Wins Make Not the Man – A Cliff Lee Pondering

Much has been made of Cliff Lee’s 2012 start, and the winless streak he has suffered thus far. The member of the famed 3 Aces has not been ace-like, with a 0-4 record, and the Phillies racking up a 3-9 record on the days he starts. Clifton ‘Oh-fer’ Lee has done his best to keep the Phillies in the game; yet, the anemic Philadelphia offense has not done much to support Lee, as made apparent by their 3.31 runs per game run support during Lee outings.

Lee himself has not been his usual self, either; 2012 has added up to a WAR of 1.5, after coming off a career best 8.3 WAR 2011 season. A barely above average 106 ERA+ thus far also shows us that in spite of poor run support and overall shaky play behind him, Lee is not his usual self in some respects. However, let’s look at some basic stats to see if this is actually the truth. Here are Lee’s numbers this year, compared to his average season:

Split W L ERA IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 WAR BABIP WPA
2012 0 4 3.72 84.2 106 1.13 8.4 1 1.8 9.1 1.5 0.320 0.09
Avg. 15 9 3.65 222 116 1.22 8.8 0.9 2.1 7.3 2.8 0.298 1.2

Nothing terribly off kilter, as compared to previous years. Aside from a higher BABIP this year, nothing screams out as the culprit to Lee’s woes. A lower WHIP, as well as an increase in K/9 this year compared to his career average season gives you the impression that much of the woes Lee has suffered this year are things out of his control. Yet, the dramatic decrease in Win Probability Added – this year at a not so robust 0.09 – definitely gives us additional ammo to confirm that this has been a clunker of a year for Lee, regardless of who is to blame.

Let’s take a quick look at things in his control.

Season Fastball% 2 Seam% Changeup% Cutter% Curve% Slider%
2012 22.00% 33.80% 14.00% 19.70% 10.60% 0.00%
Career 40.20% 23.80% 12.90% 10.80% 8.80% 3.40%

It looks as if Lee is using his two seamer and cutter more often than in previous years, versus his fastball. A pitcher using the movement of his pitches, versus just raw velocity to get batters out via the pitch to contact/change of speed route isn’t anything worrisome. In some respects, it’s ideal, as it tends to be a more economical method of pitching. At times, it can be indicative of a pitcher losing a tick or two on their fastball, forcing them to miss bats in order to get outs. So is this the case with Lee?

Season Fastball 2 Seam Changeup Cutter Curve Slider
2012, MPH 91.5 91.4 84.7 85.8 74.1
Total, MPH 90.6 91.3 83.8 86.2 75.2 84.5

The answer is a resounding ‘no’. He has actually picked up velocity on his pitches, albeit ever so slightly, over 2012, so the hiccups Lee has endured this year don’t point to a drop in velocity becoming an issue, or an undisclosed injury. Location-wise, not only has Lee not walked many, per usual, his pitch location heat maps don’t really show any deviation of his control of the strike zone with all of his pitches.

So what could it be? Is there a particular point of contention to point our fingers at? Overall, Lee’s numbers look no different than most years previous, and his velocity and pitch location remain solid. Yet, in his last 3 starts, we have seen Lee give up bunches of runs, versus 1 or 2 in later innings in tight games. Could it be a game situation issue? Could it be pitch selection?

Here’s what Cliff looks like, with runners in scoring position, and with the bases empty:

Split AB R H HR SO/AB BA OBP SLG OPS BABIP
RISP 50 26 16 4 0.22 0.320 0.333 0.700 1.033 0.343
Empty 205 5 44 5 0.32 0.215 0.265 0.332 0.597 0.291

Lee gets hit hard when runners are on; almost as many home runs in 50 at bats with RISP, as 205 with no one on the basepaths to go along with a 50 point jump in BABIP shows us that Lee is not having the success as he did in previous years suppressing opponent scoring opportunities. So situation pitching could play a role in the doldrums of 2012 for Lee.

While I am not sure who calls pitches during his games, be it himself, his catcher, or Charlie Manuel, we are sure that Lee pitches to both Philly catchers, Carlos Ruiz, and Brian Schneider. Numbers please!

Split G IP ERA BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip K/9 BB/9 Pitches/Inn
Carlos Ruiz 7 45 2.800 0.217 0.254 0.354 0.608 0.284 9.6 1.6 14.5
Brian Schneider 6 39.2 4.760 0.288 0.327 0.451 0.778 0.355 8.8 2 14.5

At first glance, it looks as if Lee is more successful pitching to Ruiz. Whatever rapport they have going, it is successful. Not to say there is a huge dropoff with Schneider, but it is easy to see that Ruiz behind the plate softens any offensive blow the opposing team may lay upon the Phillies.

Let’s look at pitch selection from each of the backstops when they are Lee’s battery mate:

Split Fastball% Slider% Cutter% Changeup%
Carlos Ruiz 51.5 3 24 13
Brian Schneider 56 0 19 13

For this table, I’ve accumulated and tallied the percentage of pitches thrown by Lee for each catcher for 2012, and am presenting the median percentage that pitch is thrown during an outing, to see if there is any huge variation in how each battery attacks a lineup.

Here we see that Ruiz seems to call more cutters, a pitch that Lee has begun to better command and go to in the last few years, as our table above had shown. Schneider goes with more 4 seam fastballs, which tend to have more velocity, at the cost of some movement, as compared to a 2 seamer or cutter. Ruiz will also tend to call for a few more breaking pitches, compared to Schneider.

Again, game situations dictate a lot of the how or what as far as pitch selection, but here we can see that there may possibly be enough of a variation in pitch selection between the two catchers that may predilect Lee to give up a big hit at the wrong time. Schneider’s propensity to go fastball almost exclusively in spite of Lee’s recent move to throw more cutters, compared to Ruiz’ willingness to go for more cutters could be a source of contention, and of possible concern.

To throw a pitch without conviction is to throw batting practice; Lee’s numbers with Schneider catching lean towards that adage ringing true. Will a personal catcher-type situation with Ruiz be the salve? Possibly. Whatever the answer, Philly fans must take comfort in the notion that while it’s not the season that was expected out of Lee, he has a long way to go before we need to discuss Anthony Young.

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