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“Lee-gitimate” Dominance

Posted By Christopher Rowe On Sep 6 2011 @ 11:41 am In Philadelphia Phillies | 3 Comments

Sometimes when you have four aces individual performances tend to be overshadowed by the overall team. Roy Halladay (16-5, 2.49 ERA) is gunning for his second straight NL Cy Young Award in as many years while teammate Cole Hamels (13-7, 2.63 ERA) is making his own argument for the award. Cliff Lee (16-7, 2.47) pitched shutout No. 6 last night — just five days after falling one out short of accomplishing that goal.

If dominance is the influence or control of one entity over another then Cliff Lee has proven his worth as a dominant pitcher for the most successful team in the major leagues. The Phillies have stormed their way to 89 wins in 130 games – this time with a convincing 9-0 drubbing of the wildcard-leading Atlanta Braves.

Lee has now won his last seven straight starts, posting an ERA of 0.96 during that span. He’s currently on a stretch of 29.2 straight scoreless innings — which is amazingly 4.1 innings shy of his longest stretch this season. During his last six outings, Lee has allowed just two earned runs, posting a 0.37 ERA. Only two other Phillies pitchers have ever had that good of a six-start stretch — Steve Carlton in 1972 and Grover Alexander in 1915. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

Among all National League teams, there are only two that have more than two complete-game shutouts on their staff this season — the Pirates and Cardinals. Cliff Lee alone has six. In fact, you have to go back to 2005 to find any N.L. team that had more shutouts in a season than Lee has tallied by himself this year.

Of course, to really understand how tough it is to throw a complete-game shutout, keep this in mind: The Phillies only have six as a staff — all from Lee (who has topped 200 K for the first time in his career). Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley have all pitched very well this year (over 491 IP combined) but Lee remains the only one to finish up nine innings without allowing a run. Lee is the only Phillies starter over the 200 strikeout mark. Hamels (169) and Halladay (192) are likely to reach it by season’s end.

The Phillies (as a team) now have 20 shutouts this season — three more than anyone else in baseball. To put that in perspective, that means their staff has held the opposition scoreless in one out of every seven games this year. At that rate, they’d finish with 24 team shutouts — which would tie them with the 1992 Braves for the most by any team in the last 20 years.

In the last 25 years, the list of pitchers who have thrown six shutouts in a season is very short:

Cliff Lee, 2011 (season is not over yet)
Randy Johnson, 1998
Tim Belcher, 1989
Roger Clemens, 1988
Orel Hershiser, 1988
Danny Jackson, 1988
Tim Leary, 1988
Roger Clemens, 1986
Jack Morris, 1986

Of that 9, however, only two won a Cy Young Award — Hershiser in ’88 and Clemens in ’86. Randy Johnson almost certainly would have won it in ’98 except that his greatness was split between two leagues as he came over to NL in midseason.

Tim Belcher, the last NL pitcher to throw six shutouts in a season, finished sixth on the Cy Young ballot — with San Diego closer Mark Davis winning the 1989 award in what now looks like an odd vote. Orel Hershiser finished 13-13 with a 2.31 ERA that season to rank fourth. Pitcher wins. Until recently, this was a very heavily weighted stat for Cy Young consideration (now ERA, WHIP, IP and of course WAR). Shutouts probably should factor in but it seems odd to even have to suggest that. Great pitchers don’t always rack up a lot of shutouts. It’s a nice stat, but the difference between say, Lee’s outing in Cincinnati of 8-2/3 scoreless or his nine shutout innings last night is negligible – save that one third of an inning which delineates the two.

Perhaps Lee’s dominance can be summed up a different way. In the past 25 years, no pitcher in baseball has gone at least seven innings without allowing a run in more starts than Cliff Lee has this year. Oh, and he still has four more starts to go this season. Think about the great pitchers who have taken the mound since 1986 — Clemens, Halladay, Maddux, Johnson, Oswalt, Glavine, Smoltz, Schilling.

None of them have had a year like Lee is having this year. Lee has started 28 games this year, and 11 times he’s pitched at least seven innings without allowing a run. That’s four out of every ten starts – or 39% of the time. That’s utterly amazing.

Go back 50 years and the list only further underscores Lee’s dominance. In 50 years of baseball, only 11 men have managed at least 10 games of seven or more shutout innings in one season.

1. Bob Gibson, 1968 — 13 games of 7+ shutout innings
2. Dean Chance, 1964 — 12 games
3. Cliff Lee, 2011 — 11 games
John Tudor, 1985 — 11 games
Dwight Gooden, 1985 — 11 games
Sandy Koufax, 1963 — 11 games
7. Don Sutton, 1972 — 10 games
Jim Palmer, 1975 — 10 games
Denny McClain, 1969 — 10 games
Juan Marichal, 1965 — 10 games
Joe Horlen, 1967 — 10 games

Five of them are in the Hall of Fame. Two others — Chance and Gooden — certainly looked like they would be headed for Cooperstown by their late 20s. Another, McClain, is the last 30-game winner baseball has ever or possibly will ever see. Those numbers aren’t simply a fluke. It’s legitimate dominance.

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