clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The lessons of Cliff Lee, one of baseball's greatest pitchers

It looks like Clifton Phifer Lee, one of the best pitchers of his generation, is calling it a career. Here's what we can learn from his 13 seasons.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I spend my time at parties doing the same things you probably do: standing in a corner, staring at the floor, waiting for someone to ask me about Cliff Lee. At least I used to do that, but I don't get invited to as many parties as I used to. It's probably just a getting-older thing, anyway, Lee has been on my mind a lot over the last decade, and I'm always eager to talk about him.

It appears as if Lee is going to retire, according to Ken Rosenthal, so this is the perfect opportunity. What would I say if a partygoer shuffled over and said, "Now you look like a fella who's ready to talk about Cliff Lee"? Well, I'll tell you. I have thoughts. Here are the lessons that Lee can teach all of us.

Broken pitchers can be fixed

In 2004, Lee was 25 and one of the most erratic young pitchers in baseball, a class that's already filled with erratic pitchers by definition. After going 9-1 with a 3.77 ERA in the first half, he allowed 18 homers in 71 innings in the second half. His ERA spiked to 7.91, and he had a rough time throwing strikes.

In 2005, he had something of a breakout season, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. In 2006 he regressed a little bit, but we were now three seasons into the career of Cliff Lee, and he looked like a classic, no-frills innings eater. With a little luck and good health, he could be Chris Capuano or Doug Davis.

And then he was broken.

I encourage you to click this link and skim through a list of pitchers who made 15 starts or more in a season with an ERA over 6.00. There are ghosts from baseball past waiting for you. Ryan Rowland-Smith. Jason Berken. Shawn Chacon. Hundreds of pitchers who never climbed out of the swamp. Lee was 28 years old, and the Indians didn't know what to do with him.

By the time he was pulled from the rotation, Lee became one of the few pitchers in baseball history to allow seven earned runs in three consecutive starts. He then made eight starts in Triple-A, walking 5.5 batters for every nine innings he pitched. He was not a pitcher you would have drafted for your fantasy team if you played in a 45-team league with 60-man rosters.

And then he won the Cy Young.

There's more to it than that, more hours of tinkering and repetition than we can possibly imagine. There was sage advice from Carl Willis when Lee was flaming out, and it helped him when he was reborn out of the ashes. But from the outside, it looked like a broken 28-year-old magically transformed into a Cy Young winner. And baseball always needs a couple of those stories every generation.

Put it this way: There aren't a lot of pitchers who can outdo Roy Halladay when it comes to unspeakably dark and seemingly hopeless career roadblocks. Lee was one of them, and they eventually ended up in the same dominant rotation. Broken pitchers aren't always fixed. They aren't often fixed. But they can be fixed, occasionally.

When you get a chance to build a super rotation, build the danged super rotation

The Phillies traded Carlos Carrasco for Cliff Lee in 2009, but considering Lee would pitch more than 1,000 innings after the trade, with an ERA and FIP under 3.00, it seemed like a fair price to pay.

At least, it would have been a fair price to pay, if the Phillies were the ones who enjoyed all of those innings. Instead, Ruben Amaro, Jr. traded more prospects for Roy Halladay, and instead of saying, "I have built a rotation of the gods," he said, "WAIT. WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL OF MY PROSPECTS?" He traded Lee away for prospects, and in 2010, with a chance to tie the NLCS at 2-2, the Phillies started Joe Blanton instead of Cliff Lee.

They probably would have rather had Cliff Lee. They had the same thought, so they spent scores of millions to bring him back. The lesson is simple: Just build the danged super rotation and worry about the prospects later.

It's hard to be a Hall of Famer

Were you around for the best parts of Cliff Lee's career? He was a marvel, an absolute marvel. At his best, he looked like this:

He did that for years. For six straight seasons, Lee was a threat to pitch like that. You expected it, even. Throughout those long seasons, Lee was a constant, a bedrock of consistency in an inconsistent world. He showed up, threw more than 200 innings, didn't walk anyone, kept the ball in the park and kept hitters supremely and eternally uncomfortable.

He won't make the Hall of Fame. He won't come especially close. The argument against him will be the same as the argument against Johan Santana. The peak was scintillating. If you watched it, you'll tell your grandkids about it. Or you'll tell people at parties about it. Either way, it was some of the best pitching you'll ever watch. There just wasn't enough of it.

Six seasons is a long, long time. Hundreds and hundreds of days in which you were absolutely sure Lee was one of the best pitchers to ever play baseball. And it wasn't enough to make a compelling Hall of Fame case (though some have tried). This isn't a knock on Lee, who is still one of the most effective pitchers in baseball history. It's just a way to say, jeez, it sure is hard to be a Hall of Famer.

There is nothing more fun to watch than a pitcher who can throw A+ stuff wherever he wants

Fun is a relative term. It's not fun when it's happening to your team instead of for it. But pretend that instead of the Hall of Fame, there's the Hall of Different Kinds of Baseball Players. You would have first-ballot player-types like the Ultra-Speedy Power Hitter, and there would be Veteran's Committee inductees like Pretty Good Pitcher Who Lasts a Million Years.

I'd stare the longest at the plaque for Pitcher With Excellent Stuff and Alien-Freakish Command. Those are the players who haunt and thrill me. It's entertaining to watch them carve up hitters, sure. Watching a pitcher move inside and out, up and down, is absolutely symphonic. But it's even more entertaining to watch the hitters panic, knowing that the baseball can dart a foot away from the plate if it doesn't bore right in on their damned thumbs. The hitter is acutely aware that the pitcher on the mound can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and there's a split second to determine if the ball is going to hurt him, be hittable or be so unhittable that it will make him look like an idiot if he swings.

In his prime, he might have been the best example of this kind of pitcher since Pedro Martinez. In July 2010, Lee made six starts, pitching 51 innings and throwing four complete games. He walked two batters that month.

No one made hitters uncomfortable quite like Lee. No one made fans more comfortable. If this is truly the end of his career, let's remember him as one of baseball's greatest anomalies. He was broken, and then reborn. He pitched his teams to pennants, throwing like a living, breathing computer simulation that human hitters would forever be unable to solve.

He was Cliff Lee, and we'll never see another one. The next time you see me at a party, don't be shy. Let's talk about Cliff Lee.


Get all kinds of MLB stories, rumors, game coverage and Vines of dudes getting hit in the beans in your inbox every day.