In 2008, Cliff Lee won the AL Cy Young by posting a 2.54 ERA and winning 22 games. Of course, the win total is somewhat out of his control – Roy Halladay won “only” 20 games despite pitching 23 more innings for a better team. But Lee’s 2.54 ERA came coupled with a 170/34 K/BB ratio in 223 innings. Lee’s rate of 1.37 walks per nine innings was the lowest of any starting pitcher in baseball.
Furthermore, Lee didn’t benefit from a tremendous amount of good luck. His BABIP was .305, and he stranded 78.3% of the runners who reached base against him (a high number, yes, but remember: good pitchers are going to strand more runners than bad ones, simply because they have a better chance of getting any individual hitter out). However, Lee was fortunate to only give up 12 homers, as only 5.1% of his fly balls became homers, a number that will almost surely rise next year.
Lee posted an impressive 2.83 FIP this year. However, his xFIP – which regresses home run rate back to league average – was 3.69: still excellent, but much higher than his FIP.
Lee’s tRA and tRA* follow similar patterns: his tRA (which is not regressed) was 2.87, but his tRA* – which regresses things like home run rates – was 3.81. For those unfamiliar with tRA*, you subtract .40 to put it back on an ERA scale. So the ERA-equivalent of Lee’s tRA* was 3.41.
And 3.41 sounds like an appropriate approximation for what to expect from Lee next season. There’s little reason to think his newfound control will not continue next season (although he may not have the lowest walk rate of any starter), and the fact that he combines this impeccable control with an above-average amount of swinging strikes (7.9%) bodes quite well for him. He will almost certainly give up more homers, as the rate of fly balls becoming homers this year was unsustainably low.
Furthermore, while the Indians should be a good team, don’t get suckered in to thinking that Lee is going to win more games than a “normal” front-of-the-rotation pitcher. Yes, Lee should once again be good and yes the Indians should win a lot of games, but it’s a lot more likely that Lee will win 14-17 games, rather than 20+.
Cliff Lee is probably going to be one of the better pitchers in the American League once again, and should be valued as such. However, he is extremely unlikely to repeat his 2.54 ERA, and is also unlikely to even post an ERA under three. Lee is good, but be very careful about overvaluing him on draft day.