Another crucial year of Lee's prime was wasted

Another crucial year of Lee's prime was wasted

Morandini on Franco winning the Paul Owens Award

September 16, 2013, 3:30 pm
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Cliff Lee is one out away from reaching 200 innings for the sixth straight year. (USA Today Images)

Answer: Mark Buehrle (12), CC Sabathia and James Shields (7)

Cliff Lee hit his prime a few years later than most players do. Lee famously changed his approach after a horrendous 2007 and recovered to win the 2008 AL Cy Young award before being traded to the Phillies the following year.

He’s been brilliant ever since.

On Monday, Lee starts for the 29th time this season. He’s one out away from reaching the 200-inning mark for the sixth straight year. He’s the only NL pitcher with a streak that long, and only three active pitchers league-wide have a longer streak. Can you name them? (Answer at the bottom.)

When the book closes on the Phillies’ 2013 season, another year of Lee’s prime – or should we call it his second wind – will have been wasted. He reached the World Series in 2009 with the Phils, and lost. He reached the World Series with the Rangers in 2010, and lost. He dominated for a 102-win Phillies team in 2011, before blowing a four-run lead in the NLDS that helped the Cardinals to a series win.

But these last two years? Lee is 19-15 despite a 3.07 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 6.6 times as many strikeouts as walks.

It’s safe to wonder how many more elite years Lee has in that left arm. He’s been exceptionally durable over the last five years, making between 28 and 34 starts each year.

Lee turned 35 on Aug. 30. Roy Halladay’s shoulder fell apart at 35. Greg Maddux never made an All-Star team after turning 35. Declines tend to occur in a pitcher’s mid-30s.

Lee has a 2.83 ERA and 1.06 WHIP since returning to the Phillies. Consider this: In the last 20 years, only four pitchers have met those two criteria in any full season after their 35th birthday.

But one was Roger Clemens, who was using PEDs. One was R.A. Dickey, a knuckleballer. One was Kevin Brown, in his last effective season as a starter. The other was Randy Johnson. The Big Unit has the only legitimate case of the four, as he maintained his velocity and deception from an elevated arm slot through age 40.

The age of 35 wasn’t selected arbitrarily. It’s a significant cutoff point. That one legitimate case we just examined? It expands to 13 if you include ages 30-34.

This is a legitimate concern moving forward for a team that has too many concerns. Lee is probably the best or second-best player on the roster, and if he can’t stay at this level for the duration of his contract, the Phillies are going to be in trouble no matter what offseason moves they make. It’s one of several reasons a portion of the fanbase clamored for him to be dealt at the trade deadline.

This could be overblown. Lee has such an easy delivery and has never relied solely on velocity. If there’s any active pitcher capable of staying at this high a level post-35, it’s him.

But it’s still scary to think about where the Phillies might end up if Lee declines at the same cutoff point as his peers.

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