Cliff Lee—Desperately Seeking A Win?

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Where is this headed? Are the Phillies, so desperate to get Cliff Lee a victory on the season, going to insert him into a blowout as a reliever after four innings to get him a win?

Lee, with a Cy Young Award and post-season dominance on his resume, is being roasted because he hasn’t won a game yet in 2012?

Who cares?

The Phillies and Lee have bigger problems than to worry about the constant harping on whether or not Lee has a “W” next to his name. This is not a veteran hanging on trying to get his 300th career win; nor is it a pitcher who should be concerned about what’s said by outsiders who still equate the “W” with success or failure.

The “win” has received scrutiny in recent years and while it needs to be placed into context how a pitcher accumulates his total, it’s not something to be ignored entirely. It matters to the participants. It’s only in the past few seasons that a pitcher like Felix Hernandez or Tim Lincecum were able to gain their deserved Cy Young Awards because of advanced stats and that there are voters willing to look at something other than the pitcher who won 23 games vs the one who won 16.

That still doesn’t prevent the argument that Justin Verlander didn’t deserve the MVP award last season because the Tigers would’ve found “any” pitcher (conveniently unnameed) to fill in for Verlander and they would’ve won the division regardless.

This argument is ignorant of the Tigers’ early season struggles and that it was Verlander who carried them when they were stumbling around. Only when they made mid-season acquisitions of Delmon Young and Doug Fister; when Joaquin Benoit began pitching the way they expected; and when the Indians came apart did the Tigers take off and run away with the division. Without Verlander they wouldn’t have been in position to do so.

So there are mitigating factors in all statistics, awards and attempts to analyze.

Because Lee doesn’t have any wins doesn’t mean he’s having a “bad” year. It doesn’t mean the Phillies should put him on the trade block.

His contract owes him $87.5 million after this season and he has a 10 team no-trade list. The teams that could afford that contract and surrender the prospects to get him presumably are on the no-trade list because a veteran pitcher isn’t going to want to go to a place that could pay him more money and would be getting him at a discount over the short term. Lee made clear during his free agency that he wants nothing to do with the Yankees.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is not going to do that to him again and wouldn’t get anything more than prospects to add to a club that is still loaded with immovable long-term deals for veterans. The Phillies are what they are and a rebuild or retool on the fly is not on the table.

Lee hasn’t won any games this season because the Phillies’ offense has been unproductive; the bullpen has been shaky; and Lee has allowed runs late in games to sabotage himself. If the Phillies were the Phillies of years past, Lee would have 4-6 wins.

Would that make it all better?

He’s pitched poorly in his last two starts and for someone as mentally tough and impervious to pressure as Lee, it appears as if the talk of him “needing” a win is getting into his head.

That’s only going to make things worse and compound an issue that isn’t an issue for him to worry about or affect him at all.

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The AL/NL MVP Dichotomy

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On one side, you have a pitcher who has to deal with the dogmatism of the self-involved voters who feel as if they’re the interpreters and adjusters of stated rules.

On the other, you have a player who’s put up numbers that justify a Most Valuable Player season, but is on a team that is out of contention.

How’s this going to go?

Justin Verlander of the Tigers is a clear MVP candidate as well as the AL Cy Young Award winner.

Matt Kemp of the Dodgers is leading the National League in homers and RBI and is right behind Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun for the lead in batting average.

Of course stat people will scoff at the value of both RBI and average, but the Triple Crown is the Triple Crown—it still has meaning as a symbol even if the results aren’t showing up in the won/lost column for the Dodgers.

The Tigers pulled away from the NL Central pack with a 12 game winning streak, but before that their playoff hopes rested largely on the shoulders of Verlander and Miguel Cabrera; without Verlander, they would’ve been barely in contention, if at all.

This is a situation where Wins Above Replacement—in context—is a valuable stat.

Kemp’s WAR is 9.6; let’s say the Dodgers found someone who was serviceable in center field, they still would be well below the 79-77 record they’ve posted with a second half string of good play after an awful start.

Verlander’s WAR is 8.6 and the Tigers would have no chance of replicating even a quarter of what Verlander has meant to the team given the dearth of pitching available. If the Tigers were to lose Cabrera, they would’ve found someone—Carlos Beltran; Josh Willingham; Michael Cuddyer—to make up for some semblance of that lost offense. Such was not the case with Verlander.

The other MVP candidates in the National League like Albert Pujols are just as irreplaceable as Kemp; the Brewers strength has been on the mound and they have enough offense to function if Braun were injured; in fact, there’s an argument that Prince Fielder has been more valuable to the Brewers than Braun has.

In the American League, the same holds true for the Red Sox with Adrian Gonzalez and the Yankees with Curtis Granderson. Had either player gone down, the Red Sox could’ve plugged someone in at either first or third base and gotten by without Gonzalez; the Yankees would’ve gotten a corner outfield bat, shifted Brett Gardner to center and survived with the rest of the lineup picking up the slack.

So does it come down to the “best” player? The “most valuable”?

And are these arguments going to mirror one another in each league while, in some way, validating both?

I only hope that George King of the New York Post no longer has a vote. It was King who famously left Pedro Martinez off his 1999 ballot because he was supposedly convinced by people he respected the year before that pitchers didn’t deserve MVP votes (EUREKA!!!) and left the deserving winner off his ballot entirely depriving him of the award that went to Ivan Rodriguez. In a ludicrous bit of backpedaling and stupid “explanation”, King said that he thought then-Red Sox manager Jimy Williams was more valuable to the Red Sox than Martinez.

If he has a vote this season, one can only hope that King hasn’t been studiously watching the job done by Eric Wedge with the Mariners and deemed it more important than Verlander’s work; if that’s the case, then Verlander’s going to be left out in the cold just like Martinez was and it’ll be a case of idiocy all over again.

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