Cliff Lee entered this baseball offseason as one of the biggest free-agent pitching attractions in recent memory.
He’s been most popular in his role as the “trade deadline acquisition that will put our team over the top” player. Lee has played up to his standing as, arguably, the most dominant hurler in the game – particularly during key (postseason) contests.
For those who didn’t catch the news, Lee agreed to a 5-year, $120 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
One who is not knowledgeable about baseball might think that Lee did the noble thing by not joining the New York Yankees who, along with the Texas Rangers, were grabbing headlines as the most viable teams to potentially sign the lefty. Yes, that unknowledgeable one would be fooled indeed, because in reality, the Phillies are the best ‘paper’ team in the majors.
So, why isn’t the public up in arms about Lee’s ‘decision’ like it was regarding a certain young basketball player from Akron, Ohio?
That’s easy, right? Lee didn’t go on television to announce his decision on a grand stage, appearing as if he were royalty and breaking the hearts of Cavaliers fans worldwide. But let’s remove that portion of James’ poorly executed campaign, and focus on the other thorn in everyone’s side – the fact that he was joining with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “loaded team.”
LeBron came out and publicly told us that the reason for his decision was that he wanted to win championships. Fans, and even former players, ripped James for his honesty, claiming that he was “taking the easy way out”. Surely, fans wanted James to continue to toil on a nightly basis to attempt to bring the Cavaliers’ franchise a title. While success would have proven to be the icing on the cake, James would have been considered heroic even if he wasn’t successful in such a quest. The public would have acknowledged his diligence more than his results.
But instead James chose to join with a team that housed two perennial All-Stars, and he seemed to be unashamed about it. Immediately, he was showered with a villainous role in the NBA – one that he has seemed to embrace.
Now, back to Lee. Much like James, Lee decided to forego some money to become a part of a franchise that has won its division each of the last four seasons, including two National League pennants in the process. His new team featured three .300 batters last season, of which none of them were habitual clutch-hitting All-Stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins. Philly was also the seventh-best fielding team in the majors last year. But what truly sets the Phillies apart from the rest of the pack is their pitching.
Philadelphia had the most regular season wins in 2010, and that can be directly traced to the top-notch starting rotation that was in place. Roy Halladay (21 wins, 2.44 ERA), Roy Oswalt (2.76 ERA) and Cole Hamels (3.06 ERA) represent pitching upper fraternity. They combined to log over 670 innings last year, yielding a 6.8 inning-average length of start. Each pitcher has had experience being the ace of his own rotation, but they have united in Philadelphia via trades. And now Lee joins them – not by trade, but by choice.
But does baseball differ from basketball in the impact that one player can make? In some ways, yes. However, the most telling statistic regarding Lee’s decision to join the Phillies is the staff members’ value to the team based on their individual wins above replacement, or WAR. This sabremetric measures a player’s worth by calculating the additional number of team wins he would provide compared to an average player at his position. Consider the WAR values for these current Philadelphia starting pitchers:Roy Halladay – 6.6 Roy Oswalt – 4.7 Cole Hamels – 3.8
Add to them Cliff Lee’s 7.1 WAR rating, and these four guys form a rotation that can account for 22 more victories than if they had been replaced by regular, run-of-the-mill starters. That’s right – 22 games. That was the exact difference between the wildcard-clinching Atlanta Braves and the last place Nationals in the National League East.
For anyone who thinks that the existing Philadelphia rotation was not a factor has to be kidding. But Lee won’t get booed whenever he takes the mound in Arlington, and he won’t hear old-timers like Nolan Ryan or Steve Carlton claiming that they would have never teamed up with one another. Everyone knows how good Philly’s existing rotation was in 2010, but now it could get downright frightening.
But the ridicule and torment that hounded James – and his desire to play alongside established superstars - will not even make an appearance in Lee’s neighborhood.
And that lack of consistency, my friends, is certainly the most frightening piece of it all.