This is part 2 of 5 of The Yankee U’s preview of the American League Championship Series. Part 1 examined C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis.
Game Three Starter: Cliff Lee
What can you say about Cliff Lee that hasn’t been said? I mean this sincerely, not as some dumb trick to provide a jumping-off point to discuss how great Lee is. He’s so good that digging up an angle on him, trying to say something new, rehashing how spectacular he is, comes across as repetitive and old. I find that he’s so good, his numbers so spectacular, that reciting them causes me to just glaze over. Maybe it’s different for you. Try. In 2010 he walked 0.76 batters per nine innings. He had a 1.003 WHIP. He had a strikeout to walk ratio of 10.28 K/BB ratio. This is at least three times better than what’s considered “very good” in baseball. The only way to describe his K/BB ratio is: historically good. He had a 2.58 FIP and a 3.23 xFIP. In the playoffs this year he’s thrown 16 innings. He won both games, of course, striking out 21 batters. He allowed two runs. He walked no one. Nobody. He’s good. I don’t know what else you want me to say. If Lee isn’t the best pitcher on the planet right now, he and Halladay are neck and neck. I like the way R.J. Anderson described Lee in his series wrapup post over at The Process Report:
“History is not kind to human beings supernatural tendencies. We – the human race – burned Joan of Arc on a stake, labeled and expunged many as witches, and even accused Jay Z’s flow of Illuminati roots. Allegations of extraordinary abilities lead to bad things. That’s why I’d like to accuse Cliff Lee of being the antichrist. Not really, but Lee’s abilities and performance in this series were almost biblical.”
Lee is a tough egg to crack if you’re scouting him. Sure, he had a reverse split in 2010, meaning that lefties hit him better than righties. Interesting, right? It was just noise. In 2009, righties hit him better. In 2008, it was nearly identical. The wider point, though, is that no one hits Cliff Lee well, not righties, not lefties, no one.
To lefties, Cliff Lee says this: “Here’s some hard stuff, see if you can hit it”. He leans heavily on his four-seam fastball (37%), his two-seam fastball (29%) fastball and his cutter (21%). Lefties see some variation on a fastball 87% of the time they’re at the plate. This is rather interesting. Of course, he tosses a curveball (5.6%), a slider (4.1%) and a changeup (2.5%) their way too, getting good whiff rates on the former two (11.1% and 15.2%).
Against righties, Cliff Lee says this: “I saw you watching me feed your lefties those fastballs, so I’ll switch things up on you. You’re welcome”. To righties, Lee throws his two-seamer a lot, registering a 47.3% usage rate, up from 29% against lefties. He complements this with the cutter, which moves in on the hands of righties (as opposed to the two-seamer, which cuts away), throwing it nearly 20% of the time. He throws his straight fastball only 14% of the time. This means that with righties Lee is relying more on his movement fastballs than he does against lefties. He also throws his changeup a lot more, showing it 11.5% of the time to righties. It’s a very effective pitch, and he registers a 17.2% whiff rate. Equally effective is his deathly good curveball, which he flashes 6.5% of the time, getting whiffs on 16.8% of them. This curveball was working on Tuesday night against Tampa, and it was untouchable.
Consider this a “The More You Know” moment, one that enables us to appreciate his technique, his good form, his artistry in the way he’ll go about murdering us. We are now informed victims; at least we’ll appreciate it. Sadly, there are very few holes in the armor of Clifton Phifer. But there is one.
Lee doesn’t hand out walks, so don’t expect the free pass. He also doesn’t give up many extra-base hits. It’s hard to work his pitch count up, too. He averages 3.54 pitches per plate appearance, the 4th lowest in MLB amongst qualified starters. He averaged 14.0 pitches per inning, which is the lowest in all of baseball. But if the opposing hitters eat some magic beans before the game and are suddenly infused with the ability to hack away at Lee’s offerings, maybe fouling off the fastballs and running up his pitch count, there is a tiny sliver of hope. As Lee progresses in an outing, particularly once he passes 100 pitches and beyond, he becomes more hittable. In his first 25 pitches, batters OPS .582 against him. In the next 25 pitches, that number jumps to .621, but it falls back to .571 in the next 25. So, for the first 75 pitches he’s roughly the same pitcher, averaging around a .590 OPS. After 75 pitches that number jumps to .640, and once he passes the century mark batters OPS .796 against him. Of course, there have only been 64 plate appearances against Lee in 2010 once he passes 100 pitches, a testament to his efficiency. But if the Yankees take their grind-it-out approach to Lee and work up his pitch count they may be able to score some late inning runs against him. And if Andy Pettitte can hold the Rangers to two runs or less, maybe the Yankees pull this one out. It worked once. Maybe it will work again.
Game Four starter: Tommy Hunter
Matt Klaassen described Tommy Hunter perfectly in his 2010 ALDS playoff rotation preview:
[Hunter is] basically the Rangers’ version of Nick Blackburn. I guess Hunter strikes out a few more hitters than Blackburn, but he also walks more and gives up more fly balls. Basically, he’s an acceptable back-of-the-rotation starter during the regular season who a team really shouldn’t want to count on during the postseason.
If one only examined his most elementary of stats, his Win-Loss record and his ERA, one might be led to the false conclusion that Tommy Hunter is a good pitcher. After all, a 13-4 record and a 3.73 ERA over a mere 128 innings is impressive, no? No. There’s a lot to dislike about Hunter.
His strikeout rate in 2010 is an abysmal 4.8 per 9. He does complement that with a moderately good walk rate of 2.3 BB/9, leaving him with a 2.06 K/BB ratio, yet all of his advanced stats suggest his 3.73 ERA is misleading. His FIP is 4.99, and his xFIP is 4.76. As is no surprise, he’s gotten some good fortune on balls in play with a BABIP of .264, and his strand rate of 80.7% is also fortuitous. His tERA is 5.14, and his SIERA is 4.78. All the stats but W-L and ERA hate Tommy Hunter, and I’m going with them.
Hunter is primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher. He has a show-me changeup and slider, but he uses them infrequently (a combined 8% in 2010). He’ll occasionally throw a two-seam fastball, especially to left-handed hitters, and likes to throw a cut fastball in on righties. Hunter works primarily around 90 mph. He doesn’t have the velocity to blow it by hitters, so he’s more of a pitch to contact kind of guy. He also is somewhat of a fly-ball pitcher, a dangerous proposition in Yankee Stadium. Tommy Hunter is the kind of guy the Yankees chew up and spit out, and he sounds a lot like the pitchers I was talking about just last week:
In Pavano, Duensing and Blackburn the Twins have three guys who are in many ways the polar opposite of Francisco Liriano. They don’t throw particularly hard and they don’t strike many guys out. Like Liriano, they’re good at limiting the free passes, but they all pitch to contact and rely on the Twins’ overall solid defense to convert the balls in play into outs. As good as these pitchers have been, though, one has to wonder if the pitch to contact strategy could come back to bite them in a short series. If the Yankees are able to have patient at-bats and get free passes, they may be able to put up runs in a hurry. And if the Yankees start the series by beating Francisco Liriano, the Twins may find it getting late early again this postseason.
We’ve seen pitch to contact pitchers without strikeout stuff and the tendency to give up a lot of fly balls face the Yankees. We’ve seen guys with good fortune on balls in play find their lucky run come to a screeching halt. We’ve seen this show before, and we liked the way it ended. Here’s hoping for more of the same.