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Cliff Lee just doesn’t know how to pitch to the score, apparently

Feb 7, 2013, 9:48 AM EDT

Cliff Lee Getty Getty Images

There’s a humdinger of a column over at the Philadelphia Daily News. It’s from Sam Donnellon.  The premise: a very 2003-era column excoriating stat nerds — he makes a non-ironic allusion to mother’s basements — who have the gall to tell him that the things he sees with his own two eyes aren’t true. You’ve heard it all before a zillion times, so there’s no sense in sharp-shooting every willfully ignorant point.

But if Donnellon is going to rest his world view on the value of his two eyes and his memory, it’s probably worth seeing how good those two eyes and that memory is. Let’s take one easily checkable assertion.

Donnellon talks up Jack Morris by talking up the value of the won-loss record. He cites his colleague David Murphy‘s arguments that a won-loss record is one of the more irrelevant measures of a pitcher’s value. Then:

Murphy has mentioned Cliff Lee’s 2012 season as recent evidence of this. There is no doubt that Lee deserved better. But the naked eye, the one that watched the season in its entirety, recalls at least a handful of times when he received substantial leads and could not hold them. Morris would say, I suppose, that in those cases, he failed to pitch to the scoreboard.

Clearly, statistics are not irrelevant. But they should be used to support the naked eye, not create an alternate reality.

I don’t know what you would consider a “substantial lead,” but if you call it three runs or more, Lee blew such a “substantial lead” exactly once last year. On June 10 against the Orioles, when he frittered away a three-run lead. And that game he left with the score tied and got a no-decision. In contrast, he left games that were tied or with the Phillies ahead nine times.

But yes, I’m sure it’s all because of his poor moxie or inability to pitch to the score or something that Donnellon could tell you that he saw with his own two eyes.

  1. mojosmagic - Feb 7, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    Donnellon never mentioned in the article that he is blind.

  2. lookatmike - Feb 7, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    It might just be too early in the morning for my brain … but what’s the difference between Lee leaving “with a lead” and leaving “with the Phillies ahead”?

    • Craig Calcaterra - Feb 7, 2013 at 9:59 AM

      Oops. Fixed it. Meant “tied”

      • heyblueyoustink - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:19 AM

        “Yes, yes let’s try that again…without the oops.”

      • lookatmike - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:24 AM

        Gotcha. Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going crazy! (Or that it was time to up the strength on my morning tea.)

  3. historiophiliac - Feb 7, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    I really, really need baseball games to start.

    • historiophiliac - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:28 AM

      Good morning, my little troll.

    • cur68 - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:32 AM

      Agree. I’m putting my shirt on and not taking it off again till there is baseball. The world can clamour in vain for more of my Bernadina-esque physique or it can play ball. This is a protest.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:39 AM

        Damn, now I’m torn.

  4. sargespeak - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    This is all too confusing to me. I have been judging Lee by his UZR the whole time!!!

  5. seitz26 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    What’s sad about articles like this isn’t that there are stupid people writing baseball columns. It’s that it’s as if it’s their goal to make other people stupid as well. Like they’re uncomfortable being ignorant alone.

    Though I suppose if there are no consequences for writing this drivel, then why should the author care? One thing I learned from years of simply posting at Baseball Primer/Thinkfactory is that if you’re going to assert something, like the “handful of games” bit, you damn well better be right about it, because if you weren’t, someone whose opinion you probably respected (and from whom you wanted respect) was going to point out that you were wrong. And it takes all of about two minutes to check a fact like that.

    But hey, who are you going to believe, actual box scores which are filled with scary statistics, or your lying, naked eyes?

  6. mustbechris - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    just a refresher: cliff lee went into the all star break with one win and I believe an ERA in the high 2′s/low 3′s. I have no clue what Sam is getting at here, and I’m not totally sure that Sam himself does either. sounds like he needed something to write about and facts were getting in the way of his deadline. thank you for bringing attention to it from your mother’s basement, Craig.

    • kirkvanhouten - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:13 AM

      Here are some of Cliff Lee’s starts in 2012:

      April 7: 6 Innings, 1 run, No decision
      April 18: 10 Innings, 0 runs, no decision (he really should have pitched to the score that day)
      May 9: 6 innings, 1 run, no decision
      May 15: 8 innings, 1 run, no decision
      June 5th: 8 innings, 2 runs, Loss
      July 13th: 6 innings, 2 runs, Loss
      July 18th: 8 innings, 1 run, no decision
      August 21st: 7 innings, 2 runs, no decision
      September 7th: 6.1 innings, 2 runs, no decision
      September 23rd: 8 innings, 1 run, Loss
      September 28th: 7 innings, 1 run, no decision

      That’s an 11 games, where Lee went 0-3….*with a 1.56 ERA*.

      A pitcher posts a 1.56 ERA over 11 games and you want to say he’s not the one doing his job?? What a pathetic joke of a sportswriter this guy is.

      • The Dangerous Mabry - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:16 AM

        Sounds like someone needs to learn to hit.

      • kirkvanhouten - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:16 AM

        “A pitcher posts a 1.56 ERA over 11 games and you want to say he’s not the one doing his job?? ”

        This sentence was phrased in a way to make it seem as though I am criticizing the OP. This is not the case, I just stupidly used “you” when referring to Sam Donnellon.

      • mustbechris - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:06 AM

        Thanks for the clarification, I was confused as to why you were calling me a sportswriter ;-)

      • mustbechris - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:08 AM

        But yes, apparently “pitching to the score” means “throwing a no-hitter every outing” in Sam Donnellon’s world.

  7. kirkvanhouten - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    During a five year span from 1984-1988, Nolan Ryan didn’t muster up more than 12 wins in a season, including a year that he lead the league in ERA and went 8-16.

    Now, which is more likely.
    A). Nolan Ryan just forget how to pitch to the score during those seasons, but remembered how to the rest of his career.
    B). Wins are a really, really terrible way to judge a pitcher because a win depends on a hell of a lot more than how the pitcher throws the ball.

    Let’s just rename “wins” to what they actually are. Instead of “Wins” we’ll just call the stat:
    “Number of Times Pitcher Left the Game With A Lead After 5 Innings That Wasn’t Relinquished”. Cause that’s what a “win” actually is (for a starting pitcher any way…don’t even get me started on wins for relievers)

    • takavl - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:09 AM

      Bravo. Comment of the morn; will someone please send this to Dummy Donnellon?

  8. illcomm - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    must be desperate for readers this morning???? slow news day chris. article is weak

    • heyblueyoustink - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:16 AM

      Speaking of mother’s basement dwellers….

      • Gobias Industries - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:11 AM

        In his case, mother is a preserved corpse hidden in the fruit cellar.

    • wonkypenguin - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:25 AM

      Who is chris?

      • 18thstreet - Feb 7, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        Craig’s new nickname. Who’s with me?

    • Jeremy T - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      It is true that it’s a slow news day, though. Every day is a slow news day unless there’s a trade or new and “exciting” steroids news. Everything else is just stupid reporters (who are probably also trying to make up for the slow news days), rehashing of arguments that were tired months ago, and every now and then Lenny Dykstra makes a fool of himself.

  9. andreweac - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    Lies! Jack Morris is a Hall of Fame pitcher. To state otherwise is blasphemy! (Sarcasm off).

    1. The Hall of Fame should mimic the NFL hall of fame selection committee. Amazing how so many clown sportswriters have so much say over the history of the game.

    2. MLB should start their own awards and give votes to front office types. GMs perspective on the game is >>>>> clown, incoherent and illogical sportswriters.

  10. ctony1216 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    I had Cliff Lee on my fantasy team last season. Blown saves and no run support defined Lee’s season, especially the first half. It got to the point where I thought his Phillies teammates hated him or something, because they played so bad on the days he pitched. I half expected Lee to either stop caring and give up, or to go ballistic in the dugout out of frustration. Damn, if he had only pitched to the score his season would have been saved!

    • ctony1216 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:23 AM

      Pitching to the score for Cliff Lee: Throw a 9-inning, 2-hit shutout or we lose. No pressure.

  11. sargespeak - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    I am new to baseball. What does pitching to the score actually mean?

    • cur68 - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:43 AM

      Since you didn’t use HBT’s Sarcasm Font™, I’m going to presume that you are asking a legit question. “Pitching To The Score” = a rationalization for how a guy with a sky high ERA still has a butt-load of wins. It means his offence is so good that his mediocre to crap pitching is offset and he gets to victory in spite of basically sucking. There ya go. Don’t say I never taught you anything.

  12. pittman169 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    Mr. Donnellon, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  13. raysfan1 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    @illcomm–
    1) You read the article but took the time to disparage Craig for posting it.
    2) You then insulted him by calling the article “weak.”
    3) You called Craig “Chris.”

    Think about throwing stones in glass houses before commenting next time.

  14. wonkypenguin - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    I’ve just never understood the “pitch to the scoreboard” concept. It’s not like in other sports where maybe you change your scheme a little depending on what’s happening. The pitcher has one job which is squarely to get the other team to make outs and to NOT allow them to score runs. Why would you pitch in any other way? I mean, I know it’s just a throw away statement and I’m feeling crotchety this morning, but it’s just a fundamentally stupid idea in baseball. The only thing that would change is psychologically not feeling as tense if it’s 9-0 and the pitcher gives up a one-run homer. But that doesn’t mean he is suddenly pitching differently, does it?

    • someguyinva - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:55 AM

      To me, it means not worrying about being quite so precise with one’s pitches when pitching with a big lead vice in a tight game. Not all strikes are created equal; strikes on the outside corner at the knees are harder to hit than those that are belt high and down the middle of the plate. Those that are harder to hit are more likely to be hit weakly and therefore perhaps more likely to be turned into outs. If you ever hear about a guy being “wild in the strike zone”, this is what they’re talking about; he’s throwing strikes, but they’re strikes that are easier to hit.

      When a pitcher is pitching with a big lead, he doesn’t worry so much about throwing pitches that might be hit hard, because some of those are going to turn into outs, and those that turn into hits aren’t going to change the outcome of the game, so long as the damage is minimized. So yeah, you do alter your approach to pitching a bit.

      See also “high leverage” vice “low leverage”.

  15. eagles512 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    Donnellon is one of the most clueless media members in Philly. I just skip his column. And it’s tough to be in the clueless category with the radio people here but he manages to be.

  16. chomsky66 - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    We all know Morris didn’t pitch to the score. What he did do is pitch to the backstop: Morris led the American League in wild pitches SIX times in his career (and the majors three times; he’s 13th all-time in wild pitches). Cliff Lee only had four wild pitches last year; he might want to change his approach if he wants to emulate The Master.

  17. phillyphreak - Feb 7, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    He’s really arguing that he doesn’t want to have to learn new stats and numbers. The most interesting thing to me is that after saying baseball should be watched (and, hence not analyzed..I guess beyond the ribbie) he writes this gem:

    “Schilling, by the way, was one of the first athletes I ever saw use a laptop inside of a clubhouse. He kept tabs on every umpire’s strike zone, what pitches got batters out, what sequences he had used the last time he faced that night’s team.”

    So, in essence, he’s advocating FOR more in depth analysis but doesn’t even realize it.

  18. sawxalicious - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    Stupid facts always get in the way of a good narrative…

  19. lroc20 - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    Donnelon is a joke and nobody from Philly reads his articles or takes him seriously, similar to Craig

  20. greymares - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    as a columnist Donnellon is a helluva novelist.

  21. illcomm - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    raysfan. I don’t get paid to write. I am the consumer. its an open blog, so all is free to spew whatever. Craig-Chris. take that issue up with spellchecker

    • zzalapski - Feb 7, 2013 at 12:32 PM

      I’m sure your loved ones are very thankful that you do not support yourself through writing. Don’t know if they’d speak as well about your laziness, though.

  22. hpt150 - Feb 7, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Pitching to the score was not Cliff Lee’s problem. Hitting to the score was. 0-0 tie in the bottom of the 7th and Lee can’t even muster a solo shot to help himself and give the Phillies the lead? What a terrible pitcher.

  23. bankboy2012 - Feb 7, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    Can we all just agree that the last time anyone pitched to the Score was September 30, 1961 when Hal Brown threw to Herb in his last plate appearance and then never speak about it again?

  24. dexterismyhero - Feb 7, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    Joeyville is open in Clearwater!!!!

  25. nategearhart - Feb 7, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    I just read the comments section on Donnellon’s column and now I have cancer.

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