Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee has been one of the most durable, successful, and all-around excellent pitchers in Major League Baseball for the past 4 seasons. He’s got one Cy Young Award on his mantle, and can boast about 2 other top-5 finishes. But the 2012 season just hasn’t gone the way he expected it to. Lee has slipped a little bit this year, seeing his ERA rise from 2.40 (161 ERA+) a year ago all the way up to 3.83 (107 ERA+) this season. As you would expect, as his ERA and ERA+ dropped from elite a year ago to slightly above average this season, so it makes logical sense that his win total would drop as well. But for Cliff Lee to be the proud owner of a meager 2 wins is a little absurd, especially when you consider the fact that he has lasted fewer than 6 innings in just 1 of his 21 starts, while posting a quality start 60% of the time in general. Both numbers would lead you to believe that Lee had a record around the .500 mark, maybe a little better if he was lucky and his offense scored a lot when he pitched, and maybe a little worse if he was undone by poor defense or little run support. But Cliff Lee hasn’t just had bad luck, he’s having a historically bad run of luck, equivalent to a black jack player watching the dealer turn over 21 after 21 until the player is forced to walk away.
Last night was another perfect example of the type of season Cliff Lee is having. He pitched 7.2 innings while striking out a season-high 12 Milwaukee batters, and he would have gone 8 full innings if not for a Kevin Frandsen throwing error that turned what would have been a weak ground ball out by Rickie Weeks into a 2-base gaffe that got Lee pulled from the game. In a very predictable manor, the Phillies bullpen immediately imploded behind Josh Lindblom, who intentionally walked reigning MVP Ryan Braun and then accidentally walked Aramis Ramirez, setting the stage for Corey Hart. Hart hit a deep fly ball to left-center field, and it just eluded both the wall and a leaping Dominic Brown to clear the fence for a Grand Slam to give the Brewers a 7-4 win.
Now exactly what Josh Lindblom, a 25-year-old reliever who was part of the package in the Shane Victorino trade, was doing in the game instead of Jonathan Paplebon, the man Philadelphia spent 4 years and $50 million on in the offseason for precisely these type of situations, is beyond me, but that has been manager Charlie Manuel’s MO all year. Paplebon has been brought in to finish a National League best 44 games this season, but has accrued only 28 saves, good for 5th in the National League. He’s entered the game in a high leverage situation (any situation where a game can be won, lost, or tied with the swing of a bat) just 24 times this season compared to 23 uses in average or low leverage situations. Charlie Manuel seems to have a fondness for bringing in Paplebon exclusively for the 9th inning, even if the game situation warrants the closer entering in the 8th inning in a tight spot. Lee has left with the lead in a game on 5 separate occasions only to watch his bullpen blow the game, costing him and the Phillies precious wins.
Lee has also had the misfortune of throwing some of his best games on the same days his offense has fallen silent. He dueled for 10 innings with Matt Cain in San Francisco in April striking out 7, only to watch Antonio Bastardo blow the game in the 11th inning. Lee got in a showdown with Chad Billingsley on June 5th, throwing 7.2 innings while allowing 2 runs and striking out 12, only to watch Billingsley give up 1 run over 7 to steal the win away. In a July game against the Dodgers Lee allowed just 3 base runners over 8 innings but again went home without the W after Paplebon choked away the save, giving up 2 runs in the 9th inning. And these are just a few examples. Lee hasn’t always pitched well, his June 28th outing in Miami comes to mind (4.2 innings, 6 earned runs, 10 hits allowed), but apart from the occasional hiccup, he’s been solid.
Maybe it all comes down to the fact that it just isn’t Philadelphia’s year this season. Most of Philly’s core group of players (Lee, Halladay, Howard, Utley, Ruiz) have spent time on the disabled list this season, and in some cases, they’ve spent more time rehabbing than on the field at Citizen’s Bank Park. A year after combining for 36 total wins, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have just 8 so far. The pitching staff has allowed more than a full run per game compared to last season, when they gave up fewest runs per game in baseball, at 3.27 per. Combine that with a depleted offense that ranked in the middle of the pack in runs scored in 2011, and you have the recipe for disaster. While it was fashionable in the preseason to believe the Phillies couldn’t match last year’s 102-win total, it’s absolutely jarring to come to the realization that they are on pace to win just 74 games this year, a remarkable 28 game drop-off. It’s not quite the way I imagined the Phillies streak of 5 straight NL East titles would end, and the playoffs will have a little bit different feel this season without the rowdies from Philadelphia taking part. Hopefully for the sake of Phillie fans and especially Cliff Lee, the 2013 season will be a little bit luckier.