Almost any way you slice it, Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Cliff Lee was the best starting pitcher in the American League last season. He led the AL in wins (22), ERA (2.54), walks per nine innings (1.37) and shutouts (tied with two) while ranking second in WHIP (1.11), innings (223 1/3) and complete games (four). Lee was no slouch when it came to strikeouts, either, fanning 170 batters (ninth in the AL) and averaging 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
These superb numbers were career highs for the 30-year-old southpaw, who won the AL Cy Young Award. Now Lee faces the question that typically confronts a starting pitcher who peaks statistically: Can he do it again, or was his best season an aberration?
The secrets to Lee's success
In 2007, Lee went 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 97 1/3 innings. He sustained an injury to his right abdominal muscle and started the campaign on the disabled list - without having worked out in spring training. After returning in May, he pitched so poorly that he spent time at Triple-A Buffalo and did not make the Indians' 2007 playoff roster. Entering the 2008 season, Lee was competing for a spot in the Indians' starting rotation.
What changed in 2008? In a phrase, pitch placement. Demonstrating what scouts refer to as plus command, Lee began spotting his pitches more frequently on both sides of the plate. As a result, he allowed only 12 home runs in 2008, compared to the 17 he had allowed in 2007 in far fewer innings.
In addition, Lee learned how to execute a game plan. He seldom used his changeup - his main out pitch - the first time around the opponents' batting order. Moreover, scouts noted that Lee rarely threw the same strike in the same location on back-to-back pitches. In other words, Lee took pains to mix his pitches, even after throwing strikes. His four complete games validated his newfound ability to get through a lineup. In previous seasons, Lee had never posted more than one complete game.
What to expect in 2009
2008 was not the first time Lee logged a breakout season. In 2005, he posted an 18-5 record with a 3.79 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. In 2006, he slipped in all of those categories (14-11, 4.40 ERA and 1.41 WHP), and that was followed by his disastrous 2007. In short, Lee has never had back-to-back consistent seasons as a pro. Why would 2009 be any different?
For one thing, Lee's dominance in 2008 was not the stuff of ordinary breakout seasons. Opposing batters had the entire season to adjust to Lee's control and game planning, but they failed to do so: In the second half of 2008, Lee went 10-1 with a 2.83 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP.
Although those numbers were below his first-half stats (12-2, 2.31 ERA and 1.03 WHIP), they hardly suggest that the league had caught up to Lee. Furthermore, nestled within Lee's good-but-not-elite second half was a stellar August, in which he was 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP.
The second half of 2008 suggests that Lee will not lose his control or his ability to execute a game plan. This will be facilitated if he sustains his fluid pitching mechanics, which keep his pitching motion consistent and his health problems at a minimum. These are the bona fide strengths of his game.
What could hold him back?
If Lee has a weakness, it is his lack of a dominant fastball. Simply put, he does not blow the ball by opposing hitters; his strikeouts depend on setup and placement. That is not to downplay Lee's effectiveness as a slice-and-dice lefty. It is only to suggest that Lee does not have the velocity to offset a loss of command or control. His margin for error is slim.
Is it possible Lee maintains or improves his statistics in 2009, if his control and execution stay strong? There are arguments on both sides. In Lee's favor is the Indians' signing of free-agent closer Kerry Wood (Chicago Cubs). Last season Wood saved 34 games for the Cubs, and many of those saves came in high-pressure situations. Notwithstanding his adjustment to the AL, Wood should still improve an Indians bullpen whose most competent closer was reliever Jensen Lewis (13 saves).
What might prevent Lee from sustaining his 2008 stats is his status as the Indians' ace. Lee entered last season with no pressure. The Indians rotation boasted starters CC Sabathia (New York Yankees) and Fausto Carmona, both of whom had superb 2007 seasons, not to mention innings eaters like Jake Westbrook (elbow, hip) and Paul Byrd.
Well, what a difference a year makes. Now Sabathia and Byrd are gone, Westbrook is out until midseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Carmona is coming off a disappointing campaign. The Indians expect Lee to carry the staff.
Fantasy baseball outlook
Since Lee has never been consistent on a year-to-year basis, it's hard to put much faith in him as a No. 1 fantasy starter in 2009. It's highly unlikely that he will again put up numbers along these lines.
One thing to keep in mind with Lee, when it comes to fantasy, is that his season high for strikeouts is 170. That alone removes him from the realm of No. 1 fantasy starters.
Still, based on his awesome 2008 stats, Lee probably will still be drafted highly by fantasy players. He remains a risk in the first six rounds, but he might be worth the pickup in Round 7 or Round 8. Ideally, he would serve as a No. 3 starting pitcher, but you probably won't be able to draft him as such, given how many drafters base their choices solely on the stats of the previous year.