With this week’s news that Cliff Lee will not be pitching in 2016, it seems a fair assumption that the 37-year-old left-hander’s career is over. Lee goes out with a whimper, not unlike fellow Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Hallady. The Arkansas native had one of the best six-year peaks in league history, and always seemed to deliver when the lights shone brightest. From 2008 to 2013, Lee was good for an average of 222 innings per season, with a 2.89 ERA. His dominance was ratcheted up in the postseason, and Lee heads out to pasture with a career 0.927 postseason WHIP.
Throughout his career, Lee was always known for his pinpoint control. He led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio three times, and is eighth all-time in the statistic. Lee’s 10.28 SO/BB ratio in 2012 is third on baseball’s all-time list. Simply put, when Lee was on, he could put the baseball wherever he wanted. He never had overwhelming stuff, but was still able to generate close to a strikeout per inning at the height of his powers. Spanning the end of the 2012 season and the beginning of the 2013 season, Lee went 170 batters without allowing a walk.
Having established that Cliff Lee That brings me to the most “Cliff Lee” game of Lee’s career.
On April 18, 2012, Lee took the mound against the San Francisco Giants. He would engage in a pitcher’s duel with Matt Cain, with both starters putting up matching zeroes. Cain left after nine innings, having allowed only two hits. Lee stuck around for the tenth inning, and would leave with the following line: 10 IP, seven hits allowed, no walks, seven strikeouts, and 81 strikes on 102 pitches. The Phillies would ultimately go on to lose the game 1-0 after Antonio Bastardo came in and allowed an unearned run in the bottom of the 11th inning. This game would also become emblematic of a weird 2012 season in which Lee would record only six wins despite finishing the year with a 3.16 ERA. His Phillies teammates provided him with only 3.5 runs of support per game.
This performance perfectly sums up Lee as a pitcher — a durable, strike-throwing machine who always kept his team in the game. He gave up his fair share of hits, mostly pitching to contact, but always found a way to scatter them around and induce weak contact. His career BABip of .300 is exactly what is predicted by almost every statistical model. Lee’s career .255 batting average against is hardly spectacular, but his opponents posted a paltry OPS of .693. He allowed only one extra-base hit in that start against the Giants. This game, simply put, was peak Cliff Lee — pounding the strike zone, scattering hits, and always keeping himself out of trouble by finding a way to get a timely groundball.
It was a joy to watch Cliff Lee pitch, crisp, repeatable delivery and all. The game never lagged when he took the ball. With a few more pitchers like Lee in the game, perhaps there would be no need for pace of play rule changes. It’s unfortunate that Lee never had the chance for a proper sendoff. The door is not fully closed on his career, but chances of him returning to pitch after nearly two-and-a-half years away from baseball are slim-to-none.
I’ll leave you with one more wondrous Cliff Lee line — from a game I enjoyed from the left-field bleachers at Citizens Bank Park. It came on June 16, 2012. Lee baffled the Florida Marlins on his way to a complete-game shutout (one of six he would throw that year), allowing two hits, while facing just two over the minimum. To top it all off, he chipped in two hits at the plate and an RBI double that would provide all the scoring Lee would need that day.
Join me in holding out hope that Lee can find his way back on the mound in the 2017 season for a proper sendoff.