It could be because he shares a birthday with Ted Williams (and with yours truly) but I am in awe of Cliff Lee. While every pitcher is unique, Lee's differences between his pitching brethern seems more distinctive than those of his colleagues. He has mastered the craft of pitching through pinpoint control, great stuff, and pitching savvy. But instead of comparing him to Halladay, Lincecum, Weaver or Verlander, I want to show you the difference between the Texas Rangers' Cliff Lee in August, 2010 and the Phillies' Cliff Lee in August, 2011.
Perhaps it was the pressure of joining a first-place team via trade with the thought that his arrival would lead them to the Promised Land, but Lee was not himself last August. And his record showed it. Lee finished his first month in the Texas heat with a 1-4 record and a 6.35 ERA.
As you can see, Lee was throwing his 739 pitches in the strike zone, but his 70% strike rate was probably too much. What was definitely too much was his reliance on his fastball, which he threw 63.4% of the time. Batters hit .288 against the fastball and slammed four homers. If you include his cutter amongst the hard pitches he threw, batters hit .320 against him with five homers.
Most all of those pitches were across the middle of the plate.
But Lee was where he wanted to be last month. In the pitching environment of the Philadelphia Phillies, away from the Texas heat and New York glare, Lee has proven to be himself...and that is an outstanding pitcher. This August, Lee was 5-0 with a microscopic 0.45 ERA. He gave up just two runs in 39.2 innings.
What was the difference? You can initially see that Lee used the complete strike zone, top to bottom. But you really have to appreciate how he mixed his pitches up. Not pressing or trying to impress, Lee threw his fastball just 48.5% of the time and batters ony hit .179 against it with one homer. Including his cutter, 394 of his pitches were "hard."
But by mixing in his change-up, which he threw 17.8% of the time and holding batters to a .179 average, along with his curveball, which he threw 10.5% of the time, which he held batters to a .125 average, Lee was mixing up all his pitches, and in the process strengthening the effectiveness of them all.
Look at the difficulty righties had against the lefty Lee as they had to constantly reach for the change-up and the curve on the outer portion of the plate. Righties reached him for a mere four singles and a double, but they grounded out 14 times.
Last year, the baseball world expected Lee to be pitching for the Yankees in August, 2011. Lee made a decision to choose an environment that was right for him and despite the money both Texas and NY was tossing at him, he chose the Phils. It was clearly the right choice for both parties.