Cliff Lee Playing Well for Texas Rangers

| by Hardball Times

Cliff Lee has been the talk recently after being traded to the Texas Rangers and not the New York Yankees over a week ago (for more on the deal, check out Myron Logan's article here at THT). But my interest of him came before the trade as I found in an article I wrote a few weeks ago about which pitchers pitch in favorable counts the highest and lowest percent. And the starter who pitched his highest percentage of pitches in pitcher friendly counts was Cliff Lee. That should make sense considering is insane strikeout to walk ratio of 13.86 as pitcher's counts aren't the counts with three balls (or one ball away from a walk). As a whole this season, Lee has a slash line of 2.59/2.55/3.37 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) which is bested only by Josh Johnson, who is an amazing pitcher in his own rite.

Back to the original topic, here is a table showing the percentage of pitches thrown in different categories of ball and strike counts for Lee compared to the league average.

 Pitcher'sBatter'sFirstEvenBehindAheadFull2 Strikes3 Balls1stStr
Cliff Lee 53.60% 17.20% 29.20% 16.30% 15.20% 37.30% 2.00% 29.60% 3.60% 70.00%
League Average 45.50% 28.40% 26.10% 18.10% 23.60% 27.40% 4.80% 27.40% 8.40% 58.80%

Pitcher's- 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2
Batter's- 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2

There is no category where Lee is worse than the MLB average. And Lee has pitched in the least percentage of three ball counts out of all the starters this and only Matt Capps has lower percentage than Lee among the relievers.

So how is Cliff Lee is able to do this? Here are some statistics using the pitch f/x data comparing Lee and the league average for this season.

Cliff Lee -1.69 .327 72.8% 22.8% 9.0% 83.4% 67.4% 58.8% 54.6% 31.4%
League Average -0.13 .361 63.0% 17.5% 8.6% 80.9% 65.1% 44.2% 45.1% 27.2%

I could see why Lee is able to get into a good amount of pitcher's counts since he has a high strike percentage. The high strike percentage might be benefiting from two factors, the high percentage of swings and the high percentage of pitches in the zone, as both a swing and baseball in the zone results in a strike (if the umpire is good). This also makes for a low pitch count allowing Lee to pitch deeper into games at a high rate which he has done this season.

Instead of comparing Lee to the league average, how does Lee stack up against his pitching comrades? Here is the same table as above except with the ranking of Cliff Lee in each category for pitchers with at least 1000 pitches this season, which is 138 pitchers.

Rank 3rd 26th 1st 3rd 47th 93rd 72nd 1st 1st 9th

Those strike and zone percentage presents themselves in this table. Lee is definitely an outlier when it comes to pitches in the zone, as the pitcher second to his 58.8% is Doug Fister at 52.3%. The strike percentage category is a little tighter with Scott Baker second at 70.8% to Lee's 72.8%. Now I was surprised to see that he led the Majors in swing percentage when I ran by the leaderboards, which in retrospect I shouldn't be since he is living in the zone more than anyone else meaning batters have to swing or be called on a strike. But after running a quick linear regression, the r-squared is only at .24 so I was way off altogether.

Lee uses either a cutting, straight, or tailing fastball about 80% of the time which is really a high percentage for a non-sinkerballer or hard fastball pitcher. My theory on why Cliff Lee has been so good since the start of his Cy Young season is that he uses the deception in is delivery while creating even more deception by mixing his pitches well and mixing his location well. That is topic in need of further review. Regardless, Cliff Lee is a good pitcher. He is so good that even after being on the DL for more than three weeks to start the season, Lee is now fourth in WAR for the entire Major Leagues

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