Cliff Lee was among the top 10 pitchers in baseball in 2012. In return, he got all of six wins on the season.
Depends on who you are, that’s either because a) he lacked the ability to win, b) wins are a lineup-dependent stat and his Philadelphia Phillies lineup was no good when he was on the mound. Or, you could go with c) Lee was a victim of a terrible smiting by the baseball gods.
Regardless of your choice, it’s hard to argue that there was more than enough disappointment to go around after the lefty’s season. Whether you were a fan, a fantasy owner or Phillies head brass, six wins isn’t what you want to see out of your number-two pitcher, even if his 4.9 fWAR season ranks him ninth among MLB starters.
It’s perhaps the most dramatic case of a pitching being screwed over by bad luck, but even if his otherwise excellent numbers (211 IP, 3.16/1.11 ERA/WHIP, easily league-leading 7.39 K/BB) say that the 34-year-old could just as well win 20 games in 2013 pitching exactly the same way he did, the cup-half-empty approach to Cliff Lee may not be totally without a point.
What was wrong with Cliff Lee? In short, nothing. In an expanded answer? There are a couple of little things. Maybe.
There is the fact that Lee’s home run rate spiked in 2012, going from 0.70 to 1.11 HR/9, and that he was more hittable than he’d been, posting a three-year high .253 BAA. Those are minor quibbles in the big picture, though. For someone who relies on command and generating weak contact, slight fluctuations in BABIP are going to affect the opponent’s batting average.
That seems to be what happened to Lee in 2012, although it is pointing out that the home-run rate last season was the peak of a five-year increase.
Does that do anything to suggest that the veteran is in decline? I doubt it. Not as long as his velocity remains healthy and he continues to show the kind of command and control and dwarfs his peers in the bigs. Only luck held his win totals down and there’s not much to be done about that, other than hoping that it doesn’t happen again in 2013.
There are going to be good questions to be asked about the top of the Phillies rotation in the coming weeks, but whether Cliff Lee can “bounce back” to the top won’t be one of them – not when he was already there last season.