One of the less desirable consequences of this daily baseball-writing grind is that I usually find myself more emotionally detached from the individual pitches, at-bats and games than I'd like to be. I often wish that wasn't the case, but it's the nature of the "business" -- not that what we do here is a business, mind you, but you get my drift. There are days when only my unbridled passion for baseball, and that passion alone, keeps me writing. If I quit writing tomorrow, there's no question that I'd find myself more emotionally involved in the ebbs and flows of the beautiful game again.
I'm telling you all of this because it makes what happened last night all the more remarkable, at least from a personal standpoint -- frankly, I haven't been that tense or anxious about the outcome of a baseball game in a very long time, and even more frankly, I haven't been that invigorated by the energy of a home crowd since perhaps 2004. There were definite playoff vibes in the house that Tom Vandergriff built, vibes with which we're still not all that familiar, and to a large degree, they originated from the efforts of the pitcher whom the Rangers are supposed to ride all the way into early October and beyond -- Cliff Lee. This is the story of his performance.
Below is an exhaustive pitch-by-pitch dissection of Lee's 8.1-inning, 99-pitch effort, which utilizes a slightly modified version of the pitch-recording system popularized by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus:
Basically, each notation has three pieces on information: TYPE-VELO-RESULT. Under Type, FB is fastball, CU is curveball, CH is changeup; FC is cutter; Velo is simple enough. Under Result, 'b' stands for ball, 's' for swinging strike, 'c' is a called strike, 'f' a foul ball, and 'x' is a ball in play. So, an 85 mph cutter taken for a strike is FC-85.0-c.
Included after every pitch is a parentheses-encased number -- or a question mark, in the event that it couldn't be recorded -- signifying its Pitch f/x-derived "nasty factor," which, according to MLBAM, evaluates several properties of each pitch (including its velocity, sequence, location and movement) and rates the "nastiness" of the pitch on a 1-100 scale. For the sake of context, the average Nasty Factor appears to reside in the low- to mid-40s; for Lee last night, it was a hair above 45.
All that said, the "nasty factor" seems to correlate most significantly with pitch location, as evidenced by work done on the matter by Pitch f/x guru Dave Allen; in general, pitches at or near the corners of the strike zone are going to generate the highest numbers, whereas pitches well out of the strike zone or near the heart of the plate will produce lower numbers. This isn't a perfect proxy for good pitch location, of course, but if you see a strike with a sub-30 NF, you can be pretty certain that it found the heart of the plate ... and, conversely, pitches with 50-and-up NFs are going to be right on the margins of the strike zone and, generally speaking, more difficult to make quality contact with:
SS Erick Aybar: FB-90.7-c (?), FB-90.8-x (?) [ground out]
2B Howie Kendrick: FB-90.8-b (59), FB-90.8-b (52), FB-90.2-f (50), FB-90.7-f (48), FB-91.3-x (56) [fly out]
RF Bobby Abreu: FB-90.9-b (45), FC-85.4-b (38), FB-90.7-b (35), FB-89.6-c (35), FB-89.5-x (39) [fly out]
Notes: Lee made a clear and emphatic statement in his first Arlington-located inning since making his Rangers debut nearly a fortnight prior, but perhaps not so much in his execution as in his game plan. After easily disposing of Aybar, Lee attacked both Kendrick and Abreu with a steady diet of outside fastballs and cutters, ultimately smashing Kendrick with a 2-2 fastball inside -- inducing a weak fly out -- and barely recovering from a three-ball scare against Abreu when the ensuing drive to left-center field was run down by Julio Borbon just in the nick of time. A somewhat wobbly inning to begin the evening, but good enough against a not-very-good Angels lineup.
CF Torii Hunter: FB-90.9-c (55), FC-85.0-f (45), FB-90.3-c (42) (strikeout looking)
1B Mike Napoli: FB-90.4-c (56), CH-84.5-x (45) [single]
DH Hideki Matsui: FB-90.0-b (49), FB-90.1-b (40), FB-89.6-c (43), FB-90.4-f (45), FB-91.5-b (43), FB-90.9-x (49) [fly out]
LF Juan Rivera: FB-90.5-b (52), FB-91.0-b (66), FB-90.6-b (52), FB-89.5-x (60) [line out]
Notes: The looking punch-out of Hunter was interesting in several respects; he was chewed up by the inside cutter and struck out moments later by a routine fastball, but I'd really like to focus on the cutter. Left-handed cutters are rare enough as it is, but according to research conducted by Dave Allen last year, cutters with more than two or so inches of horizontal break away from the pitching hand -- such as this one did -- are quite effective against both left- and right-handed hitters. Granted, this conclusion was drawn from a sample comprising solely right-handed cutters, but it makes sense intuitively that the same would hold true for left-handed cutters as well.
Napoli quickly snuffed out any aspirations of a no-hit bid by poking a down-and-away change-up into center field, but Lee maintained the "pound 'em away" philosophy against both Matsui and Rivera, with any balls amassed in those plate appearances being just barely off the plate and the final strikes producing satisfactory results. This was the first time I explicitly mentioned in my notes that Lee was "hitting his spots," or consistently putting it right on Bengie Molina's glove. The up-and-away fastball thrown to Rivera on 3-0 could have proven dangerous if he had taken it the opposite way, but the ensuing line out hung up in the air long enough for Borbon to make the play.
3B Maicer Izturis: FB-90.1-c (59), FC-85.5-x (?) [ground out]
C Jeff Mathis: FB-90.5-s (60), FB-90.3-b (42), FC-85.6-f (45), FB-91.1-b (25), FB-91.1-f (59), FB-90.6-s (?) [strikeout swinging]
SS Erick Aybar: FB-90.1-x (55) [pop out]
Notes: Izturis was eaten alive by another up-and-in cutter, whereas Mathis found himself perplexed by the first real instance of widely varied pitch locations; Lee worked away, down, in and up before disposing of Mathis with a 2-2 fastball well above the strike zone, inducing a weak check-swinging strike. Aybar became the third and final victim of Lee pitching up in the zone in this frame, popping an up-and-in fastball behind home plate to complete a nine-pitch frame.
2B Howie Kendrick: FC-85.0-c (36), FB-90.2-b (68), FB-90.1-f (59), FB-91.6-x (31) [fly out]
RF Bobby Abreu: FB-89.6-c (47), CU-77.6-b (46), FB-91.0-b (62), FB-89.8-b (54), FB-89.4-x (33) [ground out]
CF Torii Hunter: FB-91.7-c (41), FB-92.0-f (43), FB-91.7-b (36), FC-85.3-s (53) [strikeout swinging]
Notes: Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force by the name of Richard Gillett explained, after a series of fortuitous events, that "it's better to be lucky than good." One gets the sense that Lee took this famous maxim a bit too literally in the fourth inning. After Kendrick walloped a 1-1 fastball that barely curled around the right field foul pole, Lee missed badly with a 1-2 fastball that was intended to be buried down and away. This pitch, arguably the first truly bad pitch thrown by Lee all night in that it was thrown right down the heart of the plate, was blasted to right field and only precluded from extra-base hit status by Nelson Cruz's fine running catch up against the wall.
Lee's flirtations with danger were not over, as his command again broke down against Abreu and culminated in another fastball being hung up and down the heart of the plate; only Ian Kinsler's diving snag-and-throw at second base prevented a base hit. Hunter became Lee's third strikeout victim of the night after backing himself into a 1-2 corner and being finished off with another up-and-in cutter.
1B Mike Napoli: FB-90.5-c (52), FB-89.5-b (71), FC-83.8-x (50) [pop out]
DH Hideki Matsui: FB-89.4-c (24), FB-90.2-c (54), CU-78.6-b (6), FC-85.9-f (22), FB-90.6-f (55), CU-75.7-b (29), FB-91.0-x (59) [double]
LF Juan Rivera: FB-88.6-b (71), FB-89.7-x (65) [fly out]
3B Maicer Izturis: FB-92.1-x (45) [double]
C Jeff Mathis: FC-83.8-c (26), FB-90.6-f (66), FB-90.3-b (21), CU-73.6-s (7) [strikeout swinging]
Notes: After chewing up yet another hitter (Napoli) with the up-and-in cutter, Lee went almost exclusively away against Matsui ... and finally paid for it, with a 2-2 fastball right on the up-and-away corner of the strike zone being blasted into the left-center field gap. Izturis ripped a fastball that was above the strike zone -- yet down the middle of the plate -- off the tip of Josh Hamilton's glove for the Angels' second double of the inning, knotting the game at 1-1. Mathis could have expanded the lead when Lee threw a terrible first-pitch cutter over the middle of the plate, but kept the bat on his shoulder and soon thereafter swung through a curveball that, yet again, caught too much of the plate. Am I getting redundant yet?
SS Erick Aybar: FB-89.1-f (58), FB-90.0-x (45) [single]
2B Howie Kendrick: FB-88.6-b (16), FB-89.2-f (61), FC-85.9-c (29), CU-74.1-b (33), CH-84.8-x (21) [force out]
RF Bobby Abreu: FB-89.9-c (55), FB-90.3-c (51), FC-85.7-x (?) [fly out]
CF Torii Hunter: FC-86.4-b (51), FB-90.1-x (26) [line out]
Notes: This inning might serve as an example of the consequences of extreme aversion to throwing balls. Three of the four pitches hit in this inning were hit relatively hard, and not surprisingly, all three of those pitches caught entirely too much of the middle of the plate. Now that I've committed the scandalous act of criticizing Lee's command, allow me to mix things up a bit with a statement I don't make too often, if ever: Michael Young's defense here was exceptional.
I've issued my fair share of disparaging remarks about Young's lateral range and such in the not-so-distant past, but he ranged nicely to his right and made a strong, accurate throw to complete the 5-4 force out, then successfully fell to his left and snared a rocket off Torii Hunter's bat in one fluid motion. A splendid defensive inning from a player who has taken a lot of heat for his deficiencies in that regard.
1B Mike Napoli: FB-89.8-f (55), FC-84.9-x (20) [home run]
DH Hideki Matsui: FB-89.4-c (45), FB-90.7-c (65), CU-74.3-x (26) [ground out]
LF Juan Rivera: FC-84.7-c (48), CH-84.1-x (22) [pop out]
3B Maicer Izturis: FB-91.3-c (49), CU-73.8-b (52), CH-84.4-x (42) [pop out]
Notes: That 20-grade "Nasty Factor" pretty well sums up his location on the 0-1 cutter to Napoli. Talk about a no-doubt homer. Another up-in-the-zone pitch to Matsui nearly produced another hit, but Lee managed to snag the grounder before it snuck into center field. Neither of the out-inducing change-ups were well-located, but then nobody ever said that Lee was going to be a heavy grounder-inducing pitcher. He has a tendency to work up in the zone, largely owing to the rising action of the fastballs and change-ups which represented 92 of the 99 pitches he threw last night, and it works out well enough when his command is functioning at optimal levels. When it's not, you're going to deal with a litany of near-misses and such. It happens.
PH Kevin Frandsen: FB-91.2-b (52), FB-90.3-x (52) [ground out]
SS Erick Aybar: FC-84.5-b (26), FC-84.0-b (18), FB-89.6-c (62), FC-84.7-b (32), FB-90.0-c (42), FB-91.5-f (64), FB-91.2-x (50) [fly out]
2B Howie Kendrick: FC-85.8-x (34) [ground out]
Notes: Still clinging to a 3-2 lead, Lee nailed down his first 1-2-3 frame since the fourth inning. Not very much to see here, although it's worth noting that Lee managed to hold his typical 91-92 mph velocity beyond the 90-pitch mark. Mind you, this hasn't been cited as a concern with Lee at any point in his career (or at least as far back as I can recall), but self-witnessed assurances are always a good thing.
RF Bobby Abreu: FB-89.8-x (36) [fly out]
Notes: There was a short but frenzied discussion in last night's chat about whether the Rangers should stick with Lee throughout the ninth inning or summon closer Neftali Feliz, and after waffling for a few minutes on the issue, I decided that I was fine with whatever decision Mike Maddux and Ron Washington elected to render. Lee's one of the best pitchers in baseball, and had still yet to breach the 100-pitch mark when Washington conferred with Lee and the rest of the infield after the Abreu at-bat, and Feliz has certainly not been infallible lately ... but Lee's elite-level command wasn't there last night, it was hot in Arlington, and two right-handed batters were coming up.
In retrospect, that was one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't"-type situations; that is, if the Rangers had stuck with Lee and he had sacrificed the lead, a great deal of second-guessing would have ensued (particularly after Lee came within one out of winning in Fenway Park last Saturday). Conversely, if they had gone with Feliz and he had blown it, the "you can't take your ace out of the game" argument would have been employed and the parties responsible for the decision summarily called out. I'm exaggerating a little here for dramatic effect, but you know I'm not far away from the truth. We're just fortunate that things didn't have a chance to reach that point.
Final Pitching Line: 99 pitches (68 strikes, four swinging strikes), 8.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, ground-to-fly ball ratio of 7-to-15
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SYNOPSIS AND MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS
Before I say what else I have to say about Lee, first consider what he had to say to ESPNDallas.com's Richard Durrett regarding his effort: "I had to battle a little more tonight, to be honest with you. My location wasn't as good as it was in Boston. I felt like I was locating fastballs really well the other night in Boston, and that's the reason I threw so many fastballs. Tonight, I had to mix it up a little bit more. I found myself behind in the count a few more times and was able to get some outs. I threw more balls than I would have liked to, but it was a game I had to battle and make some pitches when I was behind in the count."
Here's the awesome reality of Cliff Lee -- even when pitching at merely 85-90 percent of his full effectiveness (the level at which I think most people will agree he pitched at last night), Lee is still better than around 85-90 percent of the starting pitchers in the league. Perhaps a better lineup on a slightly windier night would have punished his mistake pitches, and I'm certainly not going to refute the notion that there was a significant element of luck in his performance, but we're still talking about a pitcher who performed quite well holistically and bought another valuable day of rest for the Rangers' treasured relief corps. He could have been better, but no pitcher is dominant 100 percent of the time.
With the Rangers' ownership situation seemingly (hopefully?) rolling towards resolution on August 4th, there's assuredly going to be some debate as to whether the Rangers should be the team that swallows hard and tenders a seven-year, $140 million contract -- or thereabouts -- after the season in a presumed attempt to fend off the Yankees. It sounds very nice in the abstract, but even if Lee is of the elite-level persuasion, would you really feel good about his chances of maintaining his current level of performance and remaining healthy all the way into his late-30s?
Lee's a dominant pitcher right now, to be certain, and pitchers whose success relies heavily on rock-bottom walk rates seem to have a tendency to retain that skill very late into their careers, but I'm always very leery of throwing huge money at any pitcher, simply because it generally seems like a great way to end up with an albatross of a contract on your hands 4-5 years down the line, if not sooner. And if re-signing Lee to a monstrosity of a deal isn't a good idea, but the Rangers miss the playoffs and there's a post-defeat mindset that Texas must then retain Lee to justify the original trade, well, that's flawed logic. You don't exacerbate a failure with another potential mistake.