Lee Exits As Exhibit A For Effect Of Command

As spring training began, Cliff Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker announced Lee will not pitch in 2016 and is likely to retire. If this is the end for Lee, it’s the end of an excellent career. The Cy Young Award winner and ERA champ in 2008, Young made four all-star appearances and went 143-91, 3.52 in his career.

Lee will be remembered as a pitcher who had arguably the best control and command of any lefthander of this generation. On four different occasions Lee led the majors in walk rate. His 1.9 walks per nine innings ranks 78th on the all-time list, and his 0.76 BB/9 in 2010 is the ninth-best season since 1900.

Here’s how pitchers on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list ranked in walk rate last season.
Rank Pitcher Team BB/9
83 Joe Musgrove Astros 0.7
64 Luis Ortiz Rangers 1.6
50 Kenta Maeda Dodgers 1.8
65 Brent Honeywell Rays 1.9
28 Jose Berrios Twins 2.1
19 Anderson Espinoza Red Sox 2.2
47 Michael Fulmer Tigers 2.2
82 Erick Fedde Nationals 2.2
68 Jeff Hoffman Rockies 2.3
4 Julio Urias Dodgers 2.5
20 Francis Martes Astros 2.5
91 David Paulino Astros 2.5
92 Reynaldo Lopez Nationals 2.5
34 Cody Reed Reds 2.6
81 Justus Sheffield Indians 2.7
5 Lucas Giolito Nationals 2.8
60 Aaron Blair Braves 2.8
75 Jake Thompson Phillies 2.8
85 Kyle Zimmer Royals 2.8
13 Steven Matz Mets 2.9
23 Jose De Leon Dodgers 2.9
69 Dillon Tate Rangers 3
48 Sean Manaea Athletics 3.1
37 Jon Gray Rockies 3.1
77 Braden Shipley Diamondbacks 3.2
59 Jorge Lopez Brewers 3.3
73 Amir Garrett Reds 3.5
14 Tyler Glasnow Pirates 3.5
70 Carson Fulmer White Sox 3.5
12 Blake Snell Rays 3.6
89 Michael Kopech Red Sox 3.7
80 Tyler Jay Twins 3.9
7 Alex Reyes Cardinals 4.4
32 Robert Stephenson Reds 4.7
72 Grant Holmes Dodgers 4.7
90 Touki Toussaint Braves 4.9
24 Sean Newcomb Braves 5
71 Brady Aiken Indians *
84 Kolby Allard Braves *
* Did not pitch/less than 10 innings

Lee had stuff to go with pinpoint control. His 10.3 strikeouts per walk in 2010 is the third-best mark of all time. His 3.9 strikeouts per walk for his career ranks eighth on the all-time list.

But Lee wasn’t born with impeccable command. In fact, he’s the ultimate optimistic story for any promising young pitcher who can’t find the strike zone. He evolved into a pitcher with top-of-the-scale command and control, after the scouts, coaches and players who saw him in high school, college or early in his pro career witnessed a very different pitcher, one who struggled to find the strike zone.

Going back to his days at Benton (Ark.) High, Lee was able to generate swings and misses with his fastball and his erratic but dominant curveball, but it was very much a question of whether he was going to throw enough strikes to survive.

Here’s Baseball America’s draft scouting report on Lee from 2000, when he lasted until the Expos (and area scout Joe Jordan) took him in the fourth round with the 105th overall pick:

“Lee had a rough return to his native Arkansas after two seasons at Meridian (Miss.) CC. He pitched erratically most of the season and served a suspension from the team for disciplinary reasons. Among college lefthanders, Lee’s raw stuff ranks in the top three in the country. His fastball touched 94 mph and he was almost unhittable this spring on the rare occasions when he had command of it and his curve, slider and changeup. Lee had a habit of losing his stuff quickly after a couple of dominating innings, which led the Razorbacks to move him to the bullpen late in the year. He took to that role immediately.”

So it’s no surprise that Lee fell to the fourth round. He had walked 52 batters in 65 innings while striking out 77. Even with the high-powered bats of college baseball at the time, a 4-3, 4.45 season didn’t seem to portend long-term success.

Current Arkansas-Little Rock coach Chris Curry was Lee’s catcher at Meridian (Miss.) CC when Lee was a freshman.

“Cliff was a big arm lefthander who was trying to find the strike zone,” Curry said.

“Nothing ever rattled him. You just didn’t know what you were going to get,” said Scott Berry, Lee’s coach at Meridian and now the coach of Southern Mississippi. “You knew you would get a very live fastball, a breaking ball that could be really good or he wouldn’t get over the top of it.”

So if you ever want proof that a pitcher can learn to throw strikes, Lee is one of the finest examples you will find. Even when he was missing the strike zone regularly, everything looked right. The delivery was compact, the athleticism was apparent. He was a compact lefty and every throw seemed somewhat effortless. The results just weren’t there.

The pitcher who later walked 18 batters over 212 innings in one big league season began his pro career by walking 36 batters in 45 innings.

“I had him his first year out of the draft,” said Tom Signore, the pitching coach for low Class A Cape Fear in 2000. “You quickly realized it was an electric arm. He was raw then. It’s funny, you look at the final product and the pitching coaches who had him along the way had a heck of a job.”

The Expos had a rule that coaches were to leave pitchers alone for the first couple of months of their pro careers, to let them settle in. So Signore didn’t tweak Lee’s delivery even as he walked batter after batter.

Lee went 0-4, 8.36 in his first four pro starts, walking 13 in 14 innings. His next few starts weren’t any better as he walked 11 in his next 10 innings.

“His misses were always arm-side high,” Signore said.

Sometimes the stuff was too good, as it would just run out of the strike zone. So the Expos coaches and scouts didn’t want to do much, but Signore and others eventually suggested that Lee move from the first-base side of the rubber to the extreme third-base side. It didn’t fix his control issues, but it did help.

Lee walked 12 in his final 21 innings with Cape Fear and cut his ERA to 5.24 by the end of the year.

“Cliff was never averse to working,” Signore said. “I don’t think people realized the fire in his belly to get better.”
The next eight years were a struggle. Lee’s stuff was good enough to keep him moving up the ladder, but his lack of control kept him from having consistent success.

“What I remember is his bullpens were extremely aggressive,” said Brent Strom, the Expos’ pitching coordinator in 2002 and now Houston’s big league pitching coach. “He had a tremendous delivery. I don’t think his delivery changed much. He was very compact with a short arm action. He had really good timing. He just got better as he got stronger.”

“He had such good action on his ball, he could start at a righthander’s kneecap and it would end up over the inside corner,” Signore said.

Lee moved to the Indians in the noted 2002 trade deadline deal that sent Bartolo Colon to the Expos. He made his big league debut in 2003, but he couldn’t maintain success, slipping from an 18-win 2005 campaign to being sent back to the minors by a 2007 Cleveland team that wound up in the American League Championship Series.

At the time, Lee was 54-36, 4.64 in his big league career and had walked three batters per nine innings. Nothing seemed to indicate that Lee would become an ace. He had to battle to win the Indians’ fifth-starter job in 2008.

It was his work with then-Indians pitching coach Carl Willis that unlocked the key to his future as an ace.

“Cliff was always looking for more knowledge. Someone told him to back off a little bit and that was big, it was a Sandy Koufax type thing,” Signore said. “He threw hard and it was fluid. The arm just went for a ride.”

That delivery was too good to change and once Lee figured out how to take a little off, he turned into an ace. He won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008 and became one of the best pitchers of his generation.

But if you had checked in on Lee anytime from 1999-2005, it would have seemed impossible to expect Lee to become a pitcher with even average, much less top-of-the-scale command.

Archer Escapes Danger Zone

Lee’s story is not unique. Similar stories have been told about Randy Johnson, Koufax and many others over the years. A large number of big league starting pitchers who developed average or better control and command had significant control troubles early in their pro careers.

Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best pitcher in baseball now, but when he was a 19-year-old in his full season debut he walked 67 batters in 122 innings (4.9 BB/9). Two years later Kershaw was an excellent big league pitcher, but he did so while walking 4.8 batters per nine innings. Now he has cut his walk rate to a well above-average 1.6 batters per nine innings. For his minor league career, Cubs lefthander Jon Lester had a 3.8 BB/9 IP; the last two seasons, he has dropped that to 2.0/9 IP.

And then there’s the story of Rays righthander Chris Archer. Throughout most of his minor league career, Archer was one of the wilder starters in the minors.

Archer always had plus stuff, but it was often lost behind a blizzard of walks, which is part of the reason he was traded twice before he reached the big leagues.

Hitters rarely squared up Archer, but they often trotted to first. In 2008, in his first full pro season with the Indians, Archer walked 84 batters in only 115 innings (6.5 BB/9). His control didn’t get much better after a trade to the Cubs. Chicago traded him again to the Rays two years later.

When Archer became a Ray, he was a still promising young pitcher, but one with frightful control numbers. Many evaluators and coaches who thought that he would end up in the bullpen, where his control issues would be minimized. The change in uniforms didn’t help–Archer walked 80 batters in 134 innings (5.4 BB/9) with Double-A Montgomery in 2011.

At this point, Archer was six years into his pro career. As good as his stuff was, it came with the caveat that he walked four or more batters nearly every time he took the ball.

But the delivery was clean. There was no obvious reason that Archer would not be able to throw strikes. And after a lot of work in 2012 with Triple-A Durham pitching coach Neil Allen—now the Twins’ big league pitching coach—it started to click.

“For me the biggest reason he got it going was Neil Allen,” Rays pitching coordinator Dick Bosman said. “He had Archie on the bullpen on the side session days. He’d tell him he had to throw seven of 10 fastballs for strikes before they could go on. He had different things like that. Our bullpen sessions are very important to us. It’s really where you get better.

“Getting good instruction now put it to work. For me that was the turning point was Neil Allen working in that bullpen before every start.”

Archer was no Cliff Lee yet, but he was getting better, cutting his walk rate under 5.0 in 2012 as he made his big league debut. By 2013, Archer was walking 2.6 per nine in the big leagues. He still doesn’t have plus command or control, but in his last three seasons it’s been big league average or better.

Studying video of Archer’s delivery reveals it hasn’t changed much from the one he used when he was walking more than six batters per nine innings at low Class A Lake County. He has slowed his tempo a little early in his delivery as he gathers himself on the rubber before speeding to his release point. He breaks his hands a little higher when he takes the ball out of his glove, but otherwise, it’s still the same relatively easy, athletic delivery he’s always had.

So what happened?

“He’s an example of a guy who is a fantastic athlete,” said another team’s pro scouting director. “You can make adjustments to his delivery and he’s capable of picking them up.”

“In Archer case the kid is so incredibly smart that he can pick anyway you adjust him mechanically, that was his separator,” said a pro scout from a National League team.

Archer’s success is what teams hope to find from a young pitcher with excellent stuff and awful control.

But for every Archer and every Kershaw, there are multiple pitchers who never can figure out how to find the strike zone. There are cases where the control troubles stem from a delivery that simply makes it hard to repeat their tempo or release point consistently. In those cases, there’s often not much a team can do.

Orioles righthander Ubaldo Jimenez’s extremely long arm action has kept him from ever finding consistency. He’ll have stretches of dominance when he’s locked in, but he’s always one or two bad outings away from getting out of sync. Yankees righthander Dellin Betances’ stiffness in his delivery meant he was never able to throw strikes consistently enough as a starter, but his exceptional stuff played much better in short stints out of the bullpen. In cases like that, there’s only so much the pitcher or his coaches can do.

But with elite prospects, usually the delivery is clean, the effort level is modest and there’s no glaring red flag that keeps them from being able to find the strike zone. And in those cases, it’s more nebulous as to whether the pitcher will ever figure it out.

Sometimes it’s a lack of ability to physically make adjustments. Athleticism in a pitcher is largely focused on his ability to have body awareness. Can they process suggestions and put them into place?

But it also comes back to aptitude. It’s not just about a pitcher’s ability to repeat adjustments; it’s also important that they understand why and process the adjustments.

“Of course you start with the delivery,” Bosman said. “These mechanical things have to be accomplished. Some pick it up quicker than others. Some never pick it up. Can I tell a guy something and not find myself telling him the exact same thing a year later?”

Getting Strikes In The Zone

The learning process to get from raw teenager to polished big leaguer is a lengthy one. And there is often a paradox involved that makes it even tougher.

Pitchers know that strikeouts are a useful indicator of success. After all, a strikeout demonstrates they have swing-and-miss stuff.

But a young pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff faces the temptation to try to fish for them, often out of the zone. That kind of searching for swings and misses also can get a young pitcher in trouble.

In Class A, pitchers with premium stuff can get plenty of swings and misses on pitches that aren’t strikes, but that’s positive reinforcement for a negative process. As the pitcher jumps to Double-A and beyond, he may find himself having to learn how to get swings and misses in the strike zone.

Reds top prospect Robert Stephenson walked only 2.0 batters per nine innings in 2013 in 18 Class A starts as hitter after hitter struck out on his hard-breaking curveball. But he was generating strikeouts on pitches out of the strike zone. In 56 appearances at Double-A and Triple-A since then, Stephenson has walked 4.9 batters per nine innings. As more advanced hitters stopped chasing pitches out of the zone, Stephenson has had to make significant adjustments to his approach.

Cardinals righthander Alex Reyes has never had a stretch in his careeer where he’s shown consistent average or better control. He’s walked 4.3 batters per nine or more in each of his three pro seasons.

Reyes throws across his body slightly, but there’s little otherwise to indicate long-term control issues. He can reach 100 mph without excessive effort in his delivery and he generally repeats his release point. But his excellent curveball is a pitch that he still struggles to throw for strikes.

In both Reyes’ and Stephenson’s cases, it’s reasonable to think that they will eventually find the strike zone more consistently, but there’s no guarantee. Their stories are not unusual ones.

“Here’s where it gets sticky. There’s such a high value now placed on a guy who makes a guy swing and miss. The signals get a little crossed,” said Dodgers pitching coordinator Rick Knapp. “We want guys to pitch in the strike zone but also to miss bats, which means getting batters to chase pitches. What I try to emphasize is you do not get rewarded for a swing and miss until you get two strikes. Don’t try to make them swing and miss. Now when you get to strike two, you get your shot.”

It’s a lesson that often has to be learned in stages.

“The guys who throw really hard have the toughest time,” Knapp said. “They have been get away with their stuff for so long that they haven’t yet realized what controlling the ball means.”

A scan of Baseball America’s 2016 Top 100 Prospects list reveals many examples of young, hard-throwing pitchers whose control is not yet big league caliber.

Roughly 3.0 walks per nine innings is considered major league average control for starters. Anything over 3.5 BB/9 is considered well below big league average. It’s hard for a big league starter to have sustained success with that many walks. Of the 52 qualified starting pitchers last year that posted league average or better normalized ERAs, just three walked more than 3.5 per nine. In 2014, the numbers were similar (two of 60).

But 11 of the 39 pitchers in this year’s Top 100 walked 3.5 or more batters per nine last year. Reyes (4.4 BB/9), Stephenson (4.7 BB/9), Grant Holmes (4.7 BB/9), Touki Toussaint (4.9 BB/9) and Sean Newcomb (5.0 BB/9) all walked more than four batters per nine.

These pitchers will all have to show significant improvement if they are to have long-term big league success, but as the examples of Lee, Kershaw, Archer and many others show, it’s not an impossible task.

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