I thought I had all but eschewed the writing of individual game recaps/stories/reflections in favor of more broad-scale analysis, but there's still something about those special moments -- you know, the walk-off wins and/or brilliant individual performances -- that hit me hard on a visceral level and compel me to do otherwise. Those are the moments that serve as jolting reminders that we need to sit back and enjoy the present, because you just don't know if the future will ever measure up. Those are the moments that deserve a little more love than the run-of-the-mill regular-season game.
And to the great surprise of nobody, Cliff Lee was again the focal point of such a game, spinning nine innings of one-run, zero-walk, 13-strikeout baseball -- and coming away with the no-decision for his troubles -- before Nelson Cruz launched his 10th-inning walk-off blast into the left field seats. It's more than enough to make me wish that I had reserved my one major shot at an extensive Lee-centric Pitch f/x analysis for this start rather than his eight-inning effort last Thursday (although that was interesting enough in its own unique way), but it's no real setback, as we can paint a sufficient picture of what rendered him successful last night in far less than 3,000 words.
With the caveat that the Athletics "boast" one of the five worst offenses (.317 wOBA) in the American League (and thus never had much of a chance to begin with), I think Lee's approach against Oakland's righty-heavy lineup is worth highlighting; the locations of each of the 100-plus fastballs Lee threw last night are plotted on the below charts, and you'll notice that only 12-14 such fastballs found the middle third of the plate, an area of the plate where hitters tend to feast. Aside from this ratio being below his recent career norm, Lee clearly placed a strong emphasis on attacking away, away and then away some more, with even the majority of the balls either being chased or just eluding the strike zone:
[Legend: Red dots are hits, blue dots are outs, yellow dots are swinging strikes or foul balls, green dots are swinging strikes outside of the strike zone, and white dots are taken pitches. Data courtesy of ESPN.com's Inside Edge scouting service.]
The second thing I wanted to point out is Lee's cutter, which I already touched upon in some detail last week but wanted to revisit. The amount of lateral break -- or right-to-left movement from the catcher's perspective -- that he produces with the cutter is relatively extreme and a significant factor in the pitch's effectiveness, but it proved especially dominant last night, as he managed to induce seven swinging strikes out of 34 total cutters thrown (good for a 20.6 percent swinging-strike rate against a season average of 8.2 percent with the cutter) and generated nine total outs, including three swinging strikeouts, two strikeouts looking and four garden-variety batted-ball outs. Brilliant.
In the last significant pre-July 31st deal in which the Rangers were a buyer, the principal piece -- in this case, Carlos Lee -- generated 0.7 wins above replacement during his two-month stint in Texas before departing in free agency and signing an ill-fated $100 million contract with Houston. Through his first four starts with the Rangers, Cliff Lee has already surpassed his C.L.-initialed predecessor by generating 0.9 wins above replacement. That isn't intended as a straight-up comparison of the two trades, as the Rangers relinquished far more talent in the latter deal than in the former, but I suspect even the most vehement naysayers of the Cliff Lee trade have to be ecstatic about the results to date. What a damn fun ride this is turning out to be.
[Incidentally, only 26 left-handed pitchers in major league history -- including Lee, as of last night -- have logged 13 or more strikeouts in a single start while not yielding a single free pass. Among those names: Randy Johnson (12 times!), Sandy Koufax, Vida Blue and Steve Carlton. The only other any-handed pitcher in Rangers franchise history to do so was Nolan Ryan, once in 1989 and once in 1990. Furthermore, there have only been 20 individual game starts in the last 20 years where the starting pitcher logged at least 88 strikes while throwing no more than 118 pitches. Cliff Lee has now accomplished that feat twice in the last 35 days, including last night. Think about that.]