Cliff Lee’s Pitch Problem

Cliff Lee is mind-boggling this year. He is striking out over 10 batters per nine innings, yet, at times, looks like nothing more than an average pitcher. But why? We delve.

Thus far this season, compared to last year, Lee has thrown virtually the same percentage of strikes (70%, compared to 71% last year), yet he has walked the same amount of batters (18) in less than half the number of innings. Of course, he’s striking out more hitters, too (26% of PA, compared to 22% last year).

When you look at the rest of his detailed statistics, they’re pretty good: Lee is getting more hitters to miss pitches (22% of swings, compared to 18% last year), more ground balls (.71 ratio, compared to .70 last year), giving up less extra base hits (7.1% of PA, compared to 7.7% last year), and significantly less balls are being put in-play (64% of PA, compared to 73% last year). Lee is on pace to set a career high for strikeouts outs per nine innings (10.1- almost two more than any other season), his fastball is slightly, um, faster (91.4 MPH, compared to 91.1 MPH last year) and has more movement on it (over an inch more horizontal break).

So where’s the beef?

Hitters are walking more and forcing Lee to throw slightly more pitches (.15) per at-bat. They are also getting more hits per nine innings (9.2, compared to 8.3 last year), hitting more line drives (22%, compared to 18% last year), and, as a result, more home runs per game (.9, compared to .7). 33.9% of all balls put in-play have been hits, compared to only 28.7% last year. The saber folks call that BABIP, and argue that it is largely based on luck. Most pitchers will have a BABIP that falls somewhere between .290 and .310 (or 29-31% of balls put in-play become hits). Lee’s is significantly higher. So is it just dumb luck that more balls in-play are becoming hits and home runs? Not really.

While Lee’s fastball has better velocity and movement this year, he isn’t throwing nearly as many of them. Last year, 63% of his pitches were fastballs (two and four seam). This year? 56%. That may not sound like a large delta, but Lee has always been a fastball pitcher. By throwing less fastballs, he is, obviously, forced to throw more cutters (+3%), curveballs (+2), and changeups (+3%).

Why is he throwing less fastballs? He isn’t locating them as well. Last night, only 56% of his two-seam fastballs were thrown for strikes. There was a similar trend two weeks ago, when he struggled in St. Louis– less than 50% of his four-seam fastballs, the easiest pitches to control, were thrown for strikes. Generally, as seen above, Lee throws 70% of his pitches for strikes. When a fastball pitcher doesn’t have precise command of his best pitch, his other pitches, the ones that rely on the superior speed and location of the fastball to be effective, are reduced.

Perhaps more importantly, when Lee does get his fastball over the plate, it hasn't done as good a job in getting batters out.

“Pitch Type Values” uses a super-nerdy formula to calculate the effectiveness of individual pitches. The further above zero, the stronger the pitch. Anything below is less effective.

From 2008 to 2010, Lee’s fastball values were an adjusted 1.50, 0.85, and 1.43, respectively. This year, it’s just 1.19. His other pitches, the ones that rely on the strength of the fastball to fool the batter, are also down.

Given the fact that Lee’s fastball is being thrown harder and with more movement, the only logical conclusion as to why it has been relatively less effective is that it's not being located as well. That’s exactly what happened in the sixth inning last night…

Here’s the pitch summary for Danny Espinosa’s at-bat:

1) Two-seam fastball, ball, 1-0

2) Two-seam fastball, foul, 1-1

3) Two-seam fastball, ball, 2-1

4) Cutter, ball, 3-1

5) Two-seam fastball, home run

And two batters later, against Jerry Hairston…

1) Changeup, ball, 1-0

2) Cutter, ball, 2-0

3) Two-seam fastball, ball, 3-0

4) Two-seam fastball, strike, 3-1

5) Two-seam fastball, ball, walk

There you have it- inconsistent fastball.

Big ups to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs for providing the statisticals

18 Responses

1. Does he need a vision test? I’m not being sarcastic; maybe a slight adjustment w. lenses might help w. the location issue??? I hope something gets fixed PRONTO!

2. John says:

Good article, I agree with Brady. It’s got to be something just as simple as that, and it always happens to the Phillies…

3. John E. says:

Good stuff. So fastball has more movement and velocity, but because he hasn’t been able to throw it for strikes consistently enough, he’s not throwing it as much as he should.
Also slight uptick in BABIP that are hits probably based on location (and some bad luck), allowing hitters to make more solid contact.

thats why Crossing Broad is the shit. No where else can you get a string of fun columns followed by a solid break down of Cliff Lee’s pitching. This isn’t just breaking down any numbers old numbers like ERA, K’s and Walks. Great job as always CB!

5. He’s just got some kinks to iron out. We as Phillies fans have been extremely lucky to have had Roy just dominate without having periods of “problems” that last more than one game. We have also been lucky with Hamels the same way. I think we need to just let the guy work his kinks out like most pitchers do, and not use Halladay and Hamels as reference points. Most pitchers get streaky from time to time and Lee is no exception, even though we’re lucky enough to have 2 guys that seem to be the exception to the rule on our favorite team as well.
Kyle, awesome job at providing all the data here, it’s a good way of saying ” It isn’t as bad as it looks folks, take it easy.”

6. Thanks. I’m not sure it is an “easy” fix. His fastball is a large part of what makes him effective. With the naked eye, to me, it has appeared to be consistently high, combined with not getting the strike on the corners. That’s forced him to A) get more of the plate and B) have to throw more secondary pitches. I’m guessing the high fastballs have something to do with a flaw in his delivery- generally, not following through enough. If they can figure it out and fix it, I’m guessing he will be fine.

7. I agree with Adam B. While I don’t know if you are right, Kyle, I certainly enjoy reading your opinion. Let’s let the SABRmaticians hash it out.

wow! actual reporting and data on CB?!?! good job kyle! i hate the sabermetrics and all that but i def enjoyed reading this! And nice of you to discuss whats on the mind of just about every phils fan after last night! Finger on the pulse of the city! HAHA

9. Loki says:

He’s not a great pitcher. Not in the Regular season anyway. He’s only had 2.5 great seasons.
After that he’s been average to subpar. We overpaid for a pitcher who is only known to be great in the post season. Now, if that leads us to a ring or 5 it is justified. If not…well Everyone will jump off the RAJ bandwagon in a heartbeat.

10. Dylan says:

11. Jay says:

Use them in post about why pitcher isn’t as bad as he looks.

12. thewuz says:

Loki is an idiot. Cliff Lee even in the little funk he seems to be in now still has ABOVE average numbers in almost every category.

I’m not sure, but it looked as though his fast balls were running up in the zone as well.

14. Loki says:

thewuz Just look at his career numbers dumbass. He almost didn’t even make his way back to the bigs a few years ago. 3 solid years qualifies him as a great pitcher? Sorry but not. I know being a homer blinds people from reality and all.
I love Lee, the man embodies everything about this team and town, but he’s not a GREAT pitcher and not even our #2(that should be Hamels hands down).
Now, when we talk postseason pitching, then we can throw great around. Like I said, if he shows up when it matters and it gets us rings, he justifies his contract.

15. johnnyrockets27 says:

youre the only one throwing the word great around bucko. and i guess a cy young award IN THE AL (!!!!) counts for nothing. look who he pitched for earlier when he wasnt as good…the indians who had no defense no offense and no pitching behind sabathia at the time. thats a tough team to pitch for. give him a break. yeah lee’s fastball has been off this year. but still hes pitched well enough to win games and he deserves better. hes the 2011 version of 2010 hamels. HE HAS GOTTEN NO RUNS AT ALL WHATSOEVER THIS YEAR.
Loki, i rest my case. so please do everyone a favor and kindly shut the hell up.
Goodnight.

16. If you guys trashing Lee knew how to actually look at his numbers and discern them properly you’d be laughing at yourself right now. His WAR has been + (above avg) for all but one season in which he was injured. His WHIP has been pretty darned favorable (better than avg) for every season but 2 (again injuries helped). Ruben Amaro is smarter than you, count on it. MLB teams today spend much money researching these moves, before they make them. they saw a top caliber pitcher and picked him up. He’s nothing more than one of the best pitchers in the game over the span of his big league career. And that’s fact, so anyone who says “only 2.5 good seasons” clearly does not know what they’re talking about. CLEARLY!

17. Loki says:

Who’s trashing Lee? I’m stating facts that he is NOT a superb regular season pitcher. Far from worth his money. If he wins in the postseason it’s justified. Mark my words you mrons all over Lee’s dick, if things do not work out, you’ll all say you knew it was a bad signing and RAJ shouldve kept our farm system blah blah blah.
And no, he is not one of the “best” over his career. 4 times in 8 full seasons has he had his ERA under 4. Twice he’s been over 5. Even over 6 one year.
You want to talk about a bad team Johnny? The year Lee had a 5.43 ERA he went 14-8. Yes, 14-8. He gave up an average of almost 5 and a half runs per game. And got 14 wins.
During his time with the Phillies his ERA is 3.66 with an 11-9 record. His best “season” since his Cy Young year was his half year with Seattle. Once he went to Texas he struggled to 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA.
They paid this man to win in the playoffs. That’s all. You can all get pissy and butthurt and pretend you’re hurting my feelings with insults(HARDCORE OVER THE NETZ!), but you’re just blinded by being a fan. It’s a good and bad thing.
I never once stated Lee was a bad pitcher. He’s a good pitcher. I love having him, but I will not be happy with him(or anyone) until I see a ring, or 5 🙂

18. Loki says:

I’m dumb. Sorry guys