Don’t let age fool you; Cliff Lee is still an ace and one of baseball’s best.
Since 2008, Lee is tops among all pitchers in FIP-based WAR, edging Justin Verlander and holding a wide margin on third place Felix Hernandez. What should scare National League hitters is that he’s showing zero signs of decline to this point of the season.
Lee will turn 36 in August, but he holds nifty numbers in almost every pitching category. He striking out fewer batters (8.44 K/9), but he’s still finding the strike zone at an extraordinary 54.3 percent rate. The result has been a ratio Lee has become known for, a 45:6 K:BB mark in 2014.
In 2008, Lee broke out hasn’t looked back with the Philadelphia Phillies. That year he posted a league-best Zone%, the percent of pitches in the strike zone, of 58 percent and produced a 170:34 K:BB. In the past three seasons, Lee has struck out at least 207 batters, walking no more than 42.
Even as his win numbers fade into a mild obscurity, Lee’s average WAR value has been 6.2 since 2008, reaching more than 200 innings pitched in each of those seasons.
Lee hasn’t been Greg Maddux in the so-called twilight of his career, but his transformation from a contact pitcher to a 200-strikeout regular has not only made him a staff ace but an ageless wonder.
Consider this: Even if you include 2007—Lee’s worst full season as a professional—he still leads all pitchers in FIP, ahead of C.C. Sabathia, Verlander and Zack Greinke.
What we often lose in discussing Lee is not only his current age and dominance, but also that his breakout year wasn’t until his age 29 season. From 2002-2007, he faced 3,219 big league hitters, producing 255 walks and 549 strikeouts. From 2008-2013, Lee has faced 5,346 batters, compiling just 197 walks and 1,203 strikeouts.
Why is this? Not only is Lee hitting the zone at top-10 pace, he’s fooling hitters more when he throws outside the zone. In 2008, hitters’ O-Contact% against Lee, according to PITCHf/x data, was 73 percent. It remained at that percentage in 2009, but steadily decreased to 68 percent in 2010-2011, 65 percent in 2012, 67 percent in 2013 and is back to 66 percent so in 2014.
Critics tend to point to Lee’s decreasing velocity, which is down a few ticks. But he’s countered that by using his change-up increasingly more every year since 2010, and PITCHf/x shows it has been an above average pitch for him during that span.
As for this year, Lee will have some regression in his overall FIP by season’s end. While some of his numbers will regress, ZiPS still projects he strikes out more hitters and produces an updated 4.7 WAR. His inflated 1.29 WHIP will come back to normal when his above average .361 BABIP does.
The end result of 2014: Lee is still an ace—an undervalued one, at that— and he shows no signs of slowing down.