ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Over the course of human endeavor, man has struggled with many unanswerable questions. They include: What is the meaning of life? Can there be peace in the Middle East? We can Skype and text message, and we can't improve the umbrella? Seriously?
Clifton Phifer Lee is 6-0 in the playoffs with two complete games, 43 strikeouts, 32 hits allowed and six walks in 47 1/3 innings. His ERA is 1.52 and his WHIP is 0.80. Currently he pitches for the Texas Rangers. And Tuesday night, in order to save their season, the Tampa Bay Rays must find a way to, as Carl Crawford(notes) says, "get Cliff Lee out the game."
"It's going to be tough," said Crawford. "It's going to be a battle. Cliff's tough against us, and we've just got to find a way."
There is a way. And with the help of Dave Allen at FanGraphs and Kenny Kendrena of Inside Edge, we've discovered it.
Well, not really. But we have a suggestion:
Swing at the first pitch.
The typical strategy against a superstar pitcher is to take pitches, get deep in the count, wear him down and make him earn every out. That's also how the Rays have traditionally succeeded: small-ball and smart-ball.
"We scored a lot of runs," said Rocco Baldelli(notes) of this year's regular season, "and we didn't do it mashing the ball around the park every day. We did it drawing out at-bats and walks and stealing bases, kind of like how we did in 2008."
But "drawing out at-bats" doesn't work against Lee. His career walks-per-nine-innings is 2.2, but in the playoffs it's 1.1. Waiting for a mistake is like waiting for the Rays to build a new stadium. Not gonna happen.
So assuming he throws strikes – a safe assumption – leads to the question of which strikes to anticipate. And since his cutter is lethal, especially when his back is healthy, it's smart to look for fastballs.
It turns out 78 percent of Lee's first pitches are fastballs. If you want a pitch that isn't a slider or curve, your chances are highest on the first pitch. And since 70 percent of Lee's first pitches are strikes – the highest percentage in baseball – he's basically giving every hitter one pitch of relative calm before the storm of nastiness. And the hitters who had the most success against Lee this season – Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Nick Markakis(notes) and Crawford – are lefties who love outside fastballs. Hitters who swing at the first pitch and put the ball in play have a .500 slugging percentage against Lee, compared to .456 for those who hit the ball between the foul lines on the second offering or later. That's not an enormous difference, but come on – it's Cliff Lee.
The Rays swing at the first pitch 28 percent of the time, compared to the league average of 26 percent. But when the Rays beat Lee in August, they swung at his first pitch a whopping 50 percent of the time. (Granted, Lee was having back issues then.) Then, in Game 1 of this series, only 11 of 27 Rays batters (roughly 40 percent) swung at Lee's first pitch.
In the postseason, every team has tried to wait Lee out. Of the five teams that faced him coming into this series – Rockies twice, Dodgers and Yankees twice – no team has swung at the first pitch more than 26.7 percent of the time. That strategy has clearly failed.
Lee is healthy and throwing on five days of rest Tuesday. It's time for the Rays to try a new tack. Doubters can ask Rays pitcher David Price(notes) of all people, who never got a rhythm in Game 1, in part because the Rangers swung right away. Texas took a rip at 14 of 30 first pitches from Price, and they made a Cy Young contender look beatable.
Man may never understand the great mysteries of life, but when it comes to the Cliff Conundrum, one thing is pretty clear:
He who hesitates has lost.
Yahoo! Sports national baseball writer Jeff Passan contributed to this column.
- Cliff Lee