Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A look at Cliff Lee's Cy Young chances

Can Cliff Lee join Steve Bedrosian and Steve Carlton as the only Philadelphia pitchers ever to win the Cy Young?

A look at Cliff Lee's Cy Young chances

Will Cliff Lee bring the Cy Young to Philadelphia in 2010? (Ron Cortes / Staff photographer)
Will Cliff Lee bring the Cy Young to Philadelphia in 2010? (Ron Cortes / Staff photographer)

When the Phillies acquired lefty Cliff Lee in a trade-deadline deal with the Cleveland Indians, they got an American League Cy Young Award winner. What they'd really like to have a year from now is a National League Cy Young Award winner.

The Phillies haven't had a pitcher win the Cy Young since reliever Steve Bedrosian took home the award in 1987. Steve Carlton - who took home the trophy in 1972, 77, 80 and 82 - and John Denny - who took NL honors in 1983 - remain the only Phillies starting pitchers ever to win.

So, can Lee - recently spotted hunting elk and visiting auto parts stores in Colorado - join Bedrock, Lefty and Denny on the Cy Young list? His track record certainly indicates that he can, but if the Phillies don't find a way to sign him to an extension, the 2010 season may be his one and only opportunity.

For an idea of what it will take to get the job done, take a look at the top three finishers in this year's voting. San Francisco's Tim Lincecum took home the NL Cy Young for the second time in as many years, narrowly beating out Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was a close race, with only 10 points separating those three pitchers in the voting, and Lincecum won the award despite having just 15 wins - the fewest ever for a Cy Young winner who pitched during a full season. Lincecum's other numbers - a 2.48 ERA and 262 strikeouts in 225.1 innings pitched - were comparable to his 2008 Cy Young campaign.

But it's unlikely that Lincecum will own the Cy Young race the way Randy Johnson did for four straight years from 1999-2002 and Greg Maddux did when he won four in a row from 1992-95.

Lincecum didn't even receive the most first-place votes in this year's balloting. Wainwright had that honor, garnering 12 first-place nods to Lincecum's 11. Heck, for most of the season there was serious debate about whether Lincecum was even the best pitcher on his own team. Fellow San Francisco starter Matt Cain was in the Cy Young discussion for most of the 2009 season and finished 14-8 with a 2.89 ERA - not far off Lincecum's numbers.

The NL Cy Young race was very competitive in 2009, and should be again in 2010. Unseating Lincecum will be a challenge, but he's not the only one Lee will have to best for the award. There are bevy of arms in the National League that have the potential to win. For starters, Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA, 144 Ks) and Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA, 212 Ks) could both duplicate their impressive 2009 seasons next year.

The NL East alone boasts Cy Young talent like the Braves' Jair Jurrjens (2.60 ERA in 2009), Javier Vasquez (2.87 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (2.89 ERA), not to mention the Mets' Johan Santana - who, like Lee, already has an AL Cy Young award on his mantle.

Even if Lee had pitched the entire 2009 season in the National League, his numbers would not have put him in the mix with Lincecum, Carpenter and Wainwright. While his six complete games would have led the NL and his two shutouts would have tied him for the league lead, his 3.22 ERA would have been only 14th best and his 1.24 WHIP would have placed him 16th.

Granted, the majority of Lee's stats were compiled against the DH-fueled offenses of the American League, while playing for a miserable Cleveland Indians team. He had only seven wins to show for 22 starts with Cleveland when he was dealt to the Phillies, but picked up seven more in just 12 starts after moving to the National League.

A full season in the NL with a championship-caliber defense behind him and an explosive Phillies offense providing plenty of run support should give Lee a legit shot at 20 wins in 2010. And wins will likely be the key for a Cliff Lee Cy Young bid, because Lee doesn't get the type of strikeout numbers that guys like Lincecum routinely rack up. Lee's career high is 181 strikeouts, which he set this season.

If you consider Lee's combined regular season and playoff stats from his time with the Phillies, you can get an idea of what a full season of Cliff Lee in Philadelphia might look like. He made 17 starts in a Phillies uniform in 2009, going 11-4 with five complete games, a 2.77 ERA and struck out 107. From that, you can extrapolate a season that could easily see 20 wins and close to 200 strikeouts.

If he's a 20-game winner in 2010, Lee should be top three in the voting, but to nail down the Cy Young he'll have to approximate the 2.54 ERA he registered during his AL Cy Young season in 2008. Since 1983, only one pitcher has won the NL Cy Young with an ERA over 3.00 - Brandon Webb did it in 2006 with a 3.10 ERA.

And don't forget, Lee will be in the final year of his contract next season. What better motivation can you ask for than the thought of hitting the free agent market with a Cy Young in each hand?


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