Cliff Lee is a really good pitcher. Cliff Lee does not have a win yet this year. These are not contradictory statements. The pitcher win category is bordering on total irrelevance, and Cliff Lee seems set on a mission to push it over the edge into total obscurity. Lee’s last start was a microcosm of his entire season – he pitched 7.2 innings, giving up 6 hits and surrendering 1 walk, while striking out 12. It was a masterpiece that saw Lee throw 92 of 122 pitches for strikes, and yet he didn’t get the win. Not only that, he took the loss.
So far, in 2012, Cliff Lee has posted a 2.92 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, a 9.2 K/9 rate (matching a career best), a 1.5 BB/9 rate, and has been worth 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs.com. Those are all outstanding numbers at this point of the season, and yet, Lee has no wins. In a strange hypothetical, one has to wonder if a pitcher could win the Cy Young award without ever recording a win.
It would be a mind-boggling accomplishment. Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young award in 2010 with 13 wins. Fernando Valenzuela won the NL Cy Young award in 1981 with 13 wins. Beyond those two, dating back to 1956 when the award was introduced, no starting pitcher has won the Cy Young award with fewer than 15 wins. Even the closers who have won the award collected somewhere between 2 and 7 wins on the season.
Cliff Lee has already won a Cy Young award. He did that in the American League, in 2008, after posting a 22-3 record. Beyond his W-L record, his numbers in that season do not look all that different from his current winless state. Lee’s 2008 ERA was 2.54, his FIP was 2.83, his K/9 was 6.85, his BB/9 was 1.4, and his fWAR was 7.2 at the year’s end. At Lee’s current pace, if he can stay healthy the rest of the season he will finish the year with approximately 6.0 fWAR. Last year, Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young with a 6.8 fWAR.
Of course, the main reason that Lee does not have a win has not been his fault. Look at his numbers again, they’re fantastic. They’re better than most pitchers in the league. Lee is tied for 14th in all of the MLB in fWAR for pitchers, currently. The next 15th – 26th ranked pitchers have an average of 5 wins on the season. It’s not Lee’s fault. It is the fault of the Philadelphia Phillies offense, which has only managed to push across 3.16 runs per game in Lee’s starts. In that 2008 season that Lee won his Cy Young award, the Cleveland Indians scored 5.58 runs per game in Lee’s starts.
The odds are against him. At some point, if he continues to pitch like he has to this point, he’ll register a win, or at least you would think so. However, it is entirely possible that the Phillies continue to score a miniscule amount of runs in support of Lee, and he pitches one of the best years of his career. He’ll likely need to pick up the pace a little to really thrust himself into the Cy Young discussion, but he is not far from it. The fact that it is even a possibility is a testament to the growing irrelevance of the pitcher’s win statistic.
It would certainly be one of the greatest feats of all time, to win the Cy Young award without winning a game. The number of variables that would have to align is mind-boggling. It would certainly be an event that would likely never be repeated. Baseball is an unpredictable game, and if Lee were to become the game’s first winless Cy Young winner that may be one of the most unpredictable events ever. I know I’ll be cheering him on the whole way.