In Praise of Cliff Lee
Back in late July, when the Philadelphia Phillies traded for Cliff Lee, I gave the deal a tepid endorsement. On its surface, for what the Phillies gave up relative to what they got back, the deal was "not bad," I wrote. Lee was bound to help them fill out a decent rotation.
But I lamented the fact the Phillies hadn't gone for the bigger deal -- Toronto's Roy Halladay. I even called Lee a "downgrade" (cringe) and "the lesser of two pitchers" (ouch). My position was this: The Phillies had a comfortable lead in the NL East at the time, so the acquisition of a starter was as much about the postseason as the regular season. Halladay, I thought at the time (and confirmed by talking to a couple of scouts about the deal), was simply a more dominant pitcher -- and dominant starting pitching is what wins in October.
"Who would you rather have on the mound?" I asked on July 29 -- Halladay or Lee?
Well, I'm here today to say I was dead wrong. And to answer the above question, I'd take Lee.
I'm a believer in Cliff Lee, after having seen him throw three, yes, dominant games this postseason -- none better than his eight-inning, no-run, no-walk, three-hit, 10-strikeout gem Sunday night in Game 3 of the NLCS. He is 2-0 with a no-decision. He has a 0.74 ERA. Opposing hitters are going .165/.193/.212. How dominant is that stat line? The average NL pitcher this season hit .138/.179/.176. In other words Lee facing the Rockies' and Dodgers' lineups this postseason has been roughly the equivalent of an average NL pitcher facing the opposing pitcher in every spot of the lineup.
Sunday night's performance was magnificent. And in my gamer, I didn't give it enough credit. I wrote that no Phillies pitcher had ever thrown a postseason game of at least eight innings while striking out at least 10, walking none and allowing three or fewer hits. That was all true, but I shouldn't have limited my search (on the fine "Play Index" at baseball-reference.com) to just the Phillies -- because as it turned out, no pitcher in history on any team has ever done it.
Here are the five pitchers to go 8+ innings with three or fewer baserunners and 10 or more strikeouts in a postseason game:
Nolan Ryan (Astros, 1986 NLCS): 9 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 12 K's
Mike Mussina (Orioles, 1997 ALCS): 8 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 10 K's
Roger Clemens (Yankees, 2000 ALCS): 9 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 15 K's
Josh Beckett (Marlins, 2003 NLCS): 9 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K's
Cliff Lee (Phillies, 2009 NLCS): 8 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K's
Cliff Lee is giving the Phillies better pitching than Roy Halladay could right now. Lee is the best pitcher in this postseason, period. And I know it's getting ahead of ourselves, but I can't help but relish the thought of a Lee/CC Sabatia matchup in Game 1 of the World Series.
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