared to feats completed by legendary pitchers Bob Gibson and Walter Johnson, and that's it. No other pitchers than these three have had equally as dominant months in a single season.
As far as longevity goes, Lee's six complete games are third in all of baseball, lagging behind only Halladay and James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays. Of course, all six of those complete games have been shutouts, as Lee became the first Phillie to accomplish such a feat since Philadelphia's beloved Steve Carlton.
To put his dominance into even further context, Lee has taken a shutout into the eighth inning or later nine times this season—the most since Orel Hershiser did so in 1988.
When it comes down to it, Kershaw and Halladay are the popular votes. The former has completely dominated his opponents consistently, while the latter has done the same and has found favor with voters. However, should the award actually go to the most deserving player, there's no doubt that the favorite is Lee. Look at his numbers. Look at the story.
All three men are deserving of being named the best pitcher in the National League, but considering what Lee has done and what he has gone through to wind up in the City of Brotherly Love for his second tour of duty, it seems almost natural for Lee to win.
A perfect fit.