Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 15, 2008
BASEBALL: Cliff Dweller

One of the really remarkable things that has happened thus far this season is Cliff Lee - almost certainly the AL Cy Young Award winner - not just bouncing back from a horrendous 2007 when he posted a 6.29 ERA to toss an MLB-best 2.28 mark (and it's for real: a staggering 157-28 K/BB ratio and just 10 HR allowed in 210 IP), but racking up a 21-2 record for a team having a dismal year. The Indians are 72-77 (.483), a respectable but unspectacular 7th in the AL in runs scored but with a wrecked bullpen (Jensen Lewis leads the team with 8 saves). It's unusual for an ordinary pitcher to have such a great year, but doubly so to do it for a severely struggling team. For a comparison, CC Sabathia, who some people are touting for the NL Cy Young, posted a 2.16 ERA in 14 starts for the Indians between April 22 and July 2 (during which he pitched 3 complete games, two of them shutouts, and averaged 7.45 IP/start) - and went 6-5.

How hard is it to do this? Well, I looked at the all-time leaders in winning percentage, and Baseball-Reference lists 37 pitchers in the game's 133 year history who won 85% of their decisions. 8 of those pitched mainly in relief, which skews W-L records, 2 pitched for the 1884 St. Louis Maroons who dominated the Union Association (a 1-year league that was barely "major" in any sense) and 3 of those are this season. In other words, prior to this year, in 133 years of NL, AL, Federal League and 19th century AA seasons, it's been done by a starting pitcher only 24 times, only 21 times since the mound was moved back to its current distance in 1893.

Anyway, of the 24 prior starting pitchers to crack 85%, all but two of them pitched for teams that won 55% or more of their games. The only exceptions were Randy Johnson in 1995 going 18-2 for a Mariners team that won the division playing .545 ball and Mike Nagy, who went 12-2 for the 1969 Red Sox, a .537 team. Lee's accomplishment of reaching 20 wins while winning 90% of his decisions for a losing team is entirely unprecedented.

And yet, he might not be completely alone. One of the other two pitchers who will finish at or above an .850 winning percentage if he avoids losing over the season's final two weeks is Dice-K Matsuzaka, 16-2 for the powerhouse Red Sox, but the other is Tim Lincecum, who stands at 17-3 for a truly horrendous Giants team - they're playing .456 ball, but outside of Lincecum it's .395, as the team is 14th in the NL in Runs Scored and 10th in ERA.

In baseball, even after a century and a quarter, you truly can see something new every year.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:23 AM | Baseball 2008 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

Doesn't fit the 85% criteria, but it seems appropriate when discussing pitchers having a great year in the W-L column for a terrible team to mention Carlton's 1972 season where he went 27-10 for the 59-97 Phillies.

Meanwhile, wondering if Crank's gut is still telling him that that Mets have the division "iced", as he felt last week. I sure don't feel that way.

Posted by: A.S. at September 15, 2008 10:22 AM

I was doing a puzzle with my 2.5 year old daughter when Ayala pulled a Heilman. She recoiled in fear when I yelled at the screen.

With that pitch I vowed to not get involved with another Met game.

The 85% is odd. In that it is 3 times in a season when and unheard of before then. The use of multiple relievers has certainly lowered the number of decisions a starter gets, thereby increasing the odds of something flukey like this.

Heck of a season by Cliff (and Lincecum and Dice).

Posted by: Zufall at September 15, 2008 11:28 AM

Thanks for mentioning Carlton's season. In the old days, the starter got many more decisions then they do now.

Of course Elroy Face's 1959 season 18-1 season as a relief pitcher will be tough to beat.

I wonder how Cliff Lee will do next year? Lincecum and Dice seem to more probable to pitch well again next year; but Lee.....

Posted by: Lee at September 15, 2008 1:30 PM

Carlton's year was indeed amazing, but of course Carlton was a great pitcher. What's rare is such a great year by an ordinary pitcher on a mediocre team. As I think about it, Dean Chance in 1964 comes to mind, although Chance was a good pitcher for a number of years.

Posted by: Crank at September 15, 2008 2:39 PM

Carlton had the more dominant year in the certain senses (he had 8 shutouts and struck out 310 guys). It was also a lower scoring era (and league) with runs/game in 1972 coming in at .3.91 (although the Phillies were a miserable 3.2 rpg) and a league average of .248 compared to .268. Lee's WHIP is comprable at 1.06 to .99 and his ERA+ is even a tick better at 187 to 182. His K/BB average is ridiculous at 5.6 to 1 and only walking 28 guys in 210 innings is flat out nearly inhuman. The Indians are a far, far better team than the Phillies (in Carlton's 10 losses they scored 17 runs) but Lee was at his best when Cleveland was at their worst to start the year. It is a pretty incredible feat by Mr. Lee to pull himself off the scrap pile and compile such an amazing year.

The thing is when you watch him pitch he doesn't blow you away with his stuff. Pedro circa late 90s had that electric stuff (in '99 he was 18-6 and the Sox scored a TOTAL of 7 runs in his 6 losses) and you understood why guys simply could not hit him. With Lee its harder to get. His command this year is insanely good, obviously, but it's not as if he rears back and throws 97 to counter the cutters and off-speed stuff. Pretty amazing.

Posted by: jim at September 15, 2008 3:10 PM

As an Indians fan, I was excited at the start of the year when the starting rotation looked like Sabathia, Carmona, Westbrook, Byrd, and Lee (all pitchers who had previously won 15 games in a season), with a bullpen containing Betancourt, Perez, and Jensen Lewis and a lineup that was solid last year.

And we know how that turned out. Now Sabathia and Byrd are traded, and Westbrook's on the D/L. What a depressing season.

Posted by: DKH at September 15, 2008 5:14 PM

Lee has been good in the past. I remember reading early in the season that he had found a mechanical flaw that he believed caused the terrible '07 season. I agree with DKH, I thought the Indians were primed to make a serios run going into '08. Injuries and subpar years have made for a disappointing season.

Posted by: maddirishman at September 15, 2008 6:45 PM

Speaking of Lincecum, I'm very concerned: he's thrown in the range of 260 pitches over his last 2 starts, and maybe close to 375 in the last three.

He's 24, so it's not like this is pure disaster, but that's an awful lot of pitches, and he is a pretty small guy.

And I thought Dusty Baker no longer managed the Giants.

Posted by: Mike at September 16, 2008 6:37 AM

As someone lucky enough to get Lee off the waiver wire in late April, I've been watching his games closely. To me, it's his approach that makes all the difference. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he challenges the hitters and is almost always getting ahead. He is almost always starting off batters 0-1.

Posted by: crankycon at September 16, 2008 11:19 AM

I was watching the Indians and Twins off and on last night, and Cliff Lee went to 3-0 on a Twins hitter. The annoucers said that that was the only the 7th time all year Cliff Lee went 3-0 on anyone. Truly unbelievable. And I didn't pick him up for my fantasy team, and I'm a tribe fan.

Posted by: peter at September 18, 2008 10:46 AM

I was watching the Indians and Twins off and on last night, and Cliff Lee went to 3-0 on a Twins hitter. The annoucers said that that was the only the 7th time all year Cliff Lee went 3-0 on anyone. Truly unbelievable. And I didn't pick him up for my fantasy team, and I'm a tribe fan.

Posted by: peter at September 18, 2008 10:46 AM
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