Ho-LEE Cow: Cliff’s historic season warrants Hall talk

Posted by Kevin Durso

Philliedelphia/Kevin Durso

When Cliff Lee joined the Phillies in 2009, he was following up a Cy Young winning season. Sometimes, just that accolade is enough to throw your name into discussions for the ultimate award. Cliff Lee can’t even lay claim on the best pitcher on his own team let alone best pitcher in baseball. But, the spotlight on the mound serves many, so Lee is sometimes just as good or better than Roy Halladay. Just as good or better than Cole Hamels. And on some occasions, like June and August of the 2011 season, he is the best pitcher in baseball.

Lee’s June run started off simply enough. He blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers over seven innings in a 3-1 Phillies’ win. He allowed one run in eight innings in a 7-1 win over the Cubs. And from there, he pitched the last 27 innings of June for his starts, and didn’t allow a thing. 27 innings, 81
outs, no runs. Factor in those other two starts, and Lee allowed one run in 42 innings, out of a possible 45 innings pitched, which equates to a microscopic 0.21 ERA, going 5-0 along the way.

Months like that are rare, especially since pitching is a dying art in the game. So, when Lee started off on a tear in August, certainly he couldn’t do it again. Oh, but he did. He started off with another shutout, blanking the defending World Champs in a seven-hit gem. His next start against the Dodgers added to his legend this season. He shut out the Dodgers in a 2-1 Phillies’ win, pitching eight scoreless innings. He also provided the winning run on a solo blast, his second of the season. Lee surrendered a pair of runs on a second-inning home run against the D’Backs in his third August start, but would finish the game with five scoreless frames to go seven solid innings, and pick up another win. Lee lasted another seven innings against the Mets his next start, holding them to three hits in another shutout performance. Finally, on the final day of August, he finished off his excellent month with 8 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, coming one out short of his sixth personal shutout of the
season. His totals this month, not quite on the level as June, pitching only 39 2/3 innings, but allowing just two runs in that time, one more than in June. His record equaled that of June, 5-0, and he ended August with a 0.45 ERA in the month. It was his second month of the season with at least five wins and an ERA under 1, just the third pitcher to do it twice in the season, joining Hall
of Famers Bob Gibson (1968) and Walter Johnson (1913).

With company like that, both of the others being Hall of Famers, it’s hard to not ask the question: could Cliff Lee earn a Hall of Fame plaque. Like many, Lee would have to try to get a ring. His best chance will come now, while he’s in his prime and playing for a championship-caliber ballclub. But, more importantly, he has to have the numbers that stack up to some of the others. Mainly, you have to look at the numbers from a perspective that ranks generally among the greats. How close is Lee to 300 wins, and does he have the time to get in the neighborhood of 300? Is Lee on track for an ERA under 3? Will Lee ever approach 3,000 strikeouts? Here are some of the answers.

Lee is 33 years-old as of four days ago. His career totals are as follows: 117 wins, 68 losses, a 3.70 ERA, and 1,283 strikeouts. Lee’s numbers at this point in his career, even with three to five good seasons left in him, won’t put him anywhere near those numbers. Lee’s record this season, his first full year with the Phillies, is 15-7. Say Lee is on pace for 18 wins a season. Give him three more this season, to bring his total to 120. Then, add in 18 in the next four seasons, 72 total wins. That brings him to 192 wins. Lee could pitch five more seasons, and would have to average around 16 wins a
season, just to get to 200. 300 is a far cry for him. But, maybe the mark will not be 300, but 200. Part of that is a slow development. Lee made his Major League debut at age 23, but had only played 11 games by his third season in the Majors. Lee didn’t win more than 15 games in a season until 2005, his fourth season, and with his Cy Young season coming after seven years in the Majors,
Lee has since had something else affecting his totals. Lee’s 22-3 season is impressive, and established him as one of the game’s best. But, starting 2009 with Cleveland at a shaky 7-9, before being traded to the Phillies where he finished the season 7-4, before being traded to Seattle where he started 2010 at 8-3, before being traded to Texas where he finished the season 4-6. With so
much stress of change and travel, Lee may have never found his groove. In his first full season with the Phillies, Lee is 15-7, and working on his best season since 2008. Lee’s ERA is only 3.70 because of three seasons early in his career, all featured ERAs above four. Factor in his first two years of spot starts, and an injury-riddled year in 2007, and Lee has won 117 of his 249 games.

Lee might not make the Hall of Fame because his number won’t quite meet the standards that Hall inductees usually get. But, the more Lee adds his name to historic lists, the more those numbers don’t matter. It’s certainly a long shot, but anything seems to be possible with Lee.