Over the weekend, Bill Baer, who runs the Crashburn Alley Phillies blog, re-tweeted a bunch of messages from angry Philadelphia Phillies fans. Let's just say a certain percentage of Phillies fans have turned on Cliff Lee, who remains winless in 12 starts after giving up five runs in seven innings in Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Rays.
Bill's point was either (A) Showcase Phillies fans at their lowest common denominator, full of four-letter words and other vitriol; (B) or to show how fans will still focus on wins and losses and ignore a pitcher's overall production.
Bill followed up Monday with an in-depth look at Lee's pitching in 2012, complete with heat maps, hit charts and with excellent analysis. Bill wraps up his piece by writing, "Cliff Lee has been really, really good this year and it’s important that Phillies fans realize this in what has otherwise been a very disappointing season."
I'm going to disagree just a bit with Bill. Yes, Lee has pitched far better than his 0-4 record would indicate. Lee also has the 12th-best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) among starting pitchers at 3.01 and the fourth-best xFIP (FIP adjusted for home run rate on fly balls) at 2.90.
On the other hand, Lee's 3.72 ERA ranks just 45th among major league starters. Just like it's wrong to say that Lee has been bad because he's 0-4, I suggest it's wrong to say Lee has been great just because his FIP and xFIP are good. The pitcher's job, after all, is to prevent runs, not post a nice FIP. While those things usually go hand-in-hand, they don't always.
Sunday's start indicates that sometimes Lee's desire to not walk anybody can bite him. Brooks Conrad delivered the big hits on Sunday and there was nothing lucky about them. In the second inning, after Lee had walked Jeff Keppinger, and Ben Zobrist singled and Sean Rodriguez doubled to deep center, Conrad lined a 3-0 pitch down the left-field line for a two-run double. Sure, maybe Lee wasn't expecting the green light at 3-0, but the fact is he fell behind in the count. In the sixth, after Zobrist singled and Rodriguez walked with two outs, Conrad crushed 1-1 fastball down the middle off the scoreboard in right-center for another two-run double. They were two bad pitches, with Lee's usual pinpoint command, and Conrad made him pay.
Compared to last year, Lee hasn't had the same level of dominance. He pitched at least eight innings in 13 of his 32 starts; this year, he's done it just twice in 12 starts. Last year, he allowed a .261 average with runners in scoring position. This year, he's allowed a .320 average, including four home runs and seven doubles in 51 plate appearances. Is that bad luck or bad pitches at the wrong time?
Look, Lee is likely to post a lower ERA the rest of the season. He'll probably get better run support and reel off five or six wins a row at some point. But he's the third-highest paid starter in baseball this year and we hold him to a higher standard. He's been OK; I don't think he's been great.