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Feeling sorry (or not) for Cliff Lee


There are a lot of things that might make you feel sorry for a major-league pitcher. You know, forgetting for a moment the incredible sums of money they earn (some of them while failing terribly).

I'm having a hard time feeling sorry for Cliff Lee, though.

Thursday night, Lee pitched brilliantly against the Twins and almost lost. He did give up two runs, but even those were tainted. Here's the way he saw it (via Matt Gelb in The Inquirer):

Lee retired the first 10 batters and 17 of 18. Joe Mauer walked in the seventh. Ryan Doumit tapped one up the third-base line that Young did not immediately charge. He fielded it, fired to first, and Doumit was called safe although replays suggested otherwise.

The call incensed Lee. He waved his glove in anger. Two batters later, Justin Morneau smacked a high cutter to center. Revere dove but failed to grab it. Two runs scored. Somehow, Lee trailed.

"Well, he was out at first," Lee said. "Mauer was struck out and they called it a ball. Both of those guys scored, so I basically had to get five outs in that inning."

I can't find the video of that play at first base, but I'll take Gelb's (and Lee's) word on it. As for Mauer's walk, looking at BrooksBaseball's plots, it looks like Mauer took a couple of borderline pitches; one of them was ruled a strike, the other a ball; can't really complain much when you get half the close ones. And the pitch that Morneau smacked caught way too much of the plate.

Now, you might feel sorry for Cliff Lee if he lost. He didn't. While he left the game, because of a blister, with the Phillies trailing 2-1, they scored twice in the next half-inning to make Lee a winner. Sure, it was a bizarre win; the Phils somehow left 16 runners on base, including 10 in the first five innings. But it was still a win.

You might feel sorry for Cliff Lee if he's been particularly unlucky this season. He hasn't been. He's now 8-2.

Which is a welcome change, I'm sure, considering that he finished last season 6-9 despite pitching brilliantly. Last season was one of the unluckiest seasons you'll ever see. This season hasn't been like that at all.

You might feel sorry for Cliff Lee if he's been generally unlucky. He hasn't. Lee's been a great pitcher since 2008. He's started 169 games over that stretch. Among the 33 pitchers with at least 150 starts over the same stretch, he's got the second-lowest ERA (2.86) and the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (6 to 1).*

* Shockingly enough, Barry Zito brings up the rear in both categories.

He's been great, and yet somehow he's won only 79 of those 169 starts, or 47 percent. That's rough ... but hardly extraordinary. Over the same span, Clayton Kershaw's won only 40 percent of his starts, and Felix Hernandez just 42 percent of his. Bad things happen to great pitchers. At least Cliff Lee has his health.

You might feel sorry for Cliff Lee because his team's not very good. Except, you know, he chose this team. More from this morning's Inquirer:

Across the hallway, Cliff Lee was in no jovial mood. He faced the minimum hitters through six innings and still almost lost. It is a familiar feeling for Lee, who signed for less money before the 2011 season to play in Philadelphia because he believed it was his best shot at a World Series. He plays for a 32-35 team with diminished hopes.

"We're the Philadelphia Phillies," said Lee, owner of a 2.55 ERA. "We should play better than we have."

Can the Phillies win as currently constructed?

"I can't look at it any other way, besides, I expect us to win and catch up with the Braves and get into the postseason," Lee said. "That's the only way you can look at it."

What if it does not turn around?

"I definitely want to win," he said. "There's no doubt about that."

But if it does not, is he prepared to stay and pitch for a losing team?

"I don't have any control over that," Lee said. "I know that I want to win and I'll voice that to whoever. And that's that. I want to win here. That's why I signed here..."

Hey, most of us didn't see the Phillies getting into so much trouble so soon. They were, you'll recall, the consensus pick to win the National League East last season. Instead they went 81-81. Which was surprising. But when this franchise bent over backwards to sign a bunch of guys in their 30s to long-term contacts, the ultimate outcome wasn't hard to predict. Basically, it's just happened a year or two early. If Cliff Lee really wanted to pitch for a winning team, he should have signed with a good young team (or the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or some other well-run club with a huge payroll).

I don't really question Lee's motivation. I do question his judgment. He probably is, too.

But I can't feel sorry for him. I do wish he pitched for a better team. He probably does, too.