Short Nerd Chief

Tribe-Twins Wrap: Cliff Lee Edition

Posted by Fred on April 21, 2008

Maybe the apparent offensive improvement in last week’s thrashing of the Tigers was an illusion.  maybe Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker are just that good.  In any event, the Tribe offense, which has been largely dormant since the 10-8 opening day win over Chicago, has gone into hibernation again.  In three games at the Metrodome, the Indians lineup hit just .202, managing just 5 extra base hits and 5 runs in 28 innings.  The end result was 2 losses in 3 games, the sole victory being Cliff Lee’s 4-0 gem on Friday night.  Byrd and Westbrook each gave the team a chance to win, yielding a total of 4 runs over their 2 starts, but the offense scored only one run (in yesterday’s 2-1, 10 inning defeat).

The Good

  1. Cliff Lee.  A year after being demoted to Buffalo with an ERA over 6, Cliff Lee is the bright spot in the rotation and one of the stories of the year.  Following a dominant 4-0 win against the Twins, Lee is now 3-0 with a microscopic 0.40 ERA.  He’s yielded 1 ER in 22 IP, allowing only 8 hits and 2 walks while striking out 20.  Against the Twins, he allowed 2 hits and a walk in 8 innings, wiping out 2 of the baserunners on double plays.  He also struck out 8.  More on Lee later.
  2. Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd.  While less dominant than Lee, both Byrd and Westbrook gave the team a chance to win.  On Saturday, Jake allowed 3 runs on 8 hits in 7 innings, with the big blow coming on a 2-run Justin Morneau HR with two outs in the first inning.  Westbrook allowed another run in the second, and then shut the Twins down over the next 5 innings.  Unfortunately, the offense did not manage to score off Nick Blackburn, failing to capitalize on three doubles among 8 hits overall.  Paul Byrd has his second good start in a row on Sunday, allowing a run on 6 hits over 7 innings.  Since walking 4 over 7 IP in his first two starts, Byrd hasn’t walked a batter over 13 IP in his last two starts.  Unfortunately, his teammates again failed to score, as Byrd took a no-decision for the second start in a row (following a 5-3 loss to Boston in which Byrd also game up only one run).
  3. Victor Martinez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Casey Blake.  It’s hard to find much of an offensive bright spot in this series, but Casey Blake was 3-for-10 with a HR and 3 RBI, accounting for almost all of the offense in Friday’s win.  Asdrubal Cabrera had 2 doubles and 2 walks in 7 plate appearances, and Victor Martinez was 4-for-12.  Victor is hitting .360 in 2008, but he is not hitting for power yet – his 18 hits include 16 singles and 2 doubles.

The Bad

  1. The rest of the offense.  Take away Martinez, Cabrera and Blake, and the rest of the team hit just .149 with 12 strikeouts in 67 AB.  Franklin Gutierrez had 2 hits in 11 AB.  Grady Sizemore had 2 hits in 13 AB and struck out 3 times. Travis Hafner was 1-for-8.  Jason Michaels was hitless again and saw only 7 pitches in his 2 AB yesterday.
  2. Rafael Perez.  Last year, Perez was almost unreachable in a set-up role, posting a 1.78 ERA in 60 innings.  He took the loss yesterday, giving up a run on 4 hits over 2 innings.  Over 3 IP in the series, twins hitters hit .357 against Perez, who now boasts a 5.19 ERA and 1.846 WHIP.

The Ugly: take your pick, it was all pretty ugly.

What’s Going On With Cliff Lee?

Again, Cliff Lee is the story of 2008 for the Tribe, the flip side to the debacle that is C.C. Sabathia.  Last year, Lee was 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA.  This year, he’s 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA.  In 2007, opponents hit .284 against him, and lefties hit .327 with a .917 OPS.  In 2008, opponents are hitting just .111, and lefties are hitting .120 with 7 strikeouts in 25 AB.  What is the cause of the turnaround?

Lee is clearly throwing more strikes, although not spectacularly so.  In 3 starts, he’s thrown 66.5% strikes.  In 2007, he threw 64.8% strikes.  Cliff’s problem last year wasn’t walks, however, it was that he was hit and hit hard.  His 2007 average of 3.3 walks per 9 innings was the same as Jake Westbrook’s, and not much higher than Fausto Carmona (2.8 BB/9).  His 10.4 hits per 9 innings was higher than any of the starters other than Paul Byrd (11.2).  In addition, 41% of Lee’s hits in 2007 went for extra bases, leading to that .917 OPS.  In 2008, Lee has lowered those averages to 0.8 BB/9 and 3.2 hits/9.  He’s striking out almost 8 batters per 9 innings.  Of the 8 hits he’s given up, only one has been for extra bases (a triple). So he’s throwing more strikes, but not enough more strikes to explain why he’s not giving up hits.

His pitch selection and velocity are basically the same as last year.  In 2007, he threw 72.3% fastballs; this year, it’s 73.7%.  His velocity is up slightly, from 90.3 MPH to 90.7.  He is throwing more curves this year, with fewer sliders and changeups.  His curves are up from 4.9% to 8.8%.  His sliders are down from 6.1% to 2.9%, while his changeups are down from 16.7% to 14.6%.  Clearly, he feels he can throw the curve for strikes now, whereas he did not last year – he threw 24 curves in 2007, and has already thrown 18 this year.  Statistically, the biggest single change appears to be movement on his pitches, not velocity. Specifically, his vertical movement is similar, if a little less, but his horizontal movement is up materially.  Compare 2007 to 2008:

  Movement in x (in.) Movement in z (in.)
  2008 2007 2008 2007
Fastball 5.66 3.83 11.65 12.85
Curve -6.14 -4.76 -5.94 -5.22
Slider -2.73 -1.29 4.65 6.11
Change 7.99 8.01 9.76 10.13

Whatever the difference is, here’s hoping he keeps it up, and it spreads to C.C.

Next up: three games in Kansas City starting tomorrow night, wrapping up the 8 game road trip.  C.C. Sabathia (0-3, 13.50) faces Gil Meche (1-2, 6.08) on Tuesday.  Fausto Carmona (2-1, 1.96) matches up against Brett Tomko (1-2, 3.60) on Wednesday, followed by Cliff Lee (3-0, 0.40) and Brian Bannister (3-1, 2.42) in Thursday’s finale.  The Tribe then returns home to face the Yankees.

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