Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cliff Lee's All Time Competition From Ages 32-36

It didn't escape me in my posting absence that Cliff Lee spurned the Rangers and Yankees to re-join the Phillies on a 5-year, $120 million deal. But by now, you've all heard every opinion possible about the matter. Jeez, Craig Calcaterra's crew at Hardball Talk wrote 16 posts about him in 18 hours. Instead of figuring out Texas' and New York's contingency plans or why the Angels are sitting on their hands, I wanted to take a look at what the Phillies hope they're getting over the next five years in a pitcher who will start his contract as a 32-year-old.

My research might not stand up to some of those who practice the Sabr science for a profession but I think it's a good once over for someone losing roughly $1.49 every month on this site. Also, Fangraphs WAR doesn't go past 1980 in the history annals so I'm using the similarly awesome stats from Baseball-Reference. Obviously, I didn't include pitchers from the deadball era because none of them lived to be 32.[citation needed]

1. Bob Gibson
Years: 1968-1972 WAR: 43.9 ERA: 2.35 ERA+: 150
The HOF Cardinal pitcher had an unbelievable five year stretch after he turned 32. His top WAR seasons were in 1968 (11.9), 1969 (11.0), 1970 (8.7) and 1972 (7.6). Nobody can be expecting Cliff Lee to touch these numbers but it could be possible Lee is hitting his peak on the typical wrong side of 30.

2. Randy Johnson
Years: 1997-2001 WAR: 37.4 ERA: 2.64 ERA+: 174
Technically, I'm cheating here. Johnson's first season that he started as a 32-year-old was 1996 but he only tossed 61.1 innings. If I swap out Johnson's 2002 season for his 1996 season, he ends up with a 30.2 WAR which would still be tied for second place. While I have no reason to expect Lee to be healthy for his 32-year-old season or even his 37-year-old season, it's always nice to appreciate how good The Big Unit was after he turned 30 or 32 or 37 or 42. His 91.8 career WAR should be a first class ticket to the Hall of Fame even if Bert Blyleven is still flying standby with his 90.1 WAR.

3. Roger Clemens
Years: 1995-1999 WAR: 30.2 ERA: 3.27 ERA+: 145
Clemens rollercoasted his single seasons WARs over a 24-year career accumulating an insane 128.4 of them. It's hard to predict how his alleged performance enhancing or sleeping with under aged country music stars will affect his Hall of Fame candidacy but the numbers should put him in by a landslide. These are all probably topics for another post but the Phils would be thrilled with that kind of performance over Lee's contract even if some indiscretions involving Taylor Swift popped up years from now.

4. Warren Spahn
Years: 1953-1957 WAR: 30.1 ERA: 2.79 ERA+: 132
I included the "liveball" wins leader because, well, he's the liveball wins leader. His 101 complete games is the closest to rivaling Gibson's 122 over the 32-36 year-old age bracket but Spahn posted a 1.80 K/BB ratio over that period and Cliff Lee might be able to top it with his eyes closed.

5. Kevin Brown
Years: 1997-2001 WAR: 30.0 ERA: 2.66 ERA+: 155
Brown had an even better 5-year streak that began just a year earlier in 1996 and ended with his 6.5 WAR as a 35-year-old. His 64.8 WAR makes him an interesting case for the Hall of Fame even though he only finished in the top three of Cy Young voting twice (both in his 32-36 range) during his 19 seasons while never winning it. Lee has already won one but will have to duel with a teammate for any future award. Either way, the Phillies would be more than happy to boast two or three of the National League's best pitchers in the upcoming seasons.

6. Phil Niekro
Years: 1971-1975 WAR: 30.0 ERA: 2.97 ERA+: 128
I could have left the list at a reasonable five but I felt like I'd be letting Rob Neyer down if I didn't include a knuckleballer on the list. And I wish I had a better reason than that because Niekro's 2.17 K/BB was only better than Spahn's aforementioned 1.90 ratio. Am I secretly hoping Lee starts throwing a knuckleball? Perhaps. Are the Phillies? Not so much.

7. David Cone
Years: 1995-1999 WAR: 23.8 ERA: 3.32 ERA+: 139
Mmmhmm. Which brings us to...

8. Greg Maddux
Years: 1998-2002 WAR: 23.7 ERA: 2.88 ERA+: 152
Welcome to the confusing stat portion of our program. Maddux had the third best ERA+ of this bunch and second best K/BB ratio (4.16) to Johnson's (4.48) but doesn't have the shiny WAR of his colleagues. Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) has him at 31.1 which, I assume, does a better job of evaluating his "Gold Glove" defense using UZR instead of Total Zone. Take a deep breath, don't let all of that nerdiness get to your head at once. However you look at Maddux's performance from 32 to 36, the Phillies would not regret their payroll splurge. But don't be surprised if a cheesesteak will run you around $33 inside the stadium, it's player number integration pricing!

The Math
It might be presumptuous to compare Cliff Lee to some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history but there is a case to be made that Lee could be great into his mid-thirties. Baseball-Reference has Lee as about a 5.5 WAR player per year over the past three seasons. Fangraphs has him as almost a 7 WAR player per season over that time. Let's say Lee ends up being a 6 WAR player over his Philly contract. If a player on the free market is worth $6 million per point of WAR, that would make Lee worth $180 million over five years instead of the $120 Philadelphia is paying him (and that's without inflation!).

Assuming Lee stays healthy over the next five years is a big leap of faith. But he will be playing with Doc Halladay who is two years into a pace that would make him the second greatest pitcher between the ages of 32 and 36. Doc might have some staying healthy secrets he can share. Or he's just some kind of freak of nature. Either way, I'm betting Lee stays healthy enough to make this contract look like a relative steal for the Phillies. Note: I'm a big sucker for WAR and terrible at gambling, actual results may vary.

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