Mariners Trade for Cliff Lee

Excuse me for quickly jumping back to baseball…there will be no “possession analysis” in this article :-)

In what’s likely to be the biggest event of Major League Baseball’s offseason, Seattle sent three prospects to Philly and in return got a former Cy Young winner in Cliff Lee. (The trade was more complicated and involved the Blue Jays and Athletics, but that’s the simplified version from Seattle’s perspective). It’s easy to say that the Mariners practically gave up nothing for a Cy Younger, but I want to at least give those prospects a little respect.

So here’s what the Mariners lost…

Phillipe Aumont turns 21 this January and has been in the Mariner’s organization for 2 years. Pitching nearly 107 innings between A, A+ (the higher A league) and AA ball, Aumont struck out an impressive 109 batters while starting 8 games and saving 18. His walk rate is on the high side like many young pitchers, and predicting whether or not he can change that is difficult.

Juan Ramirez’s numbers are a little less impressive, especially considering he hasn’t escaped from A ball yet. However, being a full time starter unlike Aumont, his numbers haven’t been fudged by reliever advantages.  In 342 innings, he has 297 strikeouts and a modest 2.2 K/BB ratio.

Outfielder, Tyson Gillies, turned 21 on Halloween and also hasn’t seen any action higher than A+ ball. Gillies is by no means a power hitter, but more a speed demon. He racked up 44 steals in 124 games last season in the A+ league, and turned a high percentage of balls in play into hits (BABIP). He walked a solid 60 times in 593 plate appearances, recording a 0.430 OBP. It seems like his calling is leadoff.

It doesn’t appear as though the Mariners have lost any major prospects, but still the Ms have obviously lost some depth in their lower minor leagues.

Now here’s what they get…

Cliff Lee first came up with the Cleveland Indians in 2003, and after 5 seasons of just slightly above-average pitching, he won the Cy Young in 2008. (While he finished 4th in the Cy Young voting in 2005, luck factors were on his side, and his 18-5 record was weighted much too heavily in the voting.) Something clicked for Lee between 2007 and 2008 that lowered his walk rate and increased his groundball rate. Lowering a walk rate has an obvious impact on pitching, namely keeping people off base so they can’t score (novel concept). But what does groundball rate have to do with anything?

Lee was a flyball pitcher throughout the early years of his career, and then suddenly turned toward the groundball side of average. With that swing, his double play rate increased from about 8% to 17% in 2008, and he recorded nearly twice as many double plays as his next-best season in that department. Each double play reduces scoring potential in the inning by anywhere from .5 to 1.2 runs depending on the situation. If we assume an average of about .75 runs lost per double play, Lee’s double-play spike saved him nearly a half a run on his ERA. That’s the difference between his 2.54 ERA, and a potential 3.00 (still good, but likely not good enough for the Cy Young.)

Increasing his groundball rate was also the likely culprit in his homerun reduction. During the first five years of Lee’s career, he allowed an average of 29 dingers per every 200 innings pitched. That number has quickly downshifted to about 13 in the last two seasons. A homerun is worth approximately  1.4 runs on average, so this decrease in homers allowed saved Lee nearly another run on his ERA. To summarize, keeping the ball down saved Cliff Lee about 1.5 runs on his ERA during the 2008 season.

The point I want to make is that Lee’s shift toward being a top tier pitcher was fueled not by luck, but mostly by making adjustments that he had control over. This is a good sign going forward, and Seattle can expect an ace-like season from Lee next year.

You also may remember a certain lefty that recently benefitted from the cavernous Safeco field (Washburn for those of you who are lost). His new ballpark and outfield defense will only aide Cliff Lee in having another great season. While I don’t think he is really a 2.5 ERA kind of pitcher, with average luck Lee will still likely turn in an ERA between 2.8 and 3.2 in 2010, making him a pretty damn good number 2 behind King Felix.

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2 Responses to Mariners Trade for Cliff Lee

  1. urbandaddy says:

    I never look at what was lost in a trade – Toronto Blue Jays fan here – but what was gained. The M’s got a great pitcher right now. Things are looking up for fans of the Mariners.

  2. uoduckfan33 says:

    For sure! I’m very excited about the 2010 season. And Toronto did end up getting a high potential pitcher from Seattle, Brandon Morrow. If this kid can learn how to throw strikes, he’s got the stuff to be a top tier starter, I think. Thanks for your comments!

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