Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Scouting Cliff Lee for Game 1

I promise not to enjoy writing this post, one bit. It’s my goal not to gush over Cliff Lee’s stats as I provide the scouting report on him, or to point out that he’s one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, and what’s more, finds a way to elevate his game even further in the spotlight of the cool October night and the human electricity that’s so evident in New York and Philladelphia, and now Texas and San Francisco. F*** it, I’m going to gush a little – I was a pitcher, after all – but this guy is really good (and everyone agrees). I’m just hoping the Giants can find a way to make him look human for a night or two.

Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay, except he throws with the preferred left hand. Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he throws a nasty curve, except his curve is better. Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he walks very few batters, except he walks fewer (.76/ 9 IP versus 1.08). Cliff Lee is a lot like Roy Halladay in that he gives up few long balls, except that he gives up fewer (.68/ 9 IP versus .86). Otherwise, there BABIP are almost identical (Lee: .302 and Doc: .298). They both strike out plenty of batters (Lee: 7.84 and Doc: 7.86). But Lee walked so many fewer in 2010, that his K/BB ratio of 10.28 not only makes Halladay's 7.30 seem pedestrian, but it is also one for the record books. It's second best all time for a single season.  I guess one thing that Halladay exceeds Lee is in inducing ground balls, that’s at least a good sign (Lee: 41.9% and Doc: 51.2%). Lee finished with a 3.18 ERA but his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) metric was just 2.58, suggesting he deserved better. His overall peripherals suggest a far better record than the 12-9 he finished with. That and his mere 28 starts – he dealt with injuries at the outset of the season – will prevent him from winning the Cy Young. Well, that and his old teammate Felix Hernandez, I’ll surmise here.

In just 212 innings in 2010, Cliff Lee managed to rack up 7.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), substantially better Halladay’s 6.6 which he compiled in far more innings (250 IP). The point is, as good as Halladay is, Lee is probably better. The one weakness that Lee May have as compared to Halladay is that he’s not quite the workhorse. It’s not that he can’t go the distance for a complete game; he can. He’s thrown 17 in the past three seasons including 5 shutouts. It’s that Lee doesn’t pitch on short rest. Lincecum pitched on 1 day rest in Game 6 of the NLCS out of the pen; you won’t see Lee doing that. Could he do it? Maybe, but he’s never done it; he’s never been asked to.

The Giants will have their hands full, and the array of batter dicing sword-pitches he will feature are all impressive. Lee throws: Fastball, Cutter, Change, Curveball, and Slider in that order of frequency.

He throws his fastball 63.6% of the time and averages 91.3 MPH. That is his most effective pitch as he throws it for strikes when and wherever he wants. He simply pounds the zone, always keeping the hitter on the defensive. In fact, Fangraphs shows that his fastball was the 4th most effective in MLB in 2010 behind Tim Hudson, Trevor Cahill and Ubaldo Jimenez. He uses his cutter now more than ever, and for good reason. It’s most effective versus right handed hitters and is obviously a huge weapon as lefties typically struggle more against right handed hitters. This isn’t the case with Lee and makes him unique. He’s show a reverse split – meaning he, unlike most pitchers, pitches better against opposite handed hitters in some capacity – but only in strikeout rate. But in 2010, Lee posted reverse splits across the board. He walked fewer righties, K’d more, relented fewer homeruns, had a lower batting average against and thus obviously had a lower WHIP (Walks plus hits per inning pitched), FIP and ERA. Lefties had much better luck on balls in play (BABiP) against Lee. He’ll throw that pitch nearly twenty percent of the time (19.8) – and likely more often to right handed hitters. If he were a gunslinger, this would be his .45 Schofield revolver.

I wish that’s all he had, but it’s not. He’s trimmed the usage of his changeup, but it’s still a useful pitch for him. Lefties often use a changeup to combat right handed hitters – and righties to combat lefties. Well, Lee must have decided he liked his cutter a bit more versus them and thus started using about 7% more cutters and 7% fewer changes. So his changeup is down to 9.4% in usage, thrown at an average velocity of 84.7 MPH. He tosses a knee buckling curve only 5.6% of the time at 75.5 MPH, as if to say, “I have a Winchester, too.” If you haven’t picked up on it yet, that means that his curve is on average 15.8 MPH slower than his four-seam fastball. This is the type of thing that devastates a hitter. The greater the separation in velocity from pitch to pitch, while also maintaining the same arm slot and arm speed, the more havoc you wreak on the hitter. Finally, Lee mixes in an 80 MPH slider about once or twice per game. It’s a pitch he used more frequently earlier in his career but apparently still keeps in his back pocket.

In short, Lee is a fantastic pitcher who has been outrageous in the postseason to this point in his career. The Rays had no luck with him, the Bronx Bombers had no luck with him; I guess it’s time for Bochy’s Misfits to get a crack at him.

I wanted to also show two velocity plots from Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee. The first is from Tim Lincecum’s 14-strikeout game against Atlanta. You’ll notice that the velocity of pitches is pretty decently distributed but also somewhat haphazard.

Lincecum: Oct 7 vs Braves
Now let’s take a look at Cliff Lee’s October 17th start against the Yankees in which he threw 122 pitches in eight innings. You’ll see just how precise he is with great velocity distribution, i.e. mixing his speeds, and how consistent they are. It’s pretty remarkable.

Lee: Oct 17 vs Yankees
Thanks to Fangraphs for stats and Brooks Baseball for PitchFX Tool

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