Cleveland Indians

Looking Ahead: Cliff Lee

Fantasy leaguers have short memories, and often seem to expect pitchers to repeat the previous year's performance (right down to the win total).  Readers of this site know it usually doesn't work that way.  Let's take a look at this year's Cy Young favorite, Cliff Lee. 

I should start by saying, I like Cliff Lee.  He has helped many of my fantasy teams this year (except when I traded him to Los Genius for Rafael Furcal in May). Right now Lee has a 2.43 ERA, 18 wins, and a 1.08 WHIP.  A 5.42 K/BB ratio tells us this is no fluke.  However, it must be noted that Lee leads all of baseball with a 5.0% HR per flyball rate.  Though he's gained a ton in groundball rate, he's likely to give up twice as many homers in '09. 

The other risk factor is that he pitched 145.3 innings in '07 and should top 225 this year.  Lee is 30 years old and he's topped 200 innings in the past.  Still, 80 innings is a notable increase for any pitcher in my opinion.

Run support should also be considered - Lee is seventh in the AL with 5.77 runs per game.  The Indians rank eighth in the league with 4.83 runs per game.  Baseball Prospectus suggests Lee should be 14-5 rather than 18-2.  XFIP calls for a 3.47 ERA rather than 2.43.  Still, you'd take 14 wins and a 3.47 ERA for a guy you plucked off the waiver wire, wouldn't you?

That's the thing about a Cy Young season - it's a very well-pitched performance accentuated by good fortune.  I have no idea how fantasy leaguers will respond to Lee's season.  If they overcompensate for his likely decline and he slips past the eighth round, I'll consider him.

Last year's AL Cy Young vote with each pitcher's average '08 draft round: C.C. Sabathia (5), Josh Beckett (5), John Lackey (6), Fausto Carmona (9), Erik Bedard (4), Roy Halladay (9), Johan Santana (2), Justin Verlander (5).  And for fun, the NL: Jake Peavy (2), Brandon Webb (4), Brad Penny (11), Aaron Harang (6), Carlos Zambrano (6), Cole Hamels (5), John Smoltz (7), Jose Valverde (8), Jeff Francis (13).

Cliff Lee's Dominance

I picked up Cliff Lee in three of my five leagues, as I liked his early K/BB and soft schedule.  I certainly didn't expect for him to go on a run unmatched in at least the last 50 years.  Let's look at the numbers:

31.2 innings
4 starts
7.92 IP/start
0.28 ERA
0.41 WHIP
8.24 K/9
0.57 BB/9
14.5 K/BB
3.13 H/9
.153 BABIP
0.00 HR/9
45.2% groundball rate

Sure, most of it's not sustainable, but let's just marvel in it for a moment. 

OK, let's talk reality.  Lee was nothing special in spring, but won the fifth starter battle.  Last year he posted an ERA over 6.00 amid an abdominal strain, earning a demotion in July.  Lee's career-best K/9: 8.09.  His best walk rate was 2.32.  It's not unfathomable he could combine those career-best rates into one dominant season.

How about the soft schedule?  For that we can use Baseball Prospectus' Opponent's Quality OPS.  That's the aggregate OPS of all batters faced by a pitcher.  Lee's opponents have the 17th-lowest OPS at .694.  By the way, Adam Wainwright has faced the easiest opponents based on this stat.

Obviously Lee can't keep it up, but if you own him you should probably just enjoy the ride.  If you're overflowing with pitching and you're offered a top-30 type hitter, make the trade.  Otherwise, enjoy what should be Lee's career year.

Borowski To DL

Joe Borowski's on the DL, but I'm not seeing much of a scramble for Rafael Betancourt.  That's because he was already rostered in all five of my 12-team mixed leagues.  Wouldn't be shocking to see Betancourt keep the gig all year.

If he bombs for some reason, I'd keep an eye on Masahide Kobayashi, Rafael Perez, and Jensen Lewis (in that order).

More ABs For V-Mart?

Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal reports some fantasy-relevant comments made by Indians manager Eric Wedge recently:

"This year, we need Hafner to play a little more first base, so Victor can be the (occasional) DH.  Victor also is taking more ground balls at first, so he can play a little there. It's tough to take his offense out of the lineup."

Owners of these two players just let out a collective "BOOYAH!"  Well, maybe not, but it can only be construed as a positive.  Think about the ramifications:

1.  More at-bats for Victor Martinez.  Most owners of V-Mart barely thought this possible after he tallied 547 ABs in 2005.  But if Martinez continues to catch a ton of games and spends additional time at first base and DH, he could certainly snag 580 at-bats.  Now, such a jump would only mean maybe a 5% bump in his counting stats, but it pulls him even further away from Joe Mauer as the best offensive receiver in the game.

2.  V-Mart gains first base eligibility.  I've never known an owner to have a catcher surplus, and it would be downright silly to use Victor anywhere else.  However, there could be a long-term benefit here to his keeper league owners.  Maybe the Tribe hangs on to Kelly Shoppach, who would make a very capable Major League regular right now.  Martinez continues to catch a decent share of games but severely decelerates the typical catcher decline by switching to a much easier position for half his games. 

3.  Hafner gains first base eligibility.  When I picked Hafner up in the second round in my RotoWorld draft, I was accepting a lack of maneuverability with my DH slot for the rest of the season.  Hafner only played one game at first in 2005, so I can't use him at a corner.  But maybe he starts playing 15-20 games at first base now, giving my team all sorts of options when I start making transactions later.  Hard to pin a dollar amount on position eligibility, but this could theoretically put Hafner slightly above David Ortiz.

4.  Kelly Shoppach stays in Cleveland.  This is actually a negative in my book.  Not only is Jacobs Field a pitchers' park, but a lack of a trade damages Shoppach's fantasy potential.  He's not taking over full-time catching duties from Martinez.  Shoppach bashed 26 HR in 371 Triple A at-bats in 2005, and a park like Citizens Bank would inflate his homers by 20%.  The Phils have a known interest in Shoppach, and such a deal would be the best fantasy scenario for him outside of Coors.    

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