Thursday, September 8, 2011

The numbers don't lie

In June and August, Cliff Lee has pitched better than anyone in baseball history.

What about the other three months of the year?

I admit I have seen no one else try to answer that question, because it's not a normal practice to search for flaws with the best team in baseball - particularly after Hunter Pence's arrival put the offense back on track.

However, I feel it's a very important question when it comes to the quest for a World Series title. No one would argue that the rotation of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt/Vance Worley is easily the most intimidating of any playoff-bound team in the last dozen years, but if those guys aren't pitching up to their reputations, the road to the top gets murkier.

Here is why I'm concerned about Lee:

June 6-28, Aug. 4-Sept. 6 - 11-0 0.30 ERA, 1 HR

April, May & July - 5-7, 4.22 ERA, 14 HR (the Phillies went 8-9 in those 17 starts by Lee)

I present the above evidence for anyone saying that Lee is deserving of the Cy Young Award. He definitely deserved it in 2008 because he dominated throughout the entire season. I find it much harder to back someone who is only great 40 percent of the time.

While Halladay and Hamels have been consistently effective all season (the run differential between each of their best and worst months is less than two), Lee has been incredibly streaky. This isn't uncommon for him, but the problem is when he's not pitching his best, he's barely an average pitcher, and the rust takes a while to shake off. Don't get me wrong, Lee has carried his weight overall this season, but if he takes another dip in the playoffs and another starter has a bad outing, things could go wrong very quickly.

We all remember how stellar Lee was in the 2009 postseason, when he almost single-handedly pitched us into the World Series. He finished 4-0 in five playoff starts with a 1.56 ERA. He picked up the only two wins in the series against the New York Yankees.

Lee began the 2010 postseason much the same way with the Texas Rangers. He won his first three starts, allowing just two runs and striking out 34 in 24 innings. The wheels came off in the World Series, however. He lost Games 1 & 5 and coughed up 10 runs to a San Francisco Giants team that had averaged just three runs per game over the first two rounds of the playoffs.

That begs the question, which Lee are we going to get in October this season? With a 10.5-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, we can afford a bad Lee over the next few weeks. That way, he can recover in time to pitch like he did two years ago.

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