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Who's better: Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee?

Dec 15, 2009, 2:55 PM EDT

Clearly the Phillies’ decision to part with Cliff Lee and bring in Roy Halladay goes beyond each pitcher’s value for 2010.
Halladay is apparently willing to sign a long-term deal to remain in Philadelphia while Lee is reportedly intent on testing the free agent market next offseason, which makes it more complicated than simply asking “who’s better?”
With that said … well, I’m still interested in asking “who’s better?” Here’s what Halladay and Lee did in 2009:

2009              GS      IP      ERA     xFIP     SO9     BB9     OAVG
Roy Halladay      32     239     2.79     3.05     7.8     1.3     .256
Cliff Lee         34     232     3.22     3.69     7.0     1.7     .272

Those are regular season numbers, so they don’t include Lee going 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the playoffs. And during the regular season Halladay had more strikeouts with fewer walks while being tougher to hit, so not surprisingly his ERA was 14 percent lower than Lee’s. He also topped Lee by 17 percent in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), which is basically like ERA with luck, ballparks, defenses, and bullpens removed from the equation. Lee was great in 2009, but Halladay was even better.
Here are the same numbers from 2008:

2008              GS      IP      ERA     xFIP     SO9     BB9     OAVG
Roy Halladay      33     246     2.78     3.14     7.5     1.4     .237
Cliff Lee         31     223     2.54     3.57     6.9     1.4     .253

Lee won the AL Cy Young in 2008 thanks to his sparkling 22-3 record and league-leading 2.54 ERA, but the secondary numbers show that Halladay was every bit as good and perhaps even better in some respects. Lee bested Halladay by 8 percent in ERA, but Halladay had more strikeouts with the same number of walks and was harder to hit, so he topped Lee by 12 percent in xFIP.
Ultimately both guys are among the truly elite pitchers in all of baseball, so comparing them and choosing a winner is going to ruffle some feathers either way. However, it seems clear to me that for however amazing Lee has been over the past two seasons Halladay has been even better and Halladay also has a far superior pre-2008 track record.
Some people have wondered why the Phillies would bother to orchestrate such a huge trade after what Lee did in the playoffs, but upgrading from an A-plus starter to an A-plus-plus starter while keeping him around long term is plenty of motivation.

  1. Eric - Dec 15, 2009 at 3:18 PM

    Halladay has also put up those numbers against better competition. Cliff Lee did that in the American League Central and the in the second half of last year against the NL. Meanwhile nearly all of Halladay’s starts were against the AL, with a higher number against the AL East.

  2. Toronto Fan - Dec 15, 2009 at 3:48 PM

    yup – and he is a work horse. wher are the stats on number of complete games. I have a feeling Roy is untouchable again.. year over year.
    With half a team Roy can easily be a 22 or 24 game winner while saving your bull pen.. he is the best in the game hands down..

  3. smokehouse - Dec 15, 2009 at 3:56 PM

    In many ways it’s a toss up. Lee was 4-0 in post season and 2-0 against the Yankees in the world series. You can’t top that. All things equal, I guess Roy Halladay is probably better in the long run. The Phillies have 4 lefties in their rotation, way too many. The Quakers did not want to rent him for 2010 and lose him to free agency and get nothing. They HAD to make the move, thanks to Lee’s agent. Don’t blame the Quakers, they had to make the move. They had no choice.

  4. s/k - Dec 15, 2009 at 4:38 PM

    the phillies are phenominal

  5. Andrey - Dec 15, 2009 at 5:01 PM

    In 2007 Lee fell apart and spent part of the season in the minors. He came back in 2008 as a different pitcher, throwing a lot more strikes and winning the Cy Young. You can’t argue with his last two seasons but before that he was not as good as Halladay.

  6. ap - Dec 15, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    Yes s/k ‘
    That ONE championship in 150 years is VERY PHENEMONIAL !!!!

  7. D - Dec 15, 2009 at 5:52 PM

    Tim Lincecum is better than both of these fools.

  8. chris - Dec 15, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    Bottom line is that Lee wants Free Agency after 2010 while Halladay was willing to sign a longer deal. Lee wanted a Sabathia deal yet cannot go every 3 days during the playoffs. Lee is great, but Halladay is a better investment. It is a business.

  9. Rick - Dec 15, 2009 at 7:05 PM

    Did not realise that Linecum is available… Think before you write… You can only control what is available…. What is not available is for fools like yourself…

  10. s/k - Dec 15, 2009 at 8:29 PM

    yes a/p championships in 1980 and 2008 equal one ,obviously you are not a mathematician

  11. Yank Fan - Dec 15, 2009 at 8:50 PM


  12. Jeff - Dec 15, 2009 at 8:51 PM

    I’m just glad Cliff Lee is coming to Seattle. Awesome 1-2 punch with Felix Hernandez, and that allows Ryan Rowland-Smith to move down to 3 which is a better spot for him. He’s a quality pitcher, can pitch alot of innings, but is not a 1-2 guy at this point in his career.

  13. Matt - Dec 15, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    The Phillies are going to win the next 2 World Series now that they have Halladay. Brad Lidge should be back to the way he was in 2008 now that he got that last season of being injuried over with and Hamels is going to be the MVP he was back in 2008 as well. Bottom line is nobody stands a chance against the Phills and i hope to see the Yankees in the World Series in 2010

  14. smv - Dec 15, 2009 at 11:11 PM

    halladay is the better pitcher…..but it’s hard to replace/find a dominant left-handed pitcher in MLB….plus, Lee has the opportunity to match Halladay’s career record (and against supposed better competition) now that he’s in the AL…..still all these guys will never come to the level of greatest right/left handed pitcher’s Pedro Martinez/Randy Johnson

  15. CliffLeeRocks - Dec 16, 2009 at 1:44 PM

    Cliff Lee is so much better…give me a break. And, he won his games in the playoffs against even better teams and supposedly better pitchers. I can’t believe the lame ass Phillies traded him…stupid. He won their only games in the world series. MLB sucks – I hate that I watch it. No loyalty…no thanks. Same to the Yankees, bye to Matsui the MVP? Stupid shit. The Phillies are in the same club as the Yankees and Red Sox. All business, no pleasure…

  16. BobbyD - Dec 16, 2009 at 3:49 PM

    Hey! Cliff wasn’t going to be around after next year. Roy will be.
    The Phillies did the right thing. Go Phils!

  17. tribefan - Dec 16, 2009 at 7:36 PM

    The first trade Lee was involved in was one of the most lopsided in history. Bartolo Colon for Lee, Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips. I watched Lee pitch here since and he is a stud. If he wasn’t hurt in 2007, the tribe wins it all and Sabathia, Lee, and Vmart are still here. Not knocking Halladay, but if I had my choice, I’d take Cliff.

  18. philliesrule - Dec 16, 2009 at 7:48 PM

    i so agree. I cant believe they traded him!!!!!!
    They were being so stupid. Lee rocks, and he kicked Yankee BUTT even though we lost. There’s something very very wrong with this trade!!!!!!!!!

  19. Dave - Dec 16, 2009 at 8:06 PM

    Phillies could’ve paid Lee the free agency money he’s looking for and still traded for Halladay. They won’t admit it but MONEY played a huged part in trading Lee. Maybe we can sign Lee when hes a free agent next year? Wishful thinking, you know those damn Yankees will do it.

  20. iancheyne - Dec 16, 2009 at 8:54 PM

    I think everyone knows hat Lee was going to test free agency next year so why would you take that risk … when you add the fact that Halladay’s numbers are as good as, or better, than Lee’s and a RHP to boot then this becomes a no brainer … I just wish we could have kept them both.

  21. iancheyne - Dec 16, 2009 at 8:58 PM

    Of course the Yankees will sign Lee, that’s why they gave Pettitte a one year contract.

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