That's pretty close to what happened in baseball last night, as the utterly
improbable happened… Cliff Lee left something like $30 or $40 million or so on
the table (depending on which report you read), along with the Yankees and the
Rangers, to re-sign with the Phillies, the team that had so memorably traded him
away exactly one year ago today. In an off-season that is still young, this may
even top the Werth and Crawford contracts (the latter also being a daring
midnight raid on the Yankees and Angels), the throwing of big bucks at Joaquin Benoit, and the Adrian Gonzalez and Dan Uggla heists for improbable happenings.
How improbable was it? The benchmark of improbability is that the best baseball
writer on the planet, and a man who is as closely tied into the Phillies'
thinking as anyone this side of the Phillie Phanatic, Jayson Stark, didn't see
this coming until the day it happened.
As a result of this improbability, maybe a million words will fly through the
Ethernet in the coming weeks, some of them proclaiming the end of the world as
we know it (most of these will be coming from a 100 miles north and a little
east of Philadelphia), some predicting that the Phillies have put together the
greatest starting rotation in baseball history (which may or may not be proven
true, although it doesn't hurt to have Cole Hamels as your number four
starter), and some just marveling/claiming that a former substitute outfielder,
and the son of the 1964 National League Gold Glove shortstop (who, yes, is a
graduate of the William Penn Charter School… but, that can't be helped),
A) Pulled off a miracle
B) Brought a folk hero back to
C) Made himself a folk hero at the same time
D) Wrapped up at least the next two National League World Series berths
E) Wrote a ticket for Joe Blanton to be pitching somewhere else in 2011
F) Finally, once and for all, changed the destiny, the corporate culture, of
a franchise that has existed since 1883 (even before Bugs Bunny). In other
words, the Phillies, the Philadelphia Phillies, thanks in part to this very same
PC grad, have reached the status (that being a top-flight player's destination
of choice), enjoyed at various times in baseball history by (in historical
order, and leaving out duplications)… the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago
White Stockings, the St. Louis Browns, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston
Beaneaters, the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, the Philadelphia Athletics,
the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the
Cincinnati Reds, and the Atlanta Braves.
In a word… shocking.
What you may or may not see written about is another issue, that is, what in
the world was anybody thinking about in terms of giving a 32-and-a-half (on
March 2, 2011) year old pitcher a five, six or seven year-long contract?
Ultimately, such a question hinges on how well Cliff Lee is likely to pitch in
the final few years of his contract, something that is, of course, unanswerable
at this point… which doesn't mean you can't still try.
One on-line genius recently proposed that Cliff Lee would last pretty well to
the age of 39 (the end-date of a seven-year contract), giving as comparative
examples the following pitchers at that age; Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, and a couple of others. OK,
what's wrong with this picture? Right… Ryan, Johnson, Clemens and
Let us instead turn to one of Bill James' most notable inventions;
Similarity Scores. Without going into exhaustive detail, it's a system that
matches current players up to their closest historical counterparts, based on a
wide range of their statistics, with a 1000 being a perfect score – an exact
statistical match. James devised such a sound system that Similarity Scores
often match up similar players with one another, in other words, power pitchers
with power pitchers, utility infielders with utility infielders, etc. Cliff
Lee's closest Similarity Score comps, not for an entire career, but through
the age of 31 (which is basically where Lee pitched in 2010) are an interesting
group, to say the least… perhaps they can give us some true insight into how
Lee might age…
They all match-up between 953 and 931 on James' scale, meaning they're
all good comps. So, how did these nine guys (leaving out Carpenter, who's
obviously still pitching) fare after the age of 31? Glad you asked ("Years"
is the number of years they pitched after the age of 31, and "Age" is their
age when they lasted pitched in the majors)…
|AVERAGE||4.4||35.8||29.9 - 30.9||132|
In a word, yuck! At least that would be the word if you were paying more than
$20 million a year for an average won-lost record of 30-31 over four-and-a-half
seasons. But, wait a minute… maybe they all had bad luck, and/or pitched for
bad teams that saddled them with poor records, thus sabotaging their chances for
the Cy Young Award. Nope, that's not it either. Out of the 40 seasons
represented above, exactly 10 of them saw the pitchers in question post an
Adjusted ERA of 100 or better (mostly by Burkett, Flanagan and Rowe.) Now, there
are some mitigating factors, but, essentially, only the three just-named
pitchers were worth a bucket of warm spit after the age of 31.
For the record, the mitigating factors were: Neagle was busted on a morals
charge, ending his career; Rowe lost two years to World War 2; Rueter was the
luckiest pitcher in baseball history… he was terrible, but managed to last for
130 wins because the Expos and Giants always scored a lot of runs for him;
Browning got hurt; Flanagan's last three years were affected by injury and
pitching situational relief; Higuera got hurt; and Hoyt was a druggie. So maybe
this group wasn't that bad because, well, stuff happens… but, that's the
point. You take a group of nine, 31 year old pitchers, and stuff is likely to
happen to a majority of them before they turn 39.
This group also has some peripheral commonalities along with Lee. They were
generally pretty good pitchers (if you just saw a list of their names,
wouldn't you say that they were all good at one time or another…), almost
all of whom had one of two big years. Neagle was 20-5 for the Braves… Rowe
went 24-8 and 16-3 for the Tigers… Burkett posted a 22-7 year for the
Giants… Browning was 20-9 as a rookie and also went 18-5 later on… Flanagan,
like Lee, won a Cy Young with his big year, a 23-9 mark… Higuera went 20-11
and Hoyt 24-10 before they blew up. And Nagy at least had a 17-11 year. (Rueter
was… well, Rueter.)
They all also were not considered power pitchers for most of their careers,
although their collective strikeout/walk ratios tended to be right around a
respectable 2 to 1 (leaving out Rowe who pitched in a much different era, and
Rueter, who couldn't strike Matt Coyne out on his best day.) They all also had
decent control… their walks per nine innings pretty much clustered around
two-and-half (again, leaving out Rowe), with Hoyt being the outlier at 1.9.
In other words, all nine of these former pitchers were basically hurlers who
had one or two big years, pitched well in the late twenties and very early
thirties, and lived more by deception and control than by power. Sound at all
like Cliff Lee?
Look, no one really knows how Cliff Lee is going to fare over the life of his new contract, even though the historical precedents don't look real promising. There is, in fact, only one thing you can say for certain about the Cliff Lee signing… even after winning four straight National League East titles and playing in back-to-back World Series, the Phillies must now be looked at in a different light. Coming on top of trading for Roy Halladay (a better pitcher than Lee… his career record is 169-86 with a 136 ERA+, Lee's is 102-61 with a 112 ERA+) last year, this is a franchise-defining moment, as much as William Hulbert stealing the Big Four from the Red Stockings, as much as buying the Babe from the Red Sox, as much as trading for Joe Medwick in mid-1940, as much as stealing Joe Morgan from the Astros,, as much as signing Greg Maddux… even if it doesn't work out. After 127 years over three centuries, in the minds of baseball men everywhere, the Phillies have arrived.