Rambling about Cliff Lee & the Yankees

It’s been a while since I’ve written a lot of words on something and I have all of these different thoughts and questions swirling around my head about this whole Cliff Lee deal… it seems like a good time for a rambling post about Cliff Lee and the Yankees. I apologize if it feels a bit disjointed (or if the countless Yankees blogs have already gone over all of these points a thousand times)…

The Yankees won 95 games last year. Their pythagorean record had them with 97 wins, the best in the majors. They did this despite playing in the toughest division in baseball. They did this despite getting such little production from Derek Jeter that the blogosphere was ready to revolt if there was even one more positive article written about him. And, finally, they did this despite getting absolutely nothing from two of their starting pitchers. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR, A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez combined for a total of -0.1 WAR in their 59 starts. (They’re hardly better in Fangraphs’ WAR, where they total 1.2 WAR, entirely thanks to Burnett’s 1.3 fWAR on the season).

Clearly, then, if you’re Hal Steinbrenner, you must – bold, underline, italicize, highlight, exclamation mark, must! – go out and buy the best pitcher on the market, price or budget be damned. And if that means adding a seventh year when you didn’t even really want to add the sixth year to begin with, that’s what you have to do.

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We all know, of course, that Cliff Lee would make any team better, even the Yankees. What he’s done over the last three years has been remarkable. The guy strikes out a bunch of batters, doesn’t walk anyone and doesn’t give up home runs. That’s a combination that will give you a chance to win pretty much any game he pitches in. The only pitcher to have been at all close over these last three years was Roy Halladay. Can’t complain about that company.

But it still doesn’t answer whether or not Lee is worth the seven-year contract that he is almost certainly going to accept from the Yankees this week. Halladay, for example, is two years older than Lee. Doc signed a three-year extension with the Phillies last year for $60 million, with a fourth-year vesting option to bring it up to $80 million. Let’s assume Doc and Lee are equal talents (which is being slightly generous, considering Doc’s longer, better career). That means that, in the winter of 2009, a Lee-caliber player was signed to a four-year, $80 million contract following his age-32 season. A roughly equal contract for Lee in the winter of 2010, then, would be five-years (to pay for the age-32 season that the Phils missed out on in Doc’s contract) and a bit over $100 million. The Yankees, though, are said to be offering seven years and $160 million.

I get that the 2010 winter is not the 2009 winter, and teams have more money to spend. I get that the Yankees finished in second place last year and they don’t like doing that. I get that the Red Sox have acquired the two best players of the off-season so far and that the Yankees can’t just let their arch-rivals grab all the headlines. And I get that the Yankees feel they have black holes in two out of five starting spots.

But are all of those “extenuating” circumstances worth an additional two years and ~$55 million? Finding a pitcher to replace Javier Vazquez is important, of course, but is it necessary to replace the worst pitcher on your staff with the best pitcher on the market, especially when you won 95 games last year? Do the Yankees really think Burnett is going to be a complete waste of space again? Did the Red Sox really get six-to-eight wins better by acquiring Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez (after letting Adrian Beltre go)?

For the life of me, I just don’t see how any of those questions can be answered affirmatively. My gut wants me to believe that Cashman is drastically overreacting to everything and is about to overpay to save some face. There is, however, one thing that is preventing me from writing this off as a bad idea entirely.

When trying to find recent pitchers who had three consecutive seasons as good as Lee’s last three years in terms of home run, walk, and strikeout ratios, I noticed something about Mike Mussina‘s career. From 2001-2003, Mussina’s first three years in New York, he put up awfully similar numbers. Over the last three years, Lee has had a 0.6/1.3/7.2 HR9/BB9/K9 ratio. From ’01-’03, Mussina’s numbers were 0.9/1.8/8.1. The home runs and walks are a little worse and the strikeouts are a little better. Lee’s the superior pitcher in those three years, but it’s not too far off (and that’s ignoring the difference in offense between the periods).

The biggest difference, though, is that Lee’s period represents his age 29-31 seasons while Mussina’s period represents his age 32-34 seasons. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, then, for Lee to maintain most of his current production through age 34. If he does that and then follows Mussina’s aging curve through age 38, the Yankees would almost certainly have gotten their money’s worth. In his eight years as a Yankee, Mussina had 30.3 bWAR (25.9 through the first seven) and 38.2 fWAR (32.9 in the first seven). That would be a very optimistic projection, though, especially when you realize how much better Mussina was during his twenties.

I said above that this would be a rambling look at the Cliff Lee/Yankees situation. I think I kept my word at that. But it’s only like this because I’m having a hard time getting my head around the whole thing. If Lee is truly as good as his last three years and is not some James Shields or Josh Beckett or Shane Reynolds illusion, then he’ll certainly end up as one of the best pitchers of his generation and more than worth a seven year commitment. Three-year track records are incredibly dangerous to go by, though, and I just can’t shake the feeling that the market should be a little more restrained. It won’t happen, of course, so Yankees fans are just going to have to hope that Lee can turn into Mike Mussina in his thirties. Oh, the irony*.

*”Irony” as defined by the common misuse of the word on the internet. See also “Morissettian Irony“.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.