Just How Great Is Cliff Lee?

Comparing the Phils pitcher to Pedro Martinez

In the past six weeks, we’ve withstood Hurricane Irene, replaced a district superintendent, survived an earthquake, started the NFL season and buried Amy Winehouse. During that span, Cliff Lee has not lost a game—he’s won every start since his loss on July 25th. He’s tossed 29 and two-thirds consecutive scoreless innings and improved to 16-7 on the year. The streak and subsequent numbers are daunting—but exactly how good has Lee been in 2011?

Well, the pinnacle for starting pitching in modern baseball is Pedro Martinez circa 1999-2000. In April of ’99, while most of America was talking about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shooting their classmates at Columbine High School, Pedro snuck out to a 4-1 start and followed it up with a 6-0 May. He finished the season with a 23-4 record, 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts over 213 and one-third innings. He followed it up the next season by posting a 1.74 ERA and notching 18 wins over 217 innings. Martinez earned an all-time low WHIP of 0.74 in 2000 and struck out Sosa and McGwire in the ’99 All-Star Game at the height of the steroids era—adding a bit of intangible lore to his dominance. Those two back-to-back seasons make for the most dominant two-season pitching performance in modern baseball.

Cliff Lee may not have a WHIP under one and he won’t be able to eclipse 300 strikeouts, but his 2011 may be closer to Pedro’s benchmark than you think.

It’s still the first week in September and Lee already has six complete games. Martinez had five in 1999 and seven in 2000. In those two seasons, Pedro combined to throw five shutouts. Lee’s already eclipsed that mark this year alone and has five more shots at it. Lee’s June and August are better than any two months of Pedro’s pitching during his two-year reign. In June, Lee averaged more than eight innings per start, posted a 0.21 ERA and tossed three complete game shutouts while allowing opposing hitters to bat just .151. Pedro’s best month in 1999 or 2000 was his May 2000 when he had a 0.86 ERA and held batters to a .154 average, but the Sox couldn’t hit for him, so he ended up going 3-2.

The best stretch of Pedro’s seasons was from April 20th to June 4th in 1999. That split saw Martinez win nine consecutive starts while striking out 105 batters, throwing one complete game, and posting an ERA and WHIP of 1.55 and 0.94 respectively. Right now, Lee’s won seven straight and has 56 strikeouts, an ERA of 0.95 and a WHIP of 1.21 during the streak.

Martinez’s MVP-esque 8.4 WAR in 1999 and otherworldly 10.1 WAR in 2000 (Lee is at 6.1 in 2011), coupled with his strikeout numbers—597 over the two seasons—definitively show that he was a better pitcher then than Lee is now. Pedro certainly had better numbers in those seasons, but Lee’s best this season has been just as good as Pedro’s best during his historic run. The fact that Lee has had glimpses of greatness that can even be referenced in the same conversation as Martinez’s showing in those two seasons should have the Braves and every other National League team trembling more than anything else the Phillies have to offer heading down the stretch—especially considering he’s the team’s number two starter and brings a .212 average to the plate. Let’s go eat.