David Murphy: Lee's season underscores Phils' need for roster balance

Posted: September 20, 2012

OUT OF ALL the bizarre factoids that offer themselves up during a season like 2012, few offer such a tidy explanation as this: It took nearly 3 calendar months before Cliff Lee walked onto the mound with a lead of greater than three runs. That might not strike you as impressive at first glance, but think about it: Teams pay closers tens of millions of dollars because of their ability to hang on to leads of three runs or fewer. They do so because those leads are considered tenuous, because the pitches that are required to protect them are considered "high stress" or "high leverage."

With that in mind, look at Lee's April. In his first start, he was charged with protecting a one-run lead in all six of his innings. His third start saw him start all 10 of his innings with a scoreless tie. After a 3-week stay on the disabled list, Lee returned to more of the same: His first start back saw him charged with protecting a tie or a one-run lead in all six of his innings. It wasn't until his fifth start of the season that Lee finally saw some semblance of breathing room: Six of his eight innings saw him take the mound with a lead of two or three runs.

We bring all of this up because Lee happens to be in a bit of a groove right now. The Phillies have won each of his last five starts, including a 3-1 victory over the Mets on Monday night. During that span, Lee has allowed just four earned runs and three walks while striking out 33. Since the start of July, he is 6-2 with a 2.50 ERA while averaging more than seven innings in each of his 14 starts. If he finished the season with three starts like his three most recent, he'd have a 3.07 ERA, 211 innings, and more than 200 strikeouts. It might not be Cy Young-worthy, but the Phillies would certainly label the second year of a 5-year, $120 million contract a rousing success.

At the same time, Lee's season underscores the impracticality of contending for a title with starting pitching alone. Although conventional wisdom suggests that the Phillies' rotation suffered through an abnormally rough season, the fact remains that it still ranks fifth in the National League with a 3.80 ERA. In Lee's first nine starts, he posted a 2.92 ERA. The Phillies lost six of them. That right there is where the season began to be lost.

During a chat with reporters after the postponement of Tuesday's game with the Mets, manager Charlie Manuel was asked about the supposed struggles of his starters, and he pointed to the injuries the group suffered. But injuries, as Manuel likes to say, are part of it. If anything, 2012 showed just how fortunate the Phillies had been the previous season, when none of their top three starters missed a start.

Roy Halladay is 35, and 35-year-old pitchers go through seasons like this. They see their velocity drop. They battle injuries. They enter the second half of September with a 4.03 ERA. A season like this is not necessarily an anomaly. Lee is a couple of years younger, but he also has a contract of a couple of years longer.

Point is, the Phillies will be fighting a losing battle on a couple of fronts if they do not achieve more balance on their roster. First and foremost is the day-to-day quest for victories. Second, though, is the wear-and-tear that their starters have experienced over the last couple of seasons. Not only the number of pitches they've thrown - their average of 99 per start this year is second in the NL - but the situations where they have thrown them. Lee has the sixth-highest average leverage index, which attempts to quantify the "importance" of situations, among NL starters, according to Baseball-Reference.com. And that is why the factoid at the top of this story feels so relevant. Lee and the rest of the rotation can control only their little slice of the Phillies' fate. They need a lineup that can give them leads, and they need a bullpen that can protect those leads. Only then will October return.


Contact Dave Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/HighCheese.

 

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