By R.J. Anderson //
(Note: I am working under the assumption that the Rays will play the Rangers in the ALDS, if that isn’t already obvious.)
The Rays are familiar with Cliff Lee. His first start in the playoffs versus them will mark the fourth of the season. Lee has somehow fallen to 0-3 against the Rays in the regular season despite holding the team to a .253/.265/.347 line and striking out 25 batters in roughly 24 innings pitched. No home runs allowed might not be a surprise but only two walks neutralizes one of the Rays’ best offensive talents.
As liquid as the Rays’ lineups can be in order to take advantage of even the smallest crack in the ship, Lee looks like the Titanic. His white-hot start with the Mariners held more publicity than his time in Arlington, but he’s pitched mostly the same minus some additional home runs that come with the switch in ballparks. Lee has fared slightly worse against left-handed batters this season but not enough to fall under Danks Theory consideration. Historical data suggests this is not a longstanding flaw in Lee’s game anyways.
Unlike many lefties, who work primarily away from right-handed batters, Lee works in the zone and over the plate. He’s going to place his fastball over the plate and batters are not going to hit it. In fact, he throws his fastball for strikes against righties nearly 75% of the time. That is a common theme with Lee. Against lefties Lee prefers to work away, however he’ll still maintain working over the plate. Lee’s game is not necessarily about swings and misses, but that is not a huge concern when your pitches get 70% strikes without finding their way into the seats constantly.
Lee goes to a first-pitch fastball (whether it be a cutter or a two/four-seamer) nearly 90% of the time versus right-handed batters. The rest of the first-pitch breakdown is tied to changeups. Lee tends to use his change often when he gets ahead except for 0-2 counts, where he uses it less than 5% of the time. Could be a sample size issue, or it could be that Lee wants to stay away from predictability. In its place he goes to a curveball a quarter of the time. Lee only had four 0-2 curves called as strikes this season, with each of them being up and over the plate. He loves trying to drop it at the batter’s feet and having them chase, which they do a fair amount of the time.
Lee does not toss his change versus lefties often. His curveball is mostly absent too. It’s all about his fastballs and an occasional slider. Worth noting is that Lee’s groundball rates go up against southpaws, suggesting his location tends to give batters fits.
The chances of a horrible Lee start are mostly a rumor. Anytime a team faces him, the expectation is that the runs will have to be of the scrapping variety. For instance, here’s how the Rays have scored against him this season:
Gabe Kapler single to short CF-RF
Jason Bartlett double down LF line
Evan Longoria line drive to short LF-CF
Carlos Pena lineout to weak SS, resulting in a throwing error
B.J. Upton groundball up the middle
Sean Rodriguez flyball double to deep CF-RF
Gabe Kapler flyball to LF (sac fly with Carl Crawford running)
Willy Aybar flyball to short right field
Carl Crawford fielder’s choice (nobody out)
Evan Longoria single up the middle
Carlos Pena line drive single
Ben Zobrist single to left field
More bloopers than bangers there. I’m expecting that to continue to be the case, whether Lee faces the Rays once, twice, or (heavens forbid) thrice more this season.