AL Cy Young choice won't be a Cliff-hanger

Jeff Passan

Before we forge ahead with the case for Cliff Lee as the American League Cy Young winner – one so cut and dried even Lionel Hutz could close it – please allow a few moments to talk off the ledge the fellow voters who might be considering Francisco Rodriguez.

The Los Angeles Angels closer is poised to break the single-season save record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen nearly 20 years ago. The ability to pitch one inning at a time is a unique skill. Rodriguez undoubtedly is excellent at it.

Problem is, he's not the best closer in his own league. Or the second best. Or even third or fourth.

Discount, for a moment, the save statistic. Not because it is patently hollow, which it is, nor because its implementation has forced modern relievers such as K-Rod into lame one-inning stints, which it has. Instead, we can take a gander at numbers controlled by the pitchers themselves and not the whims of their teammates.

To narrow down Rodriguez's peers, we looked at the numbers of every pitcher with at least 20 saves. There were 21 closers, and aside from saves, Rodriguez ranked no better than fifth in any of the major categories.

His best showing came in strikeouts per nine innings, and 10.31 is a tremendous number. He walks plenty of hitters, too, so his 2.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio is 13th.

K-Rod's inability to stay in the strike zone is his downfall, at least numerically. Fewer than 60 percent of his pitches are strikes, which ranks 20th. He allows the 14th most baserunners, and his ERA ranks ninth.

So, congrats, Frankie. You are the vapid prom queen – pretty on the surface, ugly deep down.

At the same time, none of the AL closers better than Rodriguez – Minnesota's Joe Nathan, New York's Mariano Rivera, Boston's Jonathan Papelbon and Kansas City's Joakim Soria – deserve the Cy Young nod, either. Because three starters have rightful places on the three-person ballot.

Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka has rebounded from an average rookie year to justify the Red Sox spending more than $100 million for his rights and contract. Though his 16-2 record is, much like Rodriguez's save mark, due as much to his teammates as his own work, it's impressive nonetheless. If not for Lee, who is 20-2, Matsuzaka would be on the cusp of eclipsing Ron Guidry (25-3) for the best full-season winning percentage with 20 or more decisions. (In the abbreviated 1995 season, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson went 19-2 and 18-2, respectively.)

Matsuzaka's peripheral numbers hold up well, too. Among the 40 AL starters with at least 140 innings, his 8.06 strikeouts per nine ranks seventh. Hitters' .210 batting average and .318 slugging percentage against Matsuzaka are the worst in the league. He can be as dominant as any pitcher.

Unfortunately for Matsuzaka, like Rodriguez, he suffers from poor control, which leads to a menagerie of problems. He works deep into counts. That makes him throw too many pitches – 17.2 per inning, to be exact, second worst in the AL to Justin Verlander.

It results in a dearth of innings pitched: 146 2/3 in 25 starts. In the last 100 years, no pitcher who has started 25 games and won 80 percent of his decisions has thrown fewer than 158 2/3, and that was 37-year-old Preacher Roe in 1952. Couple that with more than six runs of support per game, the third-best number in the AL, and it torpedoes Matsuzaka's candidacy.

Toronto's Roy Halladay is Matsuzaka's diametric opposite in both technique and results. His 211 innings lead the majors, his eight complete games lead the AL, he loves to work inside and scare hitters (his 12 hit by pitches are third in the big leagues) yet he has walked only 34 against 178 strikeouts.

Halladay's 17-9 record isn't shabby, either, nor is his 2.69 ERA, and that's the shame of it all. In any other year, Halladay would be a wonderful Cy Young candidate. He just happens to share a league with Lee, and Denton True Young himself never put together a season quite like Lee's.

How Lee arrived at this moment, on the precipice of the greatest honor for a pitcher, is Lovett-bagging-Julia improbable. Last year, he was just getting called up from Triple-A, where he had been sent after three consecutive outings in which he surrendered seven runs. This spring, Lee actually was fighting for the fifth-starter job with Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey, and anyone would have pegged teammates CC Sabathia or Fausto Carmona ahead of him as the likely Cy Young candidate.

Then Lee started pitching, and an incredible start turned into continued success. Once this year has Lee walked more than two in a game. He strands nearly 80 percent of those who do reach base.

How they do is a mystery. Lee leads the major leagues with 69.4 percent of his pitches going for strikes, and he starts batters 0-1 two-thirds of the time. Hitters know the ball is crossing the plate. And still, they hit only .244 and slug just .329 against Lee.

Sure, his 20-2 record is less a function of his 2.32 ERA as the Indians scoring nearly six runs per game for him – Lee has accounted for more than 30 percent of the team's wins – and while the gaudy winning percentage will set voters' hearts aflutter, discovering the method to Lee's success shows what makes him worthy.

The golden chalice of a pitcher is the 0-2 count. Hitters' batting average in such situations is around .180. Lee has started 25 percent of the hitters he has faced this season with 0-2 counts, a staggering number. The league average over his career is 18 percent. Halladay's career high is 20 percent. Control artist Greg Maddux's is 21. And Roger Clemens' best was 23 percent.

On the 254 pitches Lee has thrown this year with 0-2 counts, opponents have mustered 13 hits.

And that's about the same chance everyone else has in the AL Cy Young race.