Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking!: Cliff Lee posts a June to remember

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

The Naked Truth: 9-5, 2.66 ERA, 122 IP, 2.55 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, 4.41 K/BB

Having a nice little Saturday: Well, Cliff Lee just pitched three straight complete-game shutouts and yielded just one earned run in the entire month of June — that's a 0.21 ERA in 42 innings, the last 32 of which have been scoreless. That's nearly 10 times better than Roy Halladay, who yielded eight runs in 36 innings in June, good for a minuscule 2.00 ERA. How are the Phillies leading the majors in wins despite being 17th in the majors in runs scored? That's how. {YSP:MORE}

You're my boy, Blue!: It's not it's a surprise to see a dominant Cliff Lee. Since winning the Cy Young award in 2008, Lee has been one of the most durable and best starters in baseball: His 789 1/3 innings are sixth in baseball, and his 2.93 ERA is fifth. This year, the 32-year-old southpaw has the highest strikeout rate of his career, while still maintaining a terrific walk rate and limiting home runs. He may be getting a little lucky — he's typically a very low-BABIP pitcher, with a career BABIP of .258, but this year it's all the way down to .229, and during his terrific June batters have only managed a .191 BABIP against him. Still, even if his BABIP goes up to more normal levels, a few more singles won't hurt him that much — though his ERA might increase from 0.21 to a Halladay-like 2.00. (No shame in that.)

Lee's strikeouts have been down in his last few starts, though. He only struck out a total of 12 men over his last three starts, the three complete-game shutouts. That may indicate that he was pacing himself, but it's very different from his first 14 starts of the season, when he struck out 107 men in 95 innings, a pace of well over a strikeout an inning. Lee is a feast-or-famine strikeout pitcher. Of his 17 starts this year, he has double-digit strikeouts in six of them and five or fewer strikeouts in nine of them. He either strikes out a bunch or very few, and rarely finishes anywhere in between.

As Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley noted Wednesday:

There are many possible explanations for the drop in strikeouts... He could have made a conscious effort to induce more contact in an attempt to lower his pitch counts. (It hasn't worked as his five June starts rank in the top-eight in terms of average pitches per batter faced.) Second, the lower strikeout rate could be a statistical fluke. After all, 35 innings isn't nearly a large enough sample size. Finally, it could be indicative of injury as it was with Roy Oswalt — in his eight starts from May 17 to June 23, Oswalt struck out 21 batters in 44 and one-third innings, a K/9 of just 4.3. The good news is that, unlike Oswalt, Lee hasn't shown a decline in velocity with any of his pitches.

The question has to be raised, but thus far, it's hard to find anything to quibble with.

Think KFC will still be open?: Cliff Lee is a dominant pitcher on the most dominant pitching staff in the majors, and he's more than halfway to Orel Hershiser's scoreless innings record. Ho-hum. The strikeouts really aren't much to worry about in the grand scheme of things — Lee has always been more of a control artist than a strikeout machine, and his always-low BABIP tends to minimize the damage from most types of contact. He's a brilliant pitcher at the height of his powers, and it'll just be fun to see how many more zeroes he can put up on the scoreboard.

What other players are currently streaking?

Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks .300/.381/.511, 13 HR, 43 RBIs, 14 SB, 6 CS, 32 BB/63 K
Upton battled through a disappointing, injury-plagued 2010, playing only 133 games due to persistent shoulder problems, and still managed to be one of five regular hitters in the lineup with more than 140 strikeouts. The team was blown up, as Upton bid farewell to former teammates Mark Reynolds, Dan Haren, Adam LaRoche, and others. Now, as offense has been down all across baseball, Upton is quietly having the best season of his career, and he's hitting .368/.452/.528 since the beginning of June. (His overall numbers were similar in 2009, but offense was much higher across the league. Compared to his peers, his 2011 is much more impressive.) It isn't quite a perfect season — he's tied for the league lead with six times caught stealing — but he's cut back on his strikeouts while maintaining an above-average walk rate and homer per fly ball rate. He won't hit 40 home runs this year, and probably not 30, either, but he's already established himself as one of the premier hitters in the league. That will remain true for a long, long time.

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Michael Morse, Washington Nationals .299/.348/.545, 15 HR, 46 RBIs, 2 SB, 3 CS, 14 BB/62 K
Michael Morse is one of the best stories in baseball. A journeyman and Quad-A player who finally got his first chance at major playing time last year at the age of 28, Michael Morse was handed a starting job out of spring training for the first time in his career and has made the most of it. He started in left field but has filled in at first base for the injured Adam LaRoche. Morse always had power — he slugged .505 in Double-A as a 22-year old in 2004 — but he was held back by suspect plate discipline, too many strikeouts and not enough walks. Though he hasn't been hurt by it this far, it's not clear that he's overcome those shortcomings. His walk rate is far below league average and his strikeout rate is well above league average; all in all, he strikes out more than four times for every walk, a ratio that's more than twice as high as the average hitter. It's really, really hard to succeed with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that awful unless your name is Alfonso Soriano.

In baseball history, just five hitters have posted an .850 OPS in a full season with a K/BB ratio over 4: Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga with the Rockies, back when everyone could post an .850 OPS in Coors Field; Geoff Jenkins with the Brewers; Henry Rodriguez with the Expos; Alfonso Soriano with the Cubs and Yankees; and Carlos Baerga with the Indians. Soriano is the only player to do it twice. In short, it's wonderful that Morse has been hitting so well. But the odds are very good that his production will tail off if he can't improve his plate discipline.

Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles .224/.352/.459, 15 HR, 40 RBIs, 5 SB, 1 CS, 49 BB/81 K
Two months ago, I was really worried about Mark Reynolds, because though he didn't strike out much in April, he also seemed incapable of doing anything else. But he's starting to return to his old ways, hitting for good power while posting the best walk rate of his career. He's still striking out less than he did before, but not at the crippling clip that he maintained last year. In June, he hit .299/.450/.662, with eight homers and 16 RBIs. He might have gotten a bit lucky on BABIP — he isn't really a .299 hitter — but he's a guy who can take a walk and crush the ball. And that was basically just a course correction from his ice-cold April and May, when his BABIP was just .231, 84 points below his career BABIP of .315. It looks like the Diamondbacks — who traded him for relievers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio — gave up on him way too early.

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