Cliff Lee: Wild and Crazy Guy

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The most dominant postseason pitcher of his era, Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers might like to tell you his success can be traced to serious introspection in a thinking man's game. Sounds feasible enough.

He could make that case, except for one catch. He's given it no thought.

© JUSTIN LANE/epa/Corbis

"I don't really dig that deep into what I think or why I think it," said Lee, whose playoff record is one for the history books even with the San Francisco Giants delivering a comeuppance in Game 1 of the World Series.

Some guys make pitching sound like string theory. Lee is not one.

Things turned around for him when he stopped trying to jam righthanded hitters, when he started using both sides of the plate and commanding all his pitches.

Conspiracy Theories

He's made it look so easy, conspiracy theorists began studying the smudge spots on the bill and back of his cap during these playoffs thinking there had to be something else at work.

It's not as if he developed a potion that makes the ball allergic to wood as Ray Milland's character did in the old Disney-style baseball classic, It Happens Every Spring. The substance on his cap is a perfectly legal rosin residue.

You can't blame people for wondering, hitters especially. Before his loss to the Giants, Lee was 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason starts. He'd struck out 34 hitters and walked just one, unheard of in an era of the Incredibly Shrinking Strike Zone.

In Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Lee struck out 11 hitters to win his second game of the series. Against the Yankees in Game 3, he threw eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts.

That series never reached Game 7. But the specter of the Yankees needing to beat Lee in a deciding game to reach the World Series led exasperated New York outfielder Nick Swisher to say, "You guys are talking about Cliff Lee? [Expletive], who cares? I can't wait to hit against his (behind)."

Everybody's talking about Lee in this postseason, except, as usual, Lee.

Young and Dumb

Reticence wasn't always the case with him. He was what baseball scouts call a "tough sign" mostly for his sense of self-worth. He also gave scouts reason to worry about him for his off-field issues as a high school and college pitcher. He was arrogant and stubborn on the field. Primarily a strike thrower on the mound except for when he purposely plunked someone, wildness ruled the day elsewhere in his life.

In 2006, when he was pitching for the Cleveland Indians, I asked him about his reputation as a Major League prospect. He offered descriptions like "flamboyant" and "hellion." I looked at this flat-liner standing before me. This was a character out of Animal House?

"I was young and dumb," he said then. "It's not like I was completely stupid, selling drugs or anything. When I figured out I was going to be pretty good at baseball, I figured I'd better get my act together and make something of myself.

"I just wasn't a very good kid. Yeah, I've been to jail, and it's not a fun place to be. I really don't deserve to be where I am right now."

In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Lee's wife, Kristen, mentioned "crazy stuff" in her husband's life when they were growing up in Benton, Arkansas. But that sense of invulnerability had its place on the mound. Scouts thought his fastball was just OK. What they noticed then, what they still notice now, is a supreme confidence bordering on disdain in how he uses that fastball.

"A lot of young pitchers give hitters too much credit," said Mark Shapiro, the man who stole Lee for Cleveland from a desperate Montreal organization. "That's not Cliff."

Acquiring Cliff Lee, in part, cemented Shapiro's reputation as a GM. Trying to make a pennant push, the Expos traded Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips to Cleveland in a deal for pitcher Bartolo Colon.

Hot in Cleveland

The one glitch for the Indians -- a turn of events still rued in the city of Cleveland -- is that Lee suffered a disastrous 2007 season. After one start in which fans booed him, he mockingly tipped his cap and was sent to the minors the next day. He wasn't even on the playoff roster when the Indians came within one win of beating Boston and going to the World Series.

That's officially an "Only in Cleveland" sports moment. Not quite like never winning a NBA title with LeBron James, but given that Lee won the AL Cy Young Award the very next season and given what he's done since...well, no wonder people in the city I call home feel cursed.

Lee had a 6.38 ERA in 2007. The next season, he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA.

Not in Cleveland

In a rebuilding mode and knowing they couldn't sign him, the Indians traded Lee to the Phillies in 2009. That's where his postseason legend began. In Manhattan for the World Series opener against the Yankees, Lee's cab got stuck in traffic going to the stadium. He hopped out, got on a subway not knowing where he was, placed a call to the visiting clubhouse to get directions, and arrived an hour later than normal.

Starting pitchers are creatures of habit. Lee's routine was greatly compromised. No big deal. He threw a complete game with no walks, no earned runs and 10 strikeouts.

With Philadelphia working to bring pitcher Roy Halladay to town, it dealt Lee to Seattle last December for payroll reasons. The Mariners' season quickly fell apart, prompting them to trade Lee to Texas in July.

Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Why so much movement for such a great pitcher? Follow the money. As the top free agent on the market, Lee is about to become a "tough sign" again once the World Series ends.

Texas is the closest major league team to Lee's Arkansas home town but the Yankees, as usual, are considered the favorites to secure his services.

That's as long as Lee doesn't put too much thought into the rough treatment his wife got from some Yankees fans during the ALCS. They spit and threw beer in her direction and yelled obscenities.

Will he stay in Texas?

He does have a chance to do something truly historic, something that has nothing to do with matching Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or any of the great postseason pitchers in baseball history.

He has a chance to say no to the Yankees as the ultimate free-agent prize, something his good buddy, former Indians teammate C.C. Sabathia, couldn't do.

For a guy who likes to keep things simple, turning down the Yankees won't be easy given that they're expected to give him $150 million reasons not to.

Cliff Lee has forced himself into the discussion of the greatest postseason pitchers in modern baseball history. There is one disclaimer: Pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson didn't pitch against wild card or division winners. They did their damage exclusively in the World Series against the best of the other league. Still, it's worth seeing how Lee stacks up against some other top postseason pitchers:

Josh Beckett 7-3, 3.07 ERA, 14 Games
*
Whitey Ford 10-8, 2.71 22 games
*
Bob Gibson 7-2, 1.89 ERA, 9 games
*
Sandy Koufax 4-3, 0.95 ERA, 8 games
*
Cliff Lee 7-1, 1.96ERA, 9 games
*
Andy Pettitte 19-10, 3.83 ERA, 41 games
*
Curt Schilling 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 19 games

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

November 1, 2010 - 6:20am
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