As the baseball winter meetings continue, with the daily smattering of trade rumors and predictions, no rumor has raised the ire of the Philadelphia fan base more than the proposed trade of Cliff Lee to the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Justin Upton. Although the trade has now apparently been debunked by several sources, including general manager Ruben Amaro, it once again illustrated the Philadelphia love affair with Cliff Lee. The anger among fans toward the Phillies for even considering moving Lee goes beyond the standard “you always need pitching” argument. Instead, it’s grounded in an unprecedented bond this city feels toward the journeyman left-hander that is as fascinating as it is unprecedented.
I would not consider the love for Cliff Lee in this town as mind-boggling, but it does seem disjointed compared to what he has accomplished as a Phillie in his two turns here. It is rooted in reasoning that goes against the logic of every sabermetric idea that now dominates our view of the game of baseball, because this city’s connection with Lee is more emotional than anything else. Consider his entrance onto the Philadelphia scene: The Phillies, high off of a 2008 World Series championship, embarked on another winning season the following year. They pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco to the team for minor league prospects. In his first start, he was stellar, throwing a complete game, giving up no hits through 6 innings, getting two hits at the plate, and exhibiting pinpoint control that the fans had not seen since the days of Curt Schilling. Lee went 5-0 in as many starts, with an ERA under 1.00 and 39 strikeouts in 40 innings pitched. It was safe to say that no other mid-season acquisition in team history could have drawn up such a perfect debut. In the 2009 post season, Lee was masterful, getting four wins, two against the AL champion New York Yankees. His cool-as-ice demeanor against such a formidable foe, embodied in his ho-hum catch of a weak pop-up in the World Series that it now the stuff of legend, further solidified his place in Phillie fans’ hearts. The Yankees would win the series, but Cliff Lee had won the fans.
Therefore it was not surprising when the fan base was furious as Lee was traded to Seattle that off-season, a move whose effect was lessened by the acquisition of Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. But even the signing of arguably the best pitcher in the game at that time was not enough to lessen the anger of the fan base toward management for letting Lee go after all he had contributed in 2009. After the 2010 season, when the Phillies were eliminated by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS despite a masterful Cy Young season and post-season performance by Halladay, including a perfect game and no-hitter, Ruben Amaro shocked the baseball world and the Phillie fans when he signed Cliff Lee again, with the added bonus of prying him away from a deal with the hated Yankees that seemed all but completed. In addition, Lee would complete what many considered to be the most fearsome pitching rotation in baseball. Sure enough, that staff would propel the team to 102 wins in 2011, but another early post-season exit, this time against the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
There is no doubt that Lee’s 2009 performance was legendary, and the fans in this city savored the last few months of that season to this day, despite the fact that the team fell short in the World Series. That was due in no part to the effort of Lee, who could not have done any more than he did to get the Phillies a second straight title. However, since his return to the Phillies, despite his usual stellar statistics, the reality is that Lee has been less than perfect in the big spots. His one postseason decision against the Cardinals in the 2011 playoffs resulted in a 7.50 ERA loss, where he gave up a Phillies lead in a series that St.Louis went on to win on their way to a World Series championship. After a 17-8 record in 2011, Lee’s 2012 season was mediocre, a 6-9 record overall and a 3.16 ERA (unusually high for him). Lee didn’t get his first win until July last season, and had a stretch of 13 starts with no decision at one point.
It’s no secret that the Phillies offense was a huge factor in Lee’s downturn in 2012, but not every games was lost by the lack of clutch hitting, or in many cases hitting at all. But Lee has to take some blame for his record, including giving up 26 long balls, which was the most for him in 6 seasons. His 1.1 homers allowed per nine innings was his highest total since 2007. His strikeout-to-walks were still exemplary, but there were many games where Lee was spotted a lead and yet surrendered it, especially late in the game, which is traditionally when he usually gets sharper and stronger.
Despite these numbers, the love for Cliff Lee is just as strong now as it was back in 2009 during his first turn in Philadelphia. Overall, Cliff Lee is 30-21 in his 2 turns as a Phillie, and 4-0 in the postseason, all in 2009. He will be 35 before the 2013 season is over, and has been injured, albeit in a way that is not as concerning as Halladay’s setbacks have been. So why the unabashed love for a pitcher that has not won us a World Series ring, and who is coming off one of the worst seasons for a Cy Young award winner in baseball history? The fact is that Lee’s exhibition of toughness, especially in 2009, in the face of a new team, new league and the dreaded New York Yankees, has endeared him to this fan base forever. Every loss that Lee suffers, every lead he surrenders, every homer run he gives up, seems to be justified by most fans in a fashion that leaves him out of the equation. Philly is an emotional town, and in Cliff Lee’s case the emotion trumps some of the numbers and facts, which tend to not be as rosy as of late.
The fact that so many fans have been up in arms this week as Lee’s name was thrown into trade discussions has further proven this point. In this city, toughness, resilience and durability mean something. Only recently have the fans fully embraced Cole Hamels, for example, because despite a World Series MVP and overall brilliant career, he was never perceived as being the bulldog that Lee is, again proving that, despite the obvious accomplishments that Hamels has achieved and Lee has not as a Phillie, it is Cliff that many would go to war with. Lee jerseys tend to outnumber Hamels jereys at the ballpark on any given night by at least 5-1. That’s no coincidence.
In a way, the Philly love for Cliff Lee is why I’m not a stats-driven sabermetrics guy as so many baseball analysts and fans tend to be these days. Such interpretation fails to include the intangible factors such as the personality and playing style of the athlete, and no example is as glaring as that of Cliff Lee in Philadelphia. Those factors more than any other seem to ensure that the Lee love affair is no short-term fling, and hopefully before it’s over he can place another ring on Philly’s finger.
Tags: Cliff Lee, Justin Upton, love affair, Major League Baseball, playoffs, Roy Halladay