Combing through history to explain Cliff Lee   

Updated: May 19, 2008, 3:55 PM ET

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In one of the more left-angle surprises of the young season, Cliff Lee of the Cleveland Indians began the year with seven consecutive quality starts, only one of which came anywhere near the bare minimum required to meet that definition. They were seven of the better-pitched consecutive games ever to start a season and have all sorts of spectacular mini-streaks buried therein.

Even though he suffered his first loss on Sunday, Lee and his tiny 1.37 ERA have given us a glimpse of pitching paradise. The question is, where do you stand on what is to come for Mr. Lee for the rest of the year?

    (A) He has ascended to godhood; one worthy of being carried about on a litter by the leaders of the world's greatest nations; one to whom maidens will be brought daily to sacrifice their virtue to his greatness. He's one for whom whole beasts will be slaughtered so that he may take just one bite of their flesh; one whose very sweat will be a publicly traded commodity. His current stats will extrapolate to a 21-3 season, with a 1.37 ERA and 17 walks and 159 strikeouts.

    (B) He will come back to earth, but to this point still has set the stage for a career season.

    (C) He will run off a series of lines that look like his line Sunday: 5.2 10 6 5 1 2; and in so doing, his season stats will end up looking pretty much like the stats of every other Cliff Lee season.

    (D) He will be visited upon by a plague of 1,000 earned runs. He will go a month without getting past the third inning. His April and early May were a fluke for which the process of normalization will exact a vengeful and heavy toll. He will be out of the rotation by August and banished to Buffalo soon thereafter. His fall will be so great that he will be pitching indie ball by this time next year.

Let's examine the choices in more detail:

(A) Godhood
Wouldn't you love to see a pitcher break the record for most wins with one loss (18-1, Elroy Face, a reliever in 1959), or two losses (19-2, Greg Maddux in 1995)? As irrelevant as won-loss records might be, seeing a pitcher go 23-1 would be a lot of fun. Having said that, the chances of Lee keeping this up, as Sunday proved, are pretty remote. Remember that Fernando Valenzuela exploded on the baseball scene in 1981 with an 8-0 record and an even better ERA than Lee has at this point. All eight of his starts were complete games and he allowed just four earned runs in the process. What followed were a number of more pedestrian outings with two disaster seven-run starts in the mix. He was much more human the rest of the way. Another seemingly great start -- at least in terms of won-loss record -- was registered by the Orioles' Dave McNally in 1969. He got to 15-0 before finally losing a game. What is not usually mentioned in conjunction with McNally is that he also had 11 no-decisions before getting that first loss.

(B) Immediate Greatness Without Lasting Immortality
Finding precedents for what Lee is doing is difficult. Valenzuela, for instance, was a rookie. McNally had established himself as a very strong pitcher by 1969. Let us assume Lee goes on to pitch one of the best 100- or 200-best seasons of the past 50 years, a feat that wouldn't even demand he keep pitching at his current unconscionable pace. How many of the 200 best seasons since 1958 (as valued by Baseball Prospectus' Value Over Replacement Level Player) have been rendered by midcareer pitchers who were basically at league average before the big season? Not very many. So curious is Lee's emergence that it is nearly impossible to find comparable pitchers with similar outbursts at the same stage of their careers. If this were Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson in 1999 or 2000, or Roger Clemens in his Toronto sojourn, we would not be shocked. These are the men who dominate the upper reaches of the best seasons of the past five decades. Who are the Cliff Lees of yore?

Several names jump out:

Mike Norris, 1980 Oakland A's (22-9, 2.34 ERA): Norris differs from Lee in that he was four years younger when his big season hit and that he never had posted an ERA+ better than league average. What's more, he had never had what you could define as a breakout season in the minors. More telling, he had never thrown more than 157 innings in a professional season. When manager Billy Martin, who treated his A's staff like it owed him money, had him finish 24 of his 33 starts, nearly doubling his seasonal innings pitched (284) from his personal high, something was bound to give. That something turned out to be his arm, which barely survived the Carter administration.

Esteban Loaiza, 2003 Chicago White Sox (21-9, 2.90 ERA): Like Lee, Loaiza had been pitching for quite a few seasons, mostly at a level below league average. Suddenly, though, batters just started striking out more against him, and he ended up with arguably the best season in baseball in 2003. He hasn't whiffed nearly that many (207) since, yet on he hangs.

Mike Caldwell, 1978 Milwaukee Brewers (22-9, 2.36 ERA): Caldwell had been decent in 1974, but he was mostly below league average in ERA+ until, at the same age as Lee, 29, it all came together for him when he pitched six shutouts and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Ron Guidry of the Yankees.

Mike Witt, 1986 California Angels (18-10, 2.84 ERA): Witt pitched more consistently well than Lee did up to the point of his big season, but '86 was a big jump up in adjusted ERA. He immediately went back to being himself for a couple of years before arm injuries set in.

Darryl Kile, 1997 Houston Astros (19-7, 2.57 ERA): The late Mr. Kile posted adjusted ERAs that were consistently worse than league average until 1997, when his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and walk rates dropped to make for a much better-looking line. He returned to mediocrity for a couple of years before putting up a very similar season in 2001, his last full season before his untimely death in 2002.

Joe Mays, 2001 Minnesota Twins (17-13, 3.16 ERA): As I mentioned, finding exact comparisons for Lee is tough. Mays, for instance, had his big year in his third season in the bigs at the age of 25. It did not follow what came before, and 233 2/3 innings may have been too much for him, as he hasn't been the same since.

Though all of these pitchers added their names to the list of best seasons of the past 50 years, none really sustained their bursts.

(C) Getting Normalized
Coming into the season, Lee had a very nice career winning percentage of .600, despite mostly routine numbers. What Lee always has been able to count on (except, ironically, this season) is outstanding run support from his fellows. In 2004, the Indians got him 5.78 runs per start, good for 18th in the American League and well above average. The next year, that climbed to 6.46 per game, fourth-best in the league. In 2006 it was 6.50, sixth best. Last year it was even better -- 6.84 -- which would have ranked Lee sixth had he pitched enough innings to qualify.

Apart from that, a lot of things conspire against Lee's chances of maintaining what he's been up to. For one thing, he has stopped giving up home runs. He has allowed three so far, including two on Sunday. He used to be a lot more generous in this category, usually giving up a little more than one per start. Another thing that has been going his way is his BABIP. Lee's is currently at .244. Even with the American League collectively forgetting how to hit for the time being, that's pretty low. Only seven starting pitchers this decade have recorded a lower BABIP. Playing in Petco Park helped San Diego's Chris Young to a .230 count in 2006. The next lowest was the .237 by Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield in 2002 and .238 by Pedro Martinez in 2000. The former was one of the greatest fluke seasons ever, and the latter is one of the greatest seasons ever, period. If Lee can sustain his .244 average, he'll have one up on fate.

(D) Falling Down Hard
This seems unlikely. In fact, Lee probably will start catching more of a break on run support the way he did in 2005, when he rode a fairly unspectacular pitching performance to an 18-5 record on the backs of his hitting comrades. This way, when he stops being near perfect, his mates will pick up the slack, and he'll still keep winning.

Jim Baker is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a frequent contributor to Page 2. You can e-mail Jim at bottlebat@gmail.com.


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