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.

Numbers alert!

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