Posted by Mike Frohwirth
If you agree with the statement made in the title, you are excused from reading the remainder of this post. This post really shouldn't even be necessary, just like posts themed "Wilson Valdez Is Not Good. At All.", or "Offering Kyle Kendrick Arbitration: Not What You Would Call "Smart" should not have been needed. Alas, the majority of those inhabiting the Phillies' Twitterverse and Blogosphere do not currently appear to be on the correct page, especially when it comes to the 2012 Phillies' top starting pitcher. Let's look at a few of the false Lee narratives that are pervading the internets:
"Lee has ZERO WINS, he sucks, what's more important than wins? Nothing!"
It's 2012. Don't we know better than to care about "pitcher wins" by now? Not yet, apparently. The problem with the "pitcher wins" stat is that it collects piles of factors outside of a pitcher's control, and credits (or discredits) the pitcher for them. A pitcher could be hung with a loss, after allowing one run in nine innings, or pick up a win for a five-inning, seven-run effort. Poor defense? Poor bullpen? Strategically-inept manager? Slightly above average offense? All four of these factors are working against Lee, and there's nothing he can do about it. To discredit his performances, due to things Lee has absolutely no control over, just doesn't make any logical sense.
"Lee is not a "clutch" pitcher. He choked in Game 2 (of the 2011 NLDS v. St. Louis)."
Often, when fans choose to ignore statistical evidence, they repeat the refrain, "I watch the games." It appears that many who watched this particular game didn't pay a lot of attention. Lee did well in the areas that were under his control, particularly in striking out nine Cardinals, while walking only a pair, in his six-inning outing. Lee's xFIP for that particular game: an impressive 2.28.
It was the areas outside of Lee's control, however, that proved to be problematic. The Phillies' offense was held scoreless during the final seven innings. The poor range of the (majority of) the defenders behind Cliff Lee did not do the southpaw any favors. Mostly, though, Lee was a victim of bad batted-ball luck. Bloops, weak grounders, the Cardinals' bats just happened to find holes on this particular day. A pitcher with neutral luck will typically find 29-30% of batted balls in play falling for hits. On this day, 60% of the batted balls in play allowed by Lee became hits. It was an unbelievable unlucky happenstance, during another strong start by Lee. This fact should have been readily apparent to anyone who was "watching the game."
"Lee is not worth his contract. He has been terrible this season."
How has Lee done this season, in areas that are under his control? Lee's K/9 is 8.97, which ranks him 15th among all qualified MLB pitchers. Lee's BB/9 of 1.91 ranks him 15th among all qualified MLB pitchers. In K/BB, which is more important than either K/9 or BB/9, Lee is ranked 4th in MLB (4.68). (Note: Joe Blanton, a good pitcher who is not actually fat, is ranked 2nd in MLB, with a K/BB of 5.93.)
Just as in Game 2 of 2011's NLDS, Lee has been punished by BABIP. For the season, he has a BABIP of .333, meaning 33.3% of the batted balls in play have fallen for hits. In the month of June, his BABIP was an incredibly unfortunate 40.6%. With luck that atrocious, it is difficult to produce good results.
However, when you bundle up the stats that Lee has control over, and replace the ones he cannot control with league average figures, Lee sports an impressive 3.05 xFIP. This ERA predictor ranks Lee 4th among qualified MLB pitchers. Another ERA predictor, SIERA, ranks Lee 5th in MLB (3.11).
Being among MLB's Top 5 pitchers certainly qualifies as elite, and worthy of a hefty contract, particularly on the free agent market. Lee is still a great pitcher, and if his luck regresses to the mean, as it typically does, we can expect more favorable results in the future.