Oct
18

The history of the Yankees and Cliff Lee

By

Tonight Cliff Lee will face the Yankees for the 15th, and perhaps final, time in his career. This presents the Yankees with their toughest challenge to date in the 2010 postseason. They’ve faced quality lefties in Francisco Liriano and C.J. Wilson previously, but neither of them quite matches Lee. Yet, despite what the hyperbole might suggest, the Yankees have had success against Lee in the past — one of the instances being an elimination game in the World Series. In the spirit of this match-up, let’s take a look at how the two have fared against each other during Lee’s career.

Before Grand Transformation

Yep, that's Melky. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

In 2002 the Montreal Expos were in a state of limbo. There was talk of contracting two teams, and the Expos would surely be one. The team’s owner, Jeffrey Loria, had already bought the Florida Marlins, leaving the team to MLB control. Still, on June 26 the team found itself in the midst of the playoff hunt. They were seven games back of Atlanta in the NL East and six behind the Diamondbacks for the Wild Card. A day later GM Omar Minaya traded his Nos. 1 and 3 prospects, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, plus a left-handed pitcher named Cliff Lee for Bartolo Colon. While the trade flopped for Montreal — they finished 19 games back in the division and 13 games back of the Wild Card — it changed the course of the Indians.

Lee made his major league debut in 2002 and was ranked the Indians’ No. 3 prospect, behind Phillips and Victor Martinez, in 2003. He followed that up with an excellent season in the minors, which earned him a full-time spot in the 2004 rotation. That didn’t go so well, but the next year was his breakout. In 2005 Lee went 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA and FIP. He followed that up with a decent year, but he struck out far fewer batters and allowed quite a few more hits, leading to a 4.40 ERA and 4.73 FIP. That trouble grew in 2007. After three straight July starts in which he allowed seven earned runs, the Indians demoted him to AAA. They recalled him in September to pitch out of the bullpen, but they did not include him on the postseason roster.

From his debut through his demotion the Yankees faced Lee six times. During that span he pitched 34 innings and allowed 28 runs (25 earned). He clearly wasn’t the same pitcher as he is today: he walked 13 men in those games. The worst of the outings came on September 2, 2004, when he allowed six runs in just 1.2 innings. That was part of Lee’s second half collapse, in which he posted a 7.91 ERA in 15 starts. In 2005 he allowed five runs in six innings during one start. In 2006 they again lit him up, scoring seven runs (four earned) in six innings. They did not face him during his terrible 2007.

After the transformation

(Seth Wenig/AP)

In 2008, fresh off the Indian’s Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS, Lee returned with a vengeance. Through April he had a 0.96 ERA and had walked just two men. He would have appeared to be the perfect complement to the 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia, but Sabathia got off to a horrible start. Once he started to come around in May, the Indians were already out of the race. But that didn’t deter Lee. He faced the Yankees on May 7 of that year and spun seven shutout innings, striking out seven and walking none. (Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts has a great story about meeting Lee on the subway before the game.) After a slight rough patch he cruised through the rest of the season, ending 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and the Cy Young Award.

Had something changed during Lee’s time in the minors? Or was this just a fluke season? It might have been tempting to say fluke, but the man displayed pinpoint control on nearly every pitch he threw. He ended the season leading the league in both walk rate and home run rate, so it was reasonable to think that while he might not have a 2.54 ERA again in 2009, that his success was for real. But his Opening Day start, in which he allowed seven runs in five innings, cast some doubt on the situation.

After another so-so start Lee picked right back up where he left off in 2008. From April 16 through July 26 he started 20 games and posted a 2.66 ERA, striking out 97 to 29 walks. After that July 26 start the Indians, knowing they wouldn’t contend in 2010 and would lose Lee after the season, traded him to the Phillies. In th emiddle of that run Lee spun six innings against the Yankees, allowing three runs on nine hits and two walks. While they were surely glad to have him out of the AL, he’d come back to haunt them in the postseason that year.

This year it appeared as though the Yankees would face Lee only once. He pitched a complete game on June 29, and while he allowed four runs (three earned) in that game, it doesn’t tell the entire story. He was completely dominant sans for appearances against Nick Swisher, plus a mini 9th-inning rally. He was set to face them again in the beginning of July, but it came out before his scheduled Friday night start that the Mariners intended to trade him prior to it. The rumored target was the Yankees, but that fell through and he ended up going to Texas. That hurt not only because the Yankees didn’t get their man, but that they’d have to face Lee twice more, whereas they were done with Seattle after that July series. The Yanks beat him the first time, scoring four runs in 6.1 innings before finishing the comeback against the bullpen. In the second instance only Derek Jeter could figure him out, and despite Dustin Moseley’s best efforts the Yanks dropped the game.

Postseason

(David J. Phillip/AP)

Lee’s postseason success against the Yankees typically get exaggerated, because he won both times he faced them in the 2009 World Series and was absolutely brilliant in Game 1. But he was beatable in Game 5, and the Yanks nearly did mount a comeback in that one despite A.J. Burnett‘s horrible performance.

In Game 1 Lee was undeniably dominant. He pitched all nine innings and struck out 10 Yankees while walking none. The six hits he allowed were scattered, as he didn’t allow more than one base runner per inning until the ninth. Even then it was a matter of just two singles to lead off the inning. Lee got what appeared to be a ground ball double play from Mark Teixeira, but Jimmy Rollins threw away the ball. That allowed Jeter to score. Lee, apparently perturbed that his fielder ruined his shut out, struck out A-Rod and Posada to end the game.

The Yankees ended up turning things around in Game 5. A-Rod got them off to a 1-0 lead with a double to right, but A.J. Burnett gave it back when he allowed a three run homer in his half. Burnett then got knocked around in the third inning and had to exit the game. David Robertson allowed an inherited runner to score, leaving Burnett with six runs in just two innings. The Yankees chipped away, scoring four more runs off Lee (and Chan Ho Park). But thanks to a Phil Coke implosion they were still down three. They nearly brought it all home against Ryan Madson, as they had the tying run at the plate with none out. But Jeter grounded into a double play to lessen the threat.

Which Cliff Lee will we see tonight? Certainly we won’t see the Lee that faced the Yankees before his grand transformation. That guy is long gone. The new Lee has had his ups and downs against the Yankees. If he looks more like Game 5 Lee than Game 1 Lee, the Yanks have as good a shot as they’ve had against all the other postseason aces they’ve faced.

Categories : Playoffs

46 Comments»

  1. Big Stein says:

    The media sure has fallen for Lee.

  2. Big Stein says:

    Of course if Lee becomes a Yankee, I’m sure that love will go out the window.

  3. If Cliff Lee signs with the Yankees, suddenly ESPN will be reporting the he really IS cheating with his hat.

  4. Mister Delaware says:

    Lee wins tonight, AJ wins tomorrow. Book it.

  5. mike c (LETS GO YANK KEEEZ) says:

    enough of the “we can’t beat cliff lee” loser mentality. the yankees have the most fearsome lineup in the league, reliable pettitte on the hill, and the best homefield advantage in the game. yanks in 5

  6. CS Yankee says:

    Win tonight will atke away some of the pressure on AJ.

    Here’s to Andy becoming a 20 win postseason pitcher tonight.

  7. Frank says:

    The BP wins it for the Yanks tonight. A ND for both starters.

  8. larryf says:

    Lee has great and reproducible mechanics. Just looking at the pic one can see his drop and drive and the excellent upper body rotation he gets at the point of release. He finishes with his left leg high in the air on every pitch. All his pitches have the same release point so if you’re a hitter I think you are pretty much stuck with guessing a location (inside/outside/up/down) and not a pitch.

  9. Risto says:

    Thanks for actually laying out the full history of Cliff Lee, which I think goes a long way in dispelling his myth of invincibility. He clearly can be had.

  10. Tank Foster says:

    The Yankee offense hasn’t exploded in a long time, or at least it seems that way. Five or six homers against the Red Sox, well, sort of an explosion, but I’m talking a hit fest, 10+ runs, etc.

    Why not tonight?

    Lee’s thing is location. Perfect location, with any pitch. The Rays’ hitters looked almost funny, just walking away from the plate on called strike 3, looking like they were so fooled they couldn’t pull the trigger and even manage a hack, and they knew the pitch was going to be a called strike.

    The most common way to get a pitcher out of the game in the last decade or so has been to take alot of pitches, try to work walks, get the pitch count up, etc. So now we are starting to see a few pitchers who are exploiting this patience by throwing strike after strike.

    So, to beat him, it’s like Kevin Long said, you have to be ready to hit on any pitch, and get your swings in. The Yankees will need a little luck…and I hope a couple of Yankees can get in a groove and hit some of those Lee strikes. He may not give up alot – they may have to hit line drives the other way and not think about jacking the ball, but the point is that the way to beat this guy probably isn’t going to be running up his pitch count and getting walks.

    Swing the bats, Yankees.

    • JGS says:

      The Yankee offense hasn’t exploded in a long time, or at least it seems that way

      I know it wasn’t a game-wide event, but the 8th inning of Game 1?

    • Graig not Craig says:

      “the way to beat this guy probably isn’t going to be running up his pitch count and getting walks.”

      The best way to drive up pitch count is by causing him to face more batters due to base hits. I would love to see the Texas bullpen somewhere in the seventh inning.

    • chris c. says:

      “The Yankee offense hasn’t exploded in a long time, or at least it seems that way. Five or six homers against the Red Sox, well, sort of an explosion, but I’m talking a hit fest, 10+ runs, etc.
      Why not tonight?”

      Why not Saturday? The odds were alot better then!

      “The most common way to get a pitcher out of the game in the last decade or so has been to take alot of pitches, try to work walks, get the pitch count up, etc. So now we are starting to see a few pitchers who are exploiting this patience by throwing strike after strike.”

      Well, it’s not that simple. This is the majors. You can’t just throw strikes thinking opposing hitters are just goiing to look at them. If you throw meatballs, you won’t be “exploiting” anything. Lee is a smart pitcher with pitches that have terrific movement. That’s why he doesn’t have to bs with pitching around people.

      “So, to beat him, it’s like Kevin Long said, you have to be ready to hit on any pitch, and get your swings in.”

      How ingenius. Be ready to hit on every pitch. I like it.
      Kevin Long has just released a scouting report on the Yankees next big free agent signing.

  11. hi im roni deutch formerly jonathan cold says:

    I’m thinking win-loss-win here in NY. The bats are going to come alive in a big way during this home stretch. Win this one for Freddy tonight boys.

  12. ShuutoHeat says:

    If he is human, he can be defeated.

  13. Flyphotog says:

    They thought his cousin Bruce was invisible too…

    Coolest thing ever – spin the stadium aerial photo
    http://tristate360.com/blog/?p=247

  14. Kiersten says:

    The caption from that last article you linked:

    The Yankees have previously beaten John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, whose win-loss record compared favorably with the man they’ll face tonight, Cliff Lee.

    facepalm.

    • vin says:

      What’s worse:

      relying on pitcher’s W/L record to prove a point
      -or-
      claiming there’s a precedent because Yankee teams from 9-14 years ago came away victorious. This Yankee team barely resembles the ’08 squad, let alone the ’96, ’99, ’01, or even ’04.

      • larryf says:

        free swingers (Tex/Swish/Arod/Thames/Posada) are going to have trouble with a guy who can throw off speed stuff for strikes anywhere in the count…

        • ROBTEN says:

          “Free Swingers”?

          While Alex is only currently taking 2.96 P/PA, let’s look at the playoff numbers thus far of the other “free swingers” you list:

          Posada: 4.35 Pitches/Plate Appearance
          Tex: 4.25 P/PA
          Swisher: 3.86 P/PA
          Thames: 3.43 P/PA

          These don’t exactly seem like “free swingers” to me.

      • Graig not Craig says:

        The article goes as far back as 1958 vs. Lew Burdette. That was 13 years before the oldest active Yankee was born. I’m sure it carries huge implications when predicting tonight’s outcome.

      • Kiersten says:

        Well I think the point that Pettitte outdueled Smoltz is relevant. Other than that, not so much.

        I mean the general point of the article is good, the Yankees (and any team, really) can beat any ace on any given day.

    • chris c. says:

      “The Yankees have previously beaten John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, whose win-loss record compared favorably with the man they’ll face tonight, Cliff Lee.”

      Cliff Lee: 6-0 in the postseason.
      How can a record compare “favorably” to that?

      • tom says:

        El Duque was 7-0 in the post-season going into the 2000 Series. Would that compare favorably?

        And he lost to the Mets — the only game the Yanks lost in that series. What was I telling you, Suzyn?

  15. vin says:

    I hope the next time we see Cliff Lee on a field is the middle of February.

    Anyone is beatable, but Pettitte needs to pitch well enough to keep them in the game. Also, getting some length out of Andy would help in tomorrow’s game, should AJ’s short leash need to be yanked.

    I’d love to know what caused Lee’s turnaround. Reminds me of Halladay’s struggles early in his career. He went all the way down to A+, and wasn’t enjoying the game anymore. I believe he worked with a sports psychologist (it was in an SI or ESPN article earlier this year) to get himself straightened out.

    What’s amazing about Lee isn’t just that he doesn’t walk batters. It’s that he can also racks up strikeouts. Most guys who limit walks pitch to contact and have low K totals. Cliff’s stuff is so good that he can get swings and misses on pitches in and around the strike zone. That’s really hard to do, and its why he should age well. Once his velocity and stuff begin to decline, he can still be a 4-pitch control artist with tremendous command.

  16. It'sATarp says:

    if he throws strikes in the zone…we can hit it, we have enough talented hitters.

  17. Graig not Craig says:

    Andy’s gonna pull that cap down – stare at the glove – and get it done. While Lee might be getting all the pregame press – Pettitte will receive the postgame praise.

  18. nathan says:

    You mean, there is reason to watch the game tonight. That it is not set in stone we will be down 2-1 in the series by tomorrow.

    This is why you will never be part of MSM.

    I am super confident, I donno if we will score 6 runs against him, I am sure we will score atleast 4 runs against Lee and win this game.

    You know what would be fun, pictures of his pre-demotion days vs now. To really see whether he had patches on his cap before — like he claims.

  19. Edmond Draper says:

    Roy Halladay must be steaming. You would think Cliff Lee had thrown consecutive perfect games the way the media has been talking about him.

    I’ll go with the guy who dominated the AL East for years and has a no hitter under his belt as the most dangerous pitcher in the playoffs.

  20. rek4gehrig says:

    Good thing I havent been listening to the media.

  21. Ali Deumah says:

    Well, why you guys paying attention to Cliff Lee only….Andy has the most wins in post season all the time….you will see that tonight…the Yankees will score 3 runs… however rangers will score 2 runs if they are lucky…..Cano and Swisher will be the heros….

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