(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeU.)
In an effort to evaluate whether the Yankees and Rangers are setting themselves up for a fall by offering a long-term contract to Cliff Lee, many have invoked similar deals that were given to the likes of Barry Zito, Johan Santana, C.C. Sabathia, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina. Even if all those pitchers were similar to Lee, it would still be foolish to draw any meaningful conclusion from such a small sample size.
There really is no point in comparing Lee to other pitchers who signed similar long-term contracts. At best it is an anecdotal pursuit. After all, the question we need to answer is whether Lee will be productive over the term of the proposed contract, and a better way to do that is by looking at every starter who pitched from 32 to 38 (the ages Lee would be under a seven-year contract).
Relative Performance of Starters, Ages 32 to 38, Since 1901
|Total||ERA+ >= 100||ERA+ >= 120|
Note: Includes all pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings between the ages of 32 and 38 and started at least 75% of their games.
Since 1901, 397 starters (75%-plus of all games in the rotation) pitched between the ages of 32 and 38. Of that total, 117, or 29%, pitched at least 1,000 innings, of which 83% had an ERA+ of 100 or higher and 29% had an ERA+ of at least 120. Among lefties, the percentage of starters with an ERA+ of 120 or better jumps to 41%.
Based on the data above, it seems that if a starting pitcher is able to stay healthy, he’ll likely be at least league average during his age 32 to 38 seasons. And, if he is a lefty, there is close to an even chance that he’ll be well above average. Looked at in this light, the key question regarding Cliff Lee is whether he will stay healthy over the length of a seven-year deal. Although he has suffered from minor abdominal and back issues during his career, Lee has managed to pitch at least 200 innings in five of the last six seasons (in 2007, he was sent to the minor leagues). The ace lefty also has a reputation for being in good condition and a tireless worker, so there is no reason to think complacency or a premature break down will develop. In other words, Lee fits the profile of a pitcher who should continue to log innings as he progresses deeper into his career. And, once you come to that conclusion, it becomes much more likely that he’ll justify a six- or seven-year contract.
Listed below for further comparison are the top-20 left handed pitchers who meet the criteria referenced above. After his soon-to-be new contract expires, will Lee’s name be added to this list? That remains to be seen, but soon we’ll know whether its the Yankees or Rangers that are sure going to hope so.
Top-20 Left Handed Starters, Ages 32-38, Since 1901
Note: Includes all left handed pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings between the ages of 32 and 38 and started at least 75% of their games.