Scouting Report on Cliff Lee

Image from the New York Daily News courtesy of AP.Cliff Lee was his usual dominant self against the San Francisco Giants on Monday night in the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2 win. The Phillies are just 15-18 to open the year, and Lee’s rotation mate Roy Halladay is on the shelf with a recurring shoulder injury that derailed his 2012 season and may ultimately be the death knell to his Hall of Fame career.

The bell is showing no signs of tolling for Lee. The 34-year-old lefty went eight innings against the Giants.

He allowed five hits, two runs, a home run to Hunter Pence, and no walks while striking out six and inducing 14 groundball outs.

If the Phillies don’t contend this season and decide to put Lee on the market, he’ll be the best available player, even if the Rays decide to deal David Price. That’s how good Lee remains.

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Lee has put up a 2.85 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. He’s been worth 12.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is third best in the game behind Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. His 3.9 percent walk rate and 6.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio are the best in baseball during that span. It’s not a stretch to argue that Cliff Lee is the best pitcher in baseball.

He has elite command and control of a five pitch arsenal because he has the cleanest mechanics in baseball. Most pitchers finish their deliveries standing fairly tall. Lee has a perfect follow-through in which he finishes low to the ground with his back bent over his front leg.

That allows him to drive the ball downhill, maintain his velocity deep into games, consistently hit his spots, and get good life on all of his pitches.

speed pitch

Lee maintains his velocity deep into games because of his perfect mechanics. (Image courtesy of Brooks Baseball)

On Monday night, Lee featured a four-seam and two-seam fastball in the 90-93 mile-per-hour range, a high-80s cutter, an 84-86 mile-per-hour changeup, and a twelve-to-six curveball in the mid-70s. His two-seamer and changeup don’t have the typical arm-side run that you see from most lefties. For the most part, all of his pitches seemed to move to his glove-side, or in towards righties against the Giants. His changeup is also harder than most, with only a 5-9 mile-per-hour drop from the heater.

Even at 34, Lee has above average velocity for a lefty. The stuff is still very good, even though he’s lost 1.5 miles per hour off of his average fastball from last season so far this year, according to FanGraphs. What makes Lee an elite ace is his impeccable control of that good stuff. He’ll turn 35 in August, but with those clean mechanics, it seems as though he’ll pitch effectively forever.

Of course, pitching is such a violent, unnatural act that it eventually takes its toll on everyone, no matter how good the mechanics. That is ultimately why teams may not be eager to acquire Lee if he becomes available before the trade deadline.

He’s 34 and he’s already lost some speed off of his fastball this season. Even if his velocity increases back to where it was last year as the season goes on, teams could be scared off by Lee’s contract. He’s owed $75 million over the next three seasons. If he throws 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings between 2014-2015, he’ll be due $27.5 million in 2016. If not, he’s owed a $12.5 million buyout on that option. If that option does vest, Lee will collect $102.5 million over the next four years.

If he was in the prime of his career age-wise, that contract would be a bargain. If he continues to pitch as well as he has to start this season and over the past few years, that contract will remain a bargain. However, given his age, that might not be a gamble the majority of teams will be willing to make.

Yet if I was a general manager that needed pitching, I would bet on Lee in a heartbeat. Increased revenue from growing cable contracts has allowed more and more teams to extend their homegrown stars, which has continued to weaken the talent pool available in free agency. If you need an ace pitcher in the next few years, how are you going to acquire one? There aren’t any coming on the free agent market. Price may come onto the trade market, but he isn’t going to come cheaply, either.

For a contending team like the Giants that has Tim Lincecum and possibly Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong heading into free agency after this year, an ace like Lee would make a ton of sense. They can afford the contract and they have the prospects to make a deal happen. Such a deal is a long shot, but it’s one I would certainly be exploring if I were in Brian Sabean’s shoes.

Speaking of being in Sabean’s shoes, what does he make of first baseman Brandon Belt right now? We’re 790 plate appearances into the Belt Experiment, and he’s hitting .253/.334/.408 with 19 home runs in his career. He’s hitting just .214 with 27 strikeouts in 109 plate appearances so far this season. If it’s going to happen for Belt, it had better happen soon.

Right now, Cliff Lee is a player that I would desperately want. Brandon Belt is not.

Cliff Lee was his usual dominant self against the San Francisco Giants on Monday night in the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2 win. The Phillies are just 15-18 to open the year, and Lee’s rotation mate Roy Halladay is on the shelf with a recurring shoulder injury that derailed his 2012 season and may ultimately be the death knell to his Hall of Fame career.

The bell is showing no signs of tolling for Lee. The 34-year-old lefty went eight innings against the Giants. He allowed five hits, two runs, a home run to Hunter Pence, and no walks while striking out six and inducing 14 groundball outs. If the Phillies don’t contend this season and decide to put Lee on the market, he’ll be the best available player, even if the Rays decide to deal David Price. That’s how good Lee remains.

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Lee has put up a 2.85 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. He’s been worth 12.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is third best in the game behind Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. His 3.9 percent walk rate and 6.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio are the best in baseball during that span. It’s not a stretch to argue that Cliff Lee is the best pitcher in baseball.

He has elite command and control of a five pitch arsenal because he has the cleanest mechanics in baseball. Most pitchers finish their deliveries standing fairly tall. Lee has a perfect follow-through in which he finishes low to the ground with his back bent over his front leg.

Image from the New York Daily News courtesy of AP.

That allows him to drive the ball downhill, maintain his velocity deep into games, consistently hit his spots, and get good life on all of his pitches.

Lee maintains his velocity deep into games because of his perfect mechanics. (Image courtesy of Brooks Baseball)

On Monday night, Lee featured a four-seam and two-seam fastball in the 90-93 mile-per-hour range, a high-80s cutter, an 84-86 mile-per-hour changeup, and a twelve-to-six curveball in the mid-70s. His two-seamer and changeup don’t have the typical arm-side run that you see from most lefties. For the most part, all of his pitches seemed to move to his glove-side, or in towards righties against the Giants. His changeup is also harder than most, with only a 5-9 mile-per-hour drop from the heater.

Even at 34, Lee has above average velocity for a lefty. The stuff is still very good, even though he’s lost 1.5 miles per hour off of his average fastball from last season so far this year, according to FanGraphs. What makes Lee an elite ace is his impeccable control of that good stuff. He’ll turn 35 in August, but with those clean mechanics, it seems as though he’ll pitch effectively forever.

Of course, pitching is such a violent, unnatural act that it eventually takes its toll on everyone, no matter how good the mechanics. That is ultimately why teams may not be eager to acquire Lee if he becomes available before the trade deadline.

He’s 34 and he’s already lost some speed off of his fastball this season. Even if his velocity increases back to where it was last year as the season goes on, teams could be scared off by Lee’s contract. He’s owed $75 million over the next three seasons. If he throws 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings between 2014-2015, he’ll be due $27.5 million in 2016. If not, he’s owed a $12.5 million buyout on that option. If that option does vest, Lee will collect $102.5 million over the next four years.

If he was in the prime of his career age-wise, that contract would be a bargain. If he continues to pitch as well as he has to start this season and over the past few years, that contract will remain a bargain. However, given his age, that might not be a gamble the majority of teams will be willing to make.

Yet if I was a general manager that needed pitching, I would bet on Lee in a heartbeat. Increased revenue from growing cable contracts has allowed more and more teams to extend their homegrown stars, which has continued to weaken the talent pool available in free agency. If you need an ace pitcher in the next few years, how are you going to acquire one? There aren’t any coming on the free agent market. Price may come onto the trade market, but he isn’t going to come cheaply, either.

For a contending team like the Giants that has Tim Lincecum and possibly Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong heading into free agency after this year, an ace like Lee would make a ton of sense. They can afford the contract and they have the prospects to make a deal happen. Such a deal is a long shot, but it’s one I would certainly be exploring if I were in Brian Sabean’s shoes.

Speaking of being in Sabean’s shoes, what does he make of first baseman Brandon Belt right now? We’re 790 plate appearances into the Belt Experiment, and he’s hitting .253/.334/.408 with 19 home runs in his career. He’s hitting just .214 with 27 strikeouts in 109 plate appearances so far this season. If it’s going to happen for Belt, it had better happen soon.

Right now, Cliff Lee is a player that I would desperately want. Brandon Belt is not.

 

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