This is primarily supposed to be a data dump without advocating a position. I just want to at least put this out there to see if it becomes part of the discussion. Two weeks ago, I wrote that Cliff Lee would not only be my choice for AL Cy Young, but also for AL MVP. I’m not necessarily retracting that position based on this information.
Cliff Lee has made 28 starts this season, Roy Halladay 29. Of those, 13 are in-common starts: the A’s, Rays and Rangers twice, and the Angels, White Sox, Reds, Royals, Twins, Yankees and Mariners once. Those starts cancel out. Of the remaining starts, there seems to be a very wide gap in the calilber of competition, enough to at least mention. Of the 15 starts Cliff Lee does not have in common with Halladay, nine have come against teams in the bottom third in offense, as ranked by team EqA, and none have come against a team ranked in the top six.
Looking at it from the other direction, Halladay does not have a single not-in-common start against a team ranked below 18th in EqA. So of the 15 (in Halladay’s case, 16) not in common starts between the two, 60% of Lee’s have come against offenses worse than any of Halladay’s. Halladay also has four not-in-common starts (one against the Cubs, three against the Red Sox) better than any of Lee’s.
Let me run the data this way, because I think it illustrates the point. The following numbers are the team EqA ranks for each not-in-common opponent, highest to lowest.
It helps if you read those numbers right to left. It’s clear from this data that Cliff Lee has seen a significantly inferior set of opponents than Halladay has. Against the six teams listed above, the ones he’s faced more often than Halladay has, Lee has allowed 18 runs in 84 2/3 innings, a 1.91 RA in more than 40% of his innings pitched. Adding back in the common games, Lee has made 15 of his 28 starts against teams in the bottom third of the EqA rankings. Halladay has just six starts against that pool, with a 2.26 RA in 47 2/3 innings. Halladay has pitched about as well against poor offenses as Lee has, but he’s had much less opportunity to face them.
I’m reminded of the 2001 season, when the Twins’ Joe Mays had his career year thanks in no small part to catching the Tigers (21st) and Royals (30th) with startling regularity. Mays made 11 of his 34 starts and threw more than a third of his innings against those two teams, allowing 19 runs in 83 1/3 innings (2.05 RA). Mays made the All-Star team that year and even had some Cy Young support late in that season in what was a soft year for candidates in the AL. In fact, he was an ordinary pitcher who happened to throw a disproportionate number of innings against two lousy lineups. In the end, Mays garnered no votes in the balloting.
Cliff Lee’s performance this year is better than Mays’ was in 2001. However, his overall stat line is clearly being influenced by the competition, or lack of, that he’s faced. Whether that is enough to call into question the statistical argument that he’s both the best pitcher and best player in the league is unclear, but it should be a part of the discussion.
Down the stretch, Lee gets more of the same, with starts against the Royals (28th) again, the Twins (13th) and White Sox (12th) likely, although it does seem he’ll finally see the Red Sox (4th) along the way. Halladay looks like he’ll get the White Sox, Red Sox and the Orioles (11th) twice, so the gap between the two pitchers’ opponent pools will grow slightly.