Around this time one year ago, the "hot" topics -- what a delightfully relative term -- of localized baseball discussion were the defection of Rudy Jaramillo to the Cubs, the Rangers' Arizona Fall League contingent, talk of team ownership changing hands before New Year's Day (hah), and the Rangers' tardiness in issuing post-season ticket refunds. Today, it's Cliff Lee vs. Andy Pettitte, in a Yankee Stadium playoff rematch that's been more than a decade in the making. Continue to embrace this very special moment in time, because October 18th isn't always going to be this meaningful to us in a baseball context.
Rather than beating you over the head with more trite hyperbole about how Lee is an unflappable big-game pitcher and so on and so forth (although I did find this column on his personal history to be refreshingly insightful), I'm going to fire three quick bullet points at you that probably haven't been crammed down your throat just yet, and then see where that ends up taking us:
● I wouldn't exactly call myself an adherent of Bill James' Game Score -- the underlying formula smacks of arbitrariness and appears downright esoteric on its surface, and is also tilted towards the modern-era pitcher due to its heavy reliance on strikeouts. Those criticisms aside, it does have some utility as a quick-and-dirty reference point for the quality of a pitcher's single start, and some tinkering with the Play Index database reveals the following: of the 2,560 individual post-season starts in major league history, only 379 have had Game Scores of 73 or better, of which five belong to Cliff Lee. Only eight other pitchers have amassed five such 73-or-greater Game Score playoff starts, and only three pitchers -- Curt Schilling, Bob Gibson, and Christy Mathewson -- have more than five. Lee could join that club as early as tonight.
● The Wall Street Journal's Mike Sielski chronicles the odyssey of Lee's cut fastball, a pitch which I touched upon in passing five days ago and still harbor an intense fascination towards -- primarily because an effective cutter not only has the ability to help equalize a pitcher's platoon split, but also possesses some power-suppressing abilities. Pettitte, who will serve as Lee's Game 3 adversary, has preemptively termed Lee's cutter "devastating," and while I'm not entirely certain that the regular-season numbers support that statement, the post-season numbers do: of the 51 cutters Lee has thrown this month, 41 (80.4 percent; MLB average is 68.3 percent) have been strikes, and 10 have been swinging strikes (19.6 percent; MLB average is 8.79 percent). Just filthy.
● And referencing Lee's regular-season numbers yet again, this seems an opportune moment to point out that of the 497 qualifying post-integration (1947-present) starting pitchers who stuck it out in the majors through their age 29-31 seasons, Lee's total wins above replacement in his age 29-31 seasons registers at 16.6 WAR -- a mark just inside the top 15 and a few ticks higher than those of both Curt Schilling (16.3 WAR) and Roger Clemens (16.0 WAR). The bulk of the pitchers above Lee on that list logged no fewer than 750-800 innings in their three qualifying seasons; Lee logged only 667 innings. If one were to use FanGraphs' FIP-based version of wins above replacement instead of Baseball Reference's version (which places a far greater emphasis on actual runs allowed), Lee might well vault into the top five.
That Lee's an established monster in whatever setting -- regular season, post-season, you name it -- is an absolute certainty. And the prospect of Lee posting another 2-3 starts of this caliber has started me thinking about something: if Lee singlehandedly pitches the Rangers into the World Series with, say, excellent Game 3 and Game 7 starts, and further cements his legend and fan base throughout a baseball-crazed Metroplex, just how difficult does it become for the Rangers to justify not bringing back Lee to their fans? It's undoubtedly one thing if the Yankees throw down $150-160 million for Lee (which is too rich even for my Lee-adoring blood), but with the Rangers awash in revenues and coming off their greatest season, I get the sense that there's going to be a prevailing urge to see the top-performing pitcher (arguably) in franchise history retained ... even if it takes going all out at the six-year mark and eschewing good fiscal sense.
Note that I'm not necessarily advocating that the Rangers give Lee, say, $135 million. I know I'm more comfortable than I was previously with going above and beyond the constraints of a five-year deal, but I'm not yet clear on where I stand beyond that. I also know that a Lee-bereft 2011 rotation with some regression factored in will probably be a letdown, and that Texas needs a dependable/quality arm of some sort to ensure continued divisional favorite status; nobody wants this team to be a one-year wonder, particularly after finally learning what winning baseball feels like. And, internally, I'm grappling with the age-old risk vs. reward question, and trying to remind myself just how dangerous nine-digit contracts for pitchers really are. The trouble is that I'm not getting very far.
Maybe this isn't the time or the place for this discussion. Hell, I know it isn't. But I'm watching the minutes tick down towards the 7:00 p.m. hour, and envisioning another dominant, Lee-perpetrated assault on the Yankees, and realizing just how much I want the Rangers to be in this position every single year, and wondering how on earth that can be possible without Lee in the fold. That's something we can all wonder about in good conscience without diverting our gaze from the immediate task at hand.