Smile Politely

The AL Central Report #10

Since I completely jinxed last week’s feature subject, Brian Bannister (3 IP, 7 ER, 3 HR allowed in his start last Wednesday, ERA jumped from 2.48 to 4.04), this week we’ll test the extent of my jinxing powers with Cliff Lee, who will be starting tonight for the Cleveland Indians versus the New York Yankees. The game’s on ESPN at 6 p.m., so if you have cable and some free time, check it out.

Despite the fact that he wasn’t even considered a good bet to make the Indians’ opening-day rotation at the beginning of spring training, Lee has been lights-out on the mound so far this year. If the American League Cy Young award was given out at the end of April, Lee would almost certainly be the winner this season. After five starts, he’s 5-0 with a microscopic 0.96 ERA, which leads the league by nearly half a run. Not only that, but he’s struck out 32 batters in 37 and 2/3 innings while walking only two and giving up only one home run. Those are peripheral statistics that point more toward complete dominance rather than early-season fluke.

The only caveat to Lee’s performance has been the quality of the opposing lineups that he’s faced. So far, he’s pitched twice against the Oakland A’s, and once each against the Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, and Seattle Mariners. Those teams rank 13th, 14th, 10th and 9th, respectively, in the 14-team AL in slugging percentage this season.

The only game of those five that I watched live (which is to say, live on TV) was his matchup with the Twins on April 18 in the Metrodome. Lee gave up only 2 hits in 8 shutout innings while striking out 9. One of the two hits was an infield single, and each batter who reached on a hit was erased by the next batter hitting into a double play. That’s a long way of saying that there was no real hope for this Twins fan on that particular evening. Lee is a tall, lanky lefthander with a low-90’s fastball and a good ability to change speeds. Against the Twins, every pitch, it seemed, was at the knees on either the inside or outside corner, with good movement. Nobody was making solid contact, and this being the Twins, there were many occasions of batters swinging wildly at 57-foot 0–2 curveballs. It looked a lot like what Mark Buehrle would do to Minnesota 3 or 4 years ago.

Last week, the Mariners came as close as anyone has come to battering Lee in this young season. He actually had to work through a couple of jams in the early innings, but he still entered the seventh inning with a shutout (which gave him 27 consecutive scoreless innings to that point). However, after giving up consecutive singles to Jose Vidro and Richie Sexson to open the seventh, Wladimir Balentien hammered a three-run homer, chasing Lee and cutting the Indians’ lead to 8-3. He still got the win, but that was the first time this year that Lee actually looked mortal. Tonight’s game against the Yankees will be the first time this season that Lee faces a better-than-average opponent, and it will be interesting to see how he fares. Has he been pounding the strike zone against punchless opponents who can’t hurt him with the long ball, or is he so locked in that he would have been this dominant against anyone?

Although Cleveland is only two and a half games out of first place in the AL Central, their performance in the first five weeks of the season would have to be described as a disappointment. What’s really scary, though, is thinking about where they would be without Lee, a pitcher who really contributed nothing to their 2007, 96-66 division champion season. The Indians are 5–0 in games that Lee has started, and 10–17 when anyone else starts. Last year, he missed the first month of the season and was ineffective when he returned, going 5–8 with a 6.38 ERA before being sent down to the minors at the end of July. He pulled bullpen duty upon his return, but was left off the postseason roster as the Indians made it within a game of the World Series.

The way Lee is pitching in 2008 indicates that he was hurting last season, rather than washed up, which is great for Indians fans and trouble for the rest of the league. If C.C. Sabathia continues his return to form after a horrible first three weeks, and Fausto Carmona can find the plate again, the top three pitchers in their rotation are downright scary. They may not be the trendy pick at this point, but Cleveland will be right there in September.

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