Bye, Bye Blanton; Hello History

Many, many years ago, there was a Warner Brothers cartoon, probably a Bugs Bunny, wherein the denouement was reached in conjunction with something utterly improbable happening. One of the characters, it might have been Bugs himself, pulled out a cartoon pistol and blew out his cartoon brains after exclaiming, "well, now I've seen everything!"

That's pretty close to what happened in baseball last night, as the utterly improbable happened… Cliff Lee left something like $30 or $40 million or so on the table (depending on which report you read), along with the Yankees and the Rangers, to re-sign with the Phillies, the team that had so memorably traded him away exactly one year ago today. In an off-season that is still young, this may even top the Werth and Crawford contracts (the latter also being a daring midnight raid on the Yankees and Angels), the throwing of big bucks at Joaquin Benoit, and the Adrian Gonzalez and Dan Uggla heists for improbable happenings. How improbable was it? The benchmark of improbability is that the best baseball writer on the planet, and a man who is as closely tied into the Phillies' thinking as anyone this side of the Phillie Phanatic, Jayson Stark, didn't see this coming until the day it happened.  

As a result of this improbability, maybe a million words will fly through the Ethernet in the coming weeks, some of them proclaiming the end of the world as we know it (most of these will be coming from a 100 miles north and a little east of Philadelphia), some predicting that the Phillies have put together the greatest starting rotation in baseball history (which may or may not be proven true, although it doesn't hurt to have Cole Hamels as your number four starter), and some just marveling/claiming that a former substitute outfielder, and the son of the 1964 National League Gold Glove shortstop (who, yes, is a graduate of the William Penn Charter School… but, that can't be helped), has…  

A) Pulled off a miracle

B) Brought a folk hero back to Philadelphia

C) Made himself a folk hero at the same time

D) Wrapped up at least the next two National League World Series berths

E) Wrote a ticket for Joe Blanton to be pitching somewhere else in 2011

F) Finally, once and for all, changed the destiny, the corporate culture, of a franchise that has existed since 1883 (even before Bugs Bunny). In other words, the Phillies, the Philadelphia Phillies, thanks in part to this very same PC grad, have reached the status (that being a top-flight player's destination of choice), enjoyed at various times in baseball history by (in historical order, and leaving out duplications)… the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, the St. Louis Browns, the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Beaneaters, the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, the Philadelphia Athletics, the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Atlanta Braves.  

In a word… shocking.  

What you may or may not see written about is another issue, that is, what in the world was anybody thinking about in terms of giving a 32-and-a-half (on March 2, 2011) year old pitcher a five, six or seven year-long contract? Ultimately, such a question hinges on how well Cliff Lee is likely to pitch in the final few years of his contract, something that is, of course, unanswerable at this point… which doesn't mean you can't still try.  

One on-line genius recently proposed that Cliff Lee would last pretty well to the age of 39 (the end-date of a seven-year contract), giving as comparative examples the following pitchers at that age; Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, and a couple of others. OK, what's wrong with this picture? Right… Ryan, Johnson, Clemens and Carlton were four of the most extreme power pitchers in history – so much so that the first two could rightly be called freaks of nature. Schilling could also throw pretty hard, but he was a complete fluke – the greatest clutch pitcher in baseball history. And Maddux? Well, he may not have been a power pitcher, but he was probably the smartest pitcher in baseball, and he did win 355 games. In other words, none of them were really comparable to Lee (Schilling, with his masterful command is probably the closest), and they were also six of the best pitchers in history; in other words, they were barely comparable to anybody.  

Let us instead turn to one of Bill James' most notable inventions; Similarity Scores. Without going into exhaustive detail, it's a system that matches current players up to their closest historical counterparts, based on a wide range of their statistics, with a 1000 being a perfect score – an exact statistical match. James devised such a sound system that Similarity Scores often match up similar players with one another, in other words, power pitchers with power pitchers, utility infielders with utility infielders, etc. Cliff Lee's closest Similarity Score comps, not for an entire career, but through the age of 31 (which is basically where Lee pitched in 2010) are an interesting group, to say the least… perhaps they can give us some true insight into how Lee might age…  

Denny Neagle

Schoolboy Rowe

Chris Carpenter

John Burkett

Kirk Rueter

Tom Browning

Charles Nagy

Mike Flanagan

Teddy Higuera

LaMarr Hoyt  

They all match-up between 953 and 931 on James' scale, meaning they're all good comps. So, how did these nine guys (leaving out Carpenter, who's obviously still pitching) fare after the age of 31? Glad you asked ("Years" is the number of years they pitched after the age of 31, and "Age" is their age when they lasted pitched in the majors)…  

Neagle 3 34 19-23 124
Rowe 6 39 54-39 158
Burkett 7 38 74-68 166
Rueter 3 34 21-24 130
Browning 4 35 16-15 123
Nagy 5 36 25-30 129
Flanagan 9 40 55-69 167
Higuera 3 35 5-10 94
Hoyt 0 31 0-0 98
AVERAGE 4.4 35.8 29.9 - 30.9 132

In a word, yuck! At least that would be the word if you were paying more than $20 million a year for an average won-lost record of 30-31 over four-and-a-half seasons. But, wait a minute… maybe they all had bad luck, and/or pitched for bad teams that saddled them with poor records, thus sabotaging their chances for the Cy Young Award. Nope, that's not it either. Out of the 40 seasons represented above, exactly 10 of them saw the pitchers in question post an Adjusted ERA of 100 or better (mostly by Burkett, Flanagan and Rowe.) Now, there are some mitigating factors, but, essentially, only the three just-named pitchers were worth a bucket of warm spit after the age of 31.  

For the record, the mitigating factors were: Neagle was busted on a morals charge, ending his career; Rowe lost two years to World War 2; Rueter was the luckiest pitcher in baseball history… he was terrible, but managed to last for 130 wins because the Expos and Giants always scored a lot of runs for him; Browning got hurt; Flanagan's last three years were affected by injury and pitching situational relief; Higuera got hurt; and Hoyt was a druggie. So maybe this group wasn't that bad because, well, stuff happens… but, that's the point. You take a group of nine, 31 year old pitchers, and stuff is likely to happen to a majority of them before they turn 39.  

This group also has some peripheral commonalities along with Lee. They were generally pretty good pitchers (if you just saw a list of their names, wouldn't you say that they were all good at one time or another…), almost all of whom had one of two big years. Neagle was 20-5 for the Braves… Rowe went 24-8 and 16-3 for the Tigers… Burkett posted a 22-7 year for the Giants… Browning was 20-9 as a rookie and also went 18-5 later on… Flanagan, like Lee, won a Cy Young with his big year, a 23-9 mark… Higuera went 20-11 and Hoyt 24-10 before they blew up. And Nagy at least had a 17-11 year. (Rueter was… well, Rueter.)  

They all also were not considered power pitchers for most of their careers, although their collective strikeout/walk ratios tended to be right around a respectable 2 to 1 (leaving out Rowe who pitched in a much different era, and Rueter, who couldn't strike Matt Coyne out on his best day.) They all also had decent control… their walks per nine innings pretty much clustered around two-and-half (again, leaving out Rowe), with Hoyt being the outlier at 1.9.  

In other words, all nine of these former pitchers were basically hurlers who had one or two big years, pitched well in the late twenties and very early thirties, and lived more by deception and control than by power. Sound at all like Cliff Lee?  

Look, no one really knows how Cliff Lee is going to fare over the life of his new contract, even though the historical precedents don't look real promising. There is, in fact, only one thing you can say for certain about the Cliff Lee signing… even after winning four straight National League East titles and playing in back-to-back World Series, the Phillies must now be looked at in a different light. Coming on top of trading for Roy Halladay (a better pitcher than Lee… his career record is 169-86 with a 136 ERA+, Lee's is 102-61 with a 112 ERA+) last year, this is a franchise-defining moment, as much as William Hulbert stealing the Big Four from the Red Stockings, as much as buying the Babe from the Red Sox, as much as trading for Joe Medwick in mid-1940, as much as stealing Joe Morgan from the Astros,, as much as signing Greg Maddux… even if it doesn't work out. After 127 years over three centuries, in the minds of baseball men everywhere, the Phillies have arrived.

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