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Cliff Lee vs. Roy Halladay
How big of an upgrade did Philly get?
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
December 18, 2009

Amidst a blockbuster deal with so many moving parts, it's difficult to get a firm grasp on who came out ahead.  The Mariners have clearly positioned themselves as 2010 contenders, but did they pay too hefty a price for one roll of the dice?  The Blue Jays have declared themselves to be in full-blown rebuilding mode, but how long before they can again field a competitive team? 

Of course, the Phillies' side is most baffling of all. They swapped one group of prospects for another and one ace pitcher for another.  It might take a health care bill-sized article to cover all of the nuances of this trade, so I'll just take a stab at one: Cliff Lee versus Roy Halladay.

I believe the popular comparison of the two pitchers goes like this: "While Cliff Lee has been nearly Roy Halladay's equal for two seasons, Halladay has been the superior pitcher for every other span of time and will be the better pitcher going forward."  Lee's status has certainly improved since last winter, when he was regarded as a one-year fluke by all.  But he still may not be getting his fair due.

We begin by comparing the two Cy Young winners' 2009 seasons:

2009 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 17-10 2.79 155 239 238/35 22 145
Lee 14-13 3.22 131 231.2 181/43 17 120

For 2009 at least, it is Halladay who hasn't gotten his due.  He somehow finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting when there is no plausible reason that he did not finish at least third.  His K/BB ratio was Schillingesque and he matched a career high with nine complete games, pacing the league as usual.  Lee did pitch better than his numbers indicate.  His record was mediocre purely because he played for the Indians.  After joining the Phillies, his K/BB ratio nearly hit 8:1.  Perhaps more impressively, he only allowed seven home runs over 120 innings, including the playoffs.

Of course, if we include the playoffs, Lee's numbers suddenly match up quite well with Halladay's.  Lee becomes 18-13 with a 2.98 ERA, 214 strikeouts, and 49 walks in a whopping 272 innings. We can't fault Halladay for never having pitched in the postseason any more than we can fault Lee for having played on the 2009 Indians, but Lee's playoff numbers illustrate that he was not only succeeding because he moved to the weaker National League.  The Rockies, Dodgers, and Yankees lineups were nothing to scoff at, and Lee handled them all with aplomb.

2008-09 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 37-21 2.78 154 485 414/74 40 284
Lee 36-16 2.89 147 455 351/77 29 259

This is obviously the comparison we expected to shed Lee in the best light, and he doesn't disappoint.  The two pitchers actually had equal pitcher's runs created in 2008, but Lee's 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA help boost his numbers towards Halladay's.  If you decide to give Lee credit for his postseason work, there is really no sound argument that Halladay was the better pitcher in this span.  We've heard the arguments that Halladay had to pitch against tougher competition than Lee did in 2008, but he also got to play with a better defense behind him.  The Blue Jays turned 71.6% of his balls in play into outs while the Indians converted just 69.9% of Lee's.

I submit that Lee was not nearly Halladay's equal over the past two seasons, but legitimately his equal.

2007-09 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 53-28 3.08 141 710.1 553/122 55 388
Lee 41-24 3.49 123 552.1 417/113 46 274

Lee was injured and ultra-ineffective in 2007, so this is Halladay's time to shine.  In fact, Halladay created more runs in 2008 and 2009 than Lee did between 2007 and 2009.  Doc's edge is not as great as it could be, since 2007 was actually had his worst season in the past five years.  But when you win 70% of your games and finish fifth in Cy Young voting, it's hard to be too down on your season.

2006-09 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 69-33 3.11 141 930.1 685/156 74 506
Lee 55-35 3.73 116 753 546/171 75 332

Lee actually loses some ground here as well.  He was an average pitcher at best in 2006, while Halladay had a typical season for him.

2005-09 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 81-37 3.01 146 1072 793/174 85 602
Lee 73-40 3.74 115 955 689/223 97 417

Here Lee makes some gains in counting stats, as he was a good pitcher on a very good Indians team while Halladay missed the second half of the season with an injury.  The gap widens as far as rate stats go, however, as Halladay had been enjoying his best season prior to the injury.

2004-09 W-L ERA ERA+ IP K/BB HR PRC
Halladay 89-45 3.14 141 1205 888/213 98 567
Lee 87-48 4.01 108 1134 850/304 127 472

This is where things get a little interesting again.  A bastion of pitcher durability over the past four seasons, Roy Halladay actually suffered injuries two years in a row back in 2004-2005.  Lee actually had a poor year in 2004, his first full season, yet the disparity in playing time really levels the two in terms of counting stats.  The two pitchers had nearly identical records, workloads, and strikeout rates (particularly if we were to add in Lee's 40.1 postseason innings from 2009), while Halladay had a clear edge in ERA, walk rate, and home run rate.

Do the walks and homers account for Halladay's huge edge in ERA?  Not entirely.  2008 wasn't the only season in which Halladay's defense was more adept at converting balls in play into outs.  Lee's teams have only once managed a defensive efficiency ratio greater than .704 while Halladay's have done so three times since 2004: .738 in 2005, .724 in 2006, and .716 in 2008.  Additionally, Cleveland's Progressive Field has been slightly less favorable to pitchers than Toronto's Rogers Centre has.  I'm not saying that these factors eliminate the gap between Lee and Halladay, but they do close it a little.

We can't compare the pitchers any further back than that, because Lee was just breaking into the league in 2003.  If we were to do so, he would get smoked by Halladay, who won the Cy Young Award that year and was even better in some regards the previous season.  But this brings up a point that hasn't been mentioned much: Roy Halladay is more than a year Cliff Lee's elder.  If you were going to sign one pitcher to a contract through 2013, you would want it to be Cliff Lee, all else being equal.

Of course, all else isn't quite equal.  Halladay has the better track record and we don't know exactly how much a three-year extension for Lee would have cost Philadelphia.  We do know that the team prefers Halladay's right-handedness and his groundball style of pitching.  But who is the greater injury risk: Halladay and his 30,000 career pitches before the age of 33 or Cliff Lee's drastic career-high in innings reached last year by nearly 50 frames?  That question is very difficult to answer.

Lee's comments to ESPN yesterday were somewhat shocking, however.  Lee said that he was "fully prepared to spend the rest of his career" in Philadelphia and that the rumors about him wanting to break the bank were false.  If Lee could have been had for significantly less than the $20 million per season that Halladay received, then the Phillies would appear to have made a lot of sacrifices primarily for the benefit of having a right-hander rather than a lefty in their rotation.  That seems pretty silly, as Jamie Moyer is no guarantee to spend all year in the rotation and will certainly depart after this year.

I'll say this, though: even if this wasn't a great move on Philadelphia's part, it was good for both pitchers involved.  The Phillies have one of the best infield defenses in the game, particularly if Placido Polanco can be as sound as a full-time third baseman as he was part-time earlier in his career.  That will benefit Halladay, as will the weaker NL lineups.  Lee is used to facing lineups with a designated hitter, and will benefit from one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball as well as baseball's best outfield defense.

In the end, as earth-shattering as this trade appears, it barely changes the outlook of the Phillies or either pitcher's Hall of Fame chances.  Besides the Mariners and Blue Jays, perhaps the team most immediately affected here is the Yankees, as they no longer have to face a pitcher who has gone 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA against them in 35 career starts.




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.

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