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Five Numbers: The Preposterous Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford's Hidden Value, And More

Each week, SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan provides commentary on five up-to-date statistics you'll probably want to know. They are not the five most important statistics in baseball, but much like SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan, they're kind of a big deal.

1)      8.9%

We've talked about Cliff Lee around these parts before, but the season he's having right now is so good that I've little choice but to talk about him again. For one thing, click that link. Read the old article. On June 24th, Cliff Lee's BB/9 ratio was 0.42, which, as of that writing, was on pace to establish a new modern-era record. Okay, that's great, but you'd expect him to come back to normal over time, right?

Cliff Lee's BB/9 right now - excluding intentional walks - is 0.39. It's gotten better.

There are a million different ways of saying "Cliff Lee's control numbers are insane," and the challenge for any writer is to keep on finding new ones, since no one likes to be repetitive. And last night, I think I happened across my favorite of the bunch. Cliff Lee has thrown a league-leading 72.6% strikes so far on the year. When you throw a lot of strikes, you don't throw a lot of balls. How few balls has Cliff Lee thrown?

The literal answer is 27.4%. But let's be a little more colorful. Cliff Lee has faced 629 batters this season. He has gotten into a three-ball count 56 times. In other words, Lee has gotten into a three-ball count in 8.9% of his plate appearances.

For the sake of comparison, Roy Halladay - who's posted the next-lowest walk rate in baseball - has gotten into 97 three-ball counts over 735 plate appearances, for a rate of 13.2%. On the other side of the coin, there's Jonathan Sanchez, who has the league's highest walk rate, and a three-ball count rate of 24.1%. That being nearly three times as high as Cliff Lee's.

If that doesn't get the point across, maybe this will:



Justin Verlander


Jon Lester


Cliff Lee


Tim Lincecum


Ian Kennedy


Clay Buchholz


Yovani Gallardo


Jaime Garcia


 Included in this table, you get some really good pitchers, and their corresponding rates. But there's a catch. For Cliff Lee, you're seeing his three-ball count rate. For everyone else, you're seeing their walk rates.

Cliff Lee has, on a per-plate-appearance basis, generated fewer three-ball counts than Tim Lincecum, Ian Kennedy, Clay Buchholz, Yovani Gallardo, and Jaime Garcia have generated walks. Of the 201 pitchers in baseball with at least 50 innings pitched, Lee's three-ball count rate is lower than 67 individual walk rates.

I mentioned this in passing on the radio this morning, and the host laughed. I think that's the appropriate response. Cliff Lee is posting silly numbers. He's posting comical numbers. Cliff Lee isn't only walk-resistant; he's three-ball count resistant, too, and he somehow still manages to strike batters out like a crazy person.

Lee may have lasted just 6.1 innings against the Yankees Wednesday night, but make no mistake - he's having a season for the ages, and right now, he may very well be the best pitcher in baseball. The Rangers have themselves a hell of an ace, and Lee is having himself a hell of a contract year.


2)      -1.3

When the Nationals traded Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan to the Pirates for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan in June 2009, there were a lot of different angles and intentions, but if one thing was clear above all others, it was that the Nationals had identified the guy they wanted to be their long-term center fielder. Morgan possessed a decent bat, good footspeed, and what the advanced metrics considered to be borderline unparalleled defensive ability, and the overall package looked like quite the value.

And when Morgan batted .351 for the Nats the rest of the way, it looked like the team had pulled off a major steal. He hit well, he ran well, he defended well, and he was under cheap team control for several more seasons. Morgan looked to be a find.

It's August 2010, now, and as Washington's regular center fielder, Morgan - this time around - has been a major disappointment. He's sitting on a batting line of .261/.322/.322, he leads the Majors in caught-steals with 14, and, perhaps most significantly, his numbers in the field are down quite a bit. For all of the tools Morgan flashed down the stretch in 2009, 2010 has seen only occasional glimpses of his ability.

I'm not here to focus on Morgan's hitting or running, though. Rather, this is about his defense. In case you weren't already aware, there exists a statistic named Ultimate Zone Rating that attempts to spit out a player's defensive performance in runs above or below average, based on the plays he makes or does not make in certain zones. Following is a selection of Nyjer Morgan's UZR numbers in center field:

2007-2009: +24.4 runs above average, 101 games
-1.3 runs below average, 102 games

What do you do with this? The validity of UZR as an accurate statistic has been called into question on countless occasions, and many people are of the opinion that we still can't measure individual defense very well at all. A player like Morgan is one reason why. How can a guy look like one of the best defenders in baseball for 100 games, and then for the next 100 games come out a little below average? We know that offense streaks (Brennan Boesch: 1.002 OPS in his first 63 games, .445 OPS since), but intuitively it doesn't seem like defense should be prone to the same peaks and valleys. It seems like there's a lot less luck involved.

So cases like Morgan's are tricky to handle. Can we really say he's a below-average defender? Can we really say he's been a below-average defender for his last 102 games? Should we pay any attention to his UZR numbers at all, or should we fall back on scouting and physical skillset?

I'm not sure, myself, and present this only as an interesting case study. What we can say for certain, though, is that, compared to how Morgan looked during the offseason, there are far fewer reasons to be optimistic now than there were four or five months ago. He has trended in the wrong direction in just about every way imaginable, and the Nationals may soon find themselves in the market for another center field solution, if they aren't there already.


3)      2

On the surface, Carl Crawford looks like a good player, but hardly a great one. So far this season, he's batted .297/.351/.473. For his career, he's batted .295/.336/.440. Crawford's only 29 years old, and he's set to become a free agent this winter, but based purely on his triple-slash lines, it doesn't look like he should be able to cash in with a monster new contract.

And it's for that reason that Crawford is as good an example of any of the limitations of the triple-slash line. Because, as informative as they can be, they leave an awful lot out. They leave out all the other ways that a player can be valuable, and of those ways, Crawford excels at pretty much all of them.

The first one - and the most obvious one - is defense. One "hidden" way for a player to add a lot of value is by playing well in the field, and Crawford is among the premier defensive outfielders in the world. Though he's spent much of his career in left, he's well-suited for center, and it doesn't matter if you prefer the advanced statistics or the scouting reports - everyone agrees that Crawford possesses breathtaking range. His defense, then, adds a lot of value.

Another? Baserunning. Baserunning is, in a lot of ways, even more "hidden" than defense, but it can still add a surprising amount of value on its own, and Crawford excels at this one, too. In terms of stolen bases, he's 39/48 (81%) so far this season, and 401/490 (82%) for his career. Stealing bases, though, isn't the only means of contributing from the basepaths. There's also advancing on grounders, flies, and hits, and Baseball Prospectus ranks Crawford as one of the top overall baserunners in the league.

And yet another less-visible way of helping out is by avoiding the double play. The only thing worse than a double play, for a hitter, is the triple play. A double play can stop a rally in its tracks, and is an awful big negative. Billy Butler leads baseball with 24 double plays, and that affects his value. Adrian Beltre, at 21, takes a hit as well. A player who hits into a lot of double plays will be a little bit worse than the rest of his numbers would suggest, because those double plays erase a baserunner as well as the hitter.

It follows, then, that a player who doesn't hit into a lot of double plays will be a little better than he seems, and Carl Crawford has only hit into two double plays all season long. Unsurprisingly, that's one of the best marks in baseball. The Major League average is one double play per 9.2 plate appearances with a runner on first and less than two outs. Carl Crawford comes in at one per 49 in 2010, and one per 17 for his career. Because he's able to run so well, Crawford beats out a lot of relay throws, and in so doing is able to keep innings alive.

Based on his triple-slash line, Carl Crawford is a good outfielder. Based on his overall package, Carl Crawford is one of the better players in baseball, as his legs just add a tremendous amount of value on top of what he can do with the bat. Come this offseason, Crawford is going to cash in in a big way, and given all the different ways he can help a team win, it's hard to say he doesn't deserve it.


4)      98.2

People love fast fastballs. Love them. Honestly, I think people just really love extremes, which is why Jamie Moyer has long been such a curiosity, but given a choice between watching an inning of Jamie Moyer and an inning of Daniel Bard, most people will opt for Daniel Bard, because there are few experiences for a baseball fan quite like watching some pitcher come in and blow hitters away with three-figure heat. Power strikeouts are like the pitcher equivalent of long home runs. We love the brawny, masculine aspects of sports, and it doesn't get much more masculine than challenging a guy with a blistering fastball.

Everybody is familiar with Joel Zumaya. Everybody is familiar with Joel Zumaya mainly because Joel Zumaya throws the fastest fastball in the game. On the year, Zumaya's average fastball velocity of 99.2mph was tops in baseball, and that alone, irrespective of his performance, made him a treat to watch.

But Zumaya is hurt. Zumaya isn't pitching right now. So, at least for the time being, Zumaya no longer throws the fastest fastball in the game. Who's stepped into his place?

Allow me to introduce you to a 23 year old righty on the A's by the name of Henry Rodriguez. For it is Henry Rodriguez who comes in as the active leader in average fastball velocity, at 98.2mph, 0.3 ticks in front of Bard and 0.9 in front of Stephen Strasburg.

For a while, it didn't look like Rodriguez would ever be able to go anywhere. There are a lot of guys in the minors with prize arms and no idea where the ball is going, and for years, this was Rodriguez. Between 2006-2009, spanning rookie ball to AAA, Rodriguez threw 308 innings, and while he struck out a remarkable 394 batters, he also walked 231 for a BB/9 of 6.8. For good measure, over that span he also uncorked 57 wild pitches. Rodriguez was an intimidating pitcher, to be sure, but he wasn't a particularly good one, as evidenced by his 4.82 career ERA.

 But then something changed. With AAA Sacramento in 2009, Rodriguez threw just 59% strikes. With AAA Sacramento in 2010, Rodriguez threw 64% strikes. Such an increase came with a corresponding drop in walk rate, and Rodriguez's BB/9 dipped to 3.8 while his strikeouts remained sky high. All of a sudden, Henry Rodriguez was beginning to resemble an actual, big-league pitcher, and sure enough, he's currently working out of the Oakland bullpen.

We'll see whether Rodriguez is able to stick, but because of his arm and because of the progress he's made in 2010, the A's will give him every opportunity to succeed. He comes with a sharp slider and an occasional changeup that reaches the low 90s, but the key is the heat, and Rodriguez's is excellent. While his velocity may fall a little short of Zumaya level, there's no shame in being second-best, and as Rodriguez doesn't share Zumaya's many health concerns, it may not be long before he's able to claim the top spot for himself.  

Learn this name.


5)      .274

I talked a little bit about Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) last week, with regard to Carlos Quentin. In short, it tends to hover around .300, with pitchers exhibiting a narrower range than hitters. For hitters, BABIP is dependent on skillset - fast, groundball hitters will post higher BABIPs than slow, fly ball hitters. Pitchers tend to face similar mixes of fast, slow, groundballing and fly-balling hitters, so those things can be expected to even out.

This week, I bring it up again so that I can discuss a hitter. Or rather, a group of hitters, known to many as the Toronto Blue Jays. Because the Toronto Blue Jays, as an offense, have posted the lowest BABIP in baseball, at .274. Second-lowest are the White Sox, at .279, and the median is set right smack dab at .300.

What's fueling the Blue Jays' low BABIP? This one's pretty easy to figure out. The Jays have the second-lowest line drive rate in the league, and given that line drives are the easiest means of getting a hit, fewer line drives means fewer hits. Next, the Jays have the highest fly ball rate in the league. Fly balls go for hits in play less often than grounders and far less often than line drives, so that's another big key. It's also worth noting that, by and large, the Blue Jays aren't very fast, driving their team BABIP down even further. Slower runners won't beat out as many balls on the ground, and sure enough, we see the Jays with the third-fewest infield hits in baseball.

What's remarkable, though, is that despite their perilously low team BABIP, and despite the fact that they don't draw many walks, the Blue Jays have still managed to feature an upper-third offense. And it's pretty much all thanks to their league-leading 178 home runs, which comes in a full 25 dingers ahead of second place. With Jose Bautista leading the way, the Blue Jays have little concern for balance. They sit back and swing from their heels, not so much waiting for the three-run homer as they are eager to produce home runs no matter the situation. They swing, they swing hard, and they score runs nearly as often as the Rays in a manner that's virtually the complete opposite.

It's a shame that the Blue Jays play in their division. Not only are they an interesting team - they're a very good team that would be capable of contending for the title in pretty much any other division in baseball, and to see a team with that kind of offensive approach qualify for the playoffs would put to the test almost every October cliché imaginable.