It was a remarkable season for Cliff Lee, one that culminated in the Indians left-hander being the recipient of this year’s American League Cy Young award. Lee was deserving of the honor, having led the junior circuit in several categories, including wins (22), ERA (2.54), and SNLVAR (7.7); his VORP (75.0) was tops among all big-league hurlers. Lee talked about his approach to pitching and the reasons behind his outstanding 2008 campaign one day after making his final start of the season in late September.
David Laurila: You play a lot of chess in the clubhouse before games. Are there any similarities between chess and pitching?
Cliff Lee: They’re similar in that you have to plan ahead, and you have to have a strategy. You stick with it, but you also have to make adjustments based on what the other guy is doing. So there are a lot of parallels between chess and pitching. It’s also a way for us to compete and have fun with some competition while keeping our minds occupied.
DL: Earlier this season, Orioles manager Dave Trembley said of Garrett Olson, who had just had a bad outing, “It looks like he’s trying to figure it out with angles, you know, diagrams.” What do you think he meant by that?
CL: He probably meant that he was trying to overcomplicate things. Sometimes it’s best to just make things as simple as possible. Sometimes people that are really smart try to overcomplicate things and make them harder than they really are. I think that everyone will do that-pitchers, fielders, hitters, everybody. A lot of times you just get away from the basics, like, ‘throw a strike,’ or ‘see the ball, hit the ball.’ If you try to overanalyze it or complicate it, the next thing you know, you’re in your own head. So there’s some truth to that.
DL: How differently do pitchers and catchers think?
CL: Hopefully not a lot, because they need to be on the same page to be effective to get guys out.
DL: When you’re totally in sync with your catcher, do you ever worry that maybe you’ve established too much of a pattern and the hitter is thinking along with you?
CL: No, it’s good when we’re on the same page. A lot of times, the reason [the catcher] is calling that pitch is because of how the hitter reacted to the previous pitch. So no, I don’t really think that. That’s what’s important: what you see that night, on the fly. It’s how they’re swinging at certain pitches. So feel is important to me, but I will use scouting reports and stuff like that, too.
DL: Some pitchers prefer throwing to certain catchers. Is who is behind the plate important to you?
CL: Yeah, I mean you do get comfortable with a guy, and when things are working and clicking, you kind of want to continue doing that. But it’s not that you don’t have faith in the other guys on your team, because they should know you as well. They should be paying attention to what’s going on so that they’re able to step in and fill in if need be. But when you get used to a guy-it’s nice when things are going good, and you don’t really like to change.
DL: Which is more important: the first pitch you throw to a batter, or the 1-1 pitch?
CL: The 1-1 is an important pitch, but I think that getting the first pitch over is probably the most important pitch of the at-bat. You can get to 1-1 after being 1-0 and having to throw something, so I suppose it depends on how you get to 1-1, or whatever. I think the first pitch is more important.
DL: Which is more important: moving the ball in and out effectively, or moving it up and down to change a hitter’s eye angle?
CL: They’re both important; you have to be able to do both. Up and in, down and in, up and away, down and away – you have to use those four spots.
DL: You walked fewer hitters this year than in previous seasons. Was that more execution or approach?
CL: Both. Everybody wants to throw strikes and not walk guys, but you have to actually execute that. I think I’ve been more aware of keeping my mind in the moment and slowing things down before it turns into something real bad. And when things are going good, I’ve just tried to keep the same momentum and the same tempo. When I get in a bad spot, or see something tricky coming on, I’m better at slowing things down a little bit.
DL: You also gave up fewer fly balls this season. Was that more execution or approach?
CL: Execution. I’ve thrown better pitches to induce ground balls.
DL: Did you make any changes to your arm slot or release point this season, or were they essentially the same?
CL: Pretty much, yeah. They were the same.
CL: I don’t know, they helped me out. Rad worked with me on the things that I was expected to work on; he helped me to improve and get better. I mean, they did their job; they did what they were supposed to. I went down there, and they helped me try to get better, and they’re good at it. They were another piece of the puzzle in the Indians organization.
DL: Is there any one person you can point to as being the most responsible for your having turned in a Cy Young Award-quality season this year?
CL: I don’t know, I think it just has a lot to do with hard work-me working hard and not getting down on myself for having had a bad year, and using that as motivation to getting back to being the pitcher I know I can be. But there have been a lot of people who have helped me along the way. I can’t point at just one person, though. Carl Willis and Louis Isaac are there for every bullpen, and they point out mechanical things. There was also Radinsky, last year when I was in the minor leagues. Those are guys I talked to about pitching, and they gave me things I tried to use. Even CC [Sabathia]-he and I talked pitching a lot. A lot of guys have helped me out.