Best Hogs in pro baseball No. 1: Slow to develop, Cliff Lee became best in game

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, July 10, 2020
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Monday, July 21, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Monday, July 21, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

FAYETTEVILLE — Cliff Lee went into spring training in 2008 competing to be the Cleveland Indians’ No. 5 starter.

By the season’s end, Lee not only was Cleveland’s No. 1 pitcher, he was the best in the American League.

Lee, a Benton native who pitched for the University of Arkansas, finished 2008 with a 22-3 record, 2.54 ERA and 170 strikeouts with 34 walks in 2231/3 innings.

It was sweet redemption after a 2007 season in which Lee suffered an abdominal strain that caused him to miss spring training, was demoted from Cleveland to AAA Buffalo in July after a four-game losing streak, finished the season 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA and was left off the Indians’ playoff roster.

Lee won the 2008 American League Cy Young Award in a landslide, receiving 24 of 28 first-place votes.

“Obviously, I went from not having a very good year in 2007 to probably having the best year of my career in 2008,” Lee told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this week. “It’s ironic how the game can go from one extreme to the other sometimes.

“It was a special year and one of those deals that the stars kind of aligned for me. I used failing the year before as motivation to go out there and prove everyone wrong. That was definitely the turning point in my career.”

Editor's Note

After receiving positive feedback from our series in April on the top professional football players from the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and WholeHogSports.com decided to repeat the project with professional baseball players. Over the next 10 days, we will present a list, in descending order, of the best Razorbacks to play in the professional ranks.

This list was compiled after consultation with media members and through research.

Starting in 2008, Lee had an 85-50 record with a 2.89 ERA and 1,203 strikeouts with 197 walks in 1,331 innings over the final seven seasons of his career.

Lee didn’t pitch again after being sidelined by an elbow injury 13 starts into the 2014 season. He retired before the 2016 season when he still hadn’t fully recovered from a torn tendon.

In 328 games over 13 major league seasons, the left-handed Lee had a 143-91 record with a 3.52 ERA. Five times he finished in the top seven in Cy Young voting — three times in the American League and twice in the National League.

For that sustained excellence, Lee is No. 1 on the Democrat-Gazette’s list of the top Razorbacks in professional baseball.

“I would say I was happy with my career,” Lee said. “I had fun and got to play with a lot of really good players.

“My elbow started hurting me there at the end, but I was able to get out before I had any long-lasting effects from just grinding on your body.

“There are a lot of guys that played professional sports and then limp around the rest of their lives when they’re done for the way they beat their bodies up. I’m not in that boat, for which I’m thankful.”

Lee is now enjoying retirement and living in Little Rock with his wife Kristen, son Jaxon and daughter Maci.

“I basically spend time with my family and golf with my son quite a bit,” Lee said. “I like to fish, hunt, be in the woods. Grow some tomatoes.”

Before the 2008 season, Lee visited Cleveland pitching coach Carl Willis at his home in Raleigh, N.C. The idea was to help Lee regain the form he had while going 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA in 2005 and 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 2006.

“It was just the organization and Carl and myself trying to do everything we could to make sure we got things back the way they needed to be,” Lee said. “Make sure things were progressing the way they should.”

Things, as it turned out, progressed better than expected.

“I don’t think anyone could have seen a season like this coming,” Willis told reporters after the 2008 season. “During the winter, I talked to Cliff about repeating his delivery, commanding his fastball and using his secondary pitches off his fastball command.”

Lee did those things well enough in spring training to win the fifth rotation spot over Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey.

“It seemed like every time out, all three of them struggled. But the thing with Cliff was, we knew what he was trying to do,” Willis said. “At the end of camp, it wasn’t a slam dunk, but based on Cliff’s past success, we went with him.”

Once the season started, Lee made it a slam dunk. After seven starts, he was 6-0 with a 0.67 ERA. Then he just kept winning.

The Indians finished 81-81 in 2008, making Lee’s 22 victories even more impressive.

“I don’t know if it was ever one of my goals or not,” Lee said of winning the Cy Young Award at age 30. “I just wanted to be good. I wanted to not give up any runs ever. It just kind of led to that.

“But any time you’re labeled the best in the league at what you’re doing, that’s a pretty good honor.”

Lee said he learned that season to control what he could and not waste time worrying about what he couldn’t.

“I completely changed my mindset on how I was going to go about things and tried to use it to my advantage,” he said. “That along with just learning a routine that worked for me, and a good work ethic.

“From that period forward, my career was better.”

What Lee learned to control better than anything was his fastball, including a cutter he developed.

“Cliff’s percentage of fastballs thrown in the major leagues was astronomically high,” said Chris Curry, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock coach who was Lee’s catcher at Meridian (Miss.) Junior College. “He just attacked, because that’s how he was, and that’s how he felt comfortable playing.

“He just kept throwing fastball after fastball and jamming or throwing it by major league hitters, which you don’t do. But he did.”

Lee said he’s not sure what percentage of his pitches were fastballs.

“What I do know is I liked to locate and I liked to throw strikes, and that’s the easiest pitch to do that with,” he said. “So I threw a lot of fastballs.

“I wanted the hitters to swing, and I wanted them to swing as early as possible.”

Lee finished with 1,828 strikeouts and 464 walks. Between 2008 and 2013, he never had more than 43 walks in a season while striking out at least 170. In 2011, he had 238 strikeouts and 42 walks.

“I didn’t care so much about the strikeouts,” Lee said. “Not walking people was the main thing. I tried to throw every single pitch for a strike, and I tried to put it on the corners.

“Early in my career, I didn’t realize how important that was [to limit walks]. The more I played the more I realized that if you give someone a free base and they come around and score, you didn’t make them earn anything. You gave it to them.”

Norm DeBriyn, Arkansas’ coach from 1970-2002, saw Lee pitch as a sophomore at Benton High School.

“I absolutely fell in love with him — a big left-hander that threw hard,” DeBriyn said. “I thought, ‘This is a can’t-miss guy.’

“So I went after him with everything I had, and I just could not get to first base.”

Lee signed with UALR, but then went to Meridian after being drafted in the eighth round by the Florida Marlins.

Curry, a year ahead of Lee, helped recruit him to Meridian after facing him as a player at Conway High School.

“I don’t remember ever getting a hit off of Cliff in high school,” Curry said. “Cliff was tough, because he always pitched with an edge.

“He didn’t have pinpoint accuracy when he was younger. He could throw really hard, but his command would come and go. He’d paint one right on the edge of the plate, then he’d throw one under your chin.

“You didn’t always know if he was doing it on purpose or not.”

The Baltimore Orioles drafted Lee in the 20th round out of Meridian, but this time he accepted a scholarship offer from DeBriyn, picking the Razorbacks over LSU.

DeBriyn said he thought he had an SEC ace in Lee, but it didn’t turn out that way in 2000.

Lee wasn’t bad, but just not as good as expected. He went 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 16 games, including 9 starts. In 64 1/3 innings, he allowed 45 hits and had 77 strikeouts, but 52 walks.

“He couldn’t locate. He was behind hitters all the time,” DeBriyn said. “He just had a mediocre year. I blame myself for not being able to develop him like he should have been developed.”

Lee said he doesn’t blame DeBriyn — or anyone — for his season at Arkansas.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault I didn’t do better at Arkansas,” he said. “I think it was just part of my development. Just another phase in my baseball career, my life period.

“I didn’t really start developing until I got into professional baseball and was pitching every five days. At Arkansas or any college when you start, you just pitch once a week.

“There are some guys that can do it, but for me pitching every five days worked out a lot better than every seven. It was almost like it was too much time in between starts.

“At Arkansas, I still didn’t fully understand what I was doing. It took a few years in the minor leagues, and even several years in the major leagues before I got a grasp on exactly what I needed to do and how to do it the best.”

LSU, where Lee could have signed, won the national championship in 2000. Arkansas was 24-30, including 8-20 in the SEC.

“I came to Arkansas because that’s where I was from,” Lee said. “I wanted to go back home and play for the Razorbacks. I was proud to be a Razorback.”

In the latter part of the 2000 season, Lee moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen and had two saves.

“I think it helped Cliff in the draft that we started bringing him out of the bullpen,” DeBriyn said. “He was throwing 90-plus [miles per hour] out of the bullpen. He’d light up that radar gun for the scouts.”

Lee signed with the Montreal Expos after they drafted him in the fourth round. He became the No. 11 prospect for the Expos, who in 2002 traded him to Cleveland in a deal that included the Indians getting Bartolo Colon.

It was the first of four trades involving Lee.

After Lee became an ace in Cleveland, the Indians still struggled to win. He was traded to Philadelphia during the 2009 season.

Lee helped the Phillies win the 2009 National League pennant, but they lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series.

After the season, Philadelphia traded Lee to the Seattle Mariners. When the Mariners struggled to win, they traded Lee to the Texas Rangers during the 2010 season.

At the time, it was expected the Yankees would acquire Lee.

“I knew I was going to get traded and for sure I thought it was going to be the Yankees,” Lee said. “But at the last second, the Rangers somehow worked out a deal.”

Lee helped the Rangers win the America League pennant, but Texas lost to San Francisco in the World Series.

“I was fortunate to get to play in two World Series,” said Lee, who was 7-3 in postseason games with a 2.52 ERA. “That’s what it’s all about. The only thing I wish is that we somehow could have won a World Series title.”

After the Yankees missed out on trading for Lee, they were expected to sign him as a free agent after the 2010 season.

But the Phillies instead signed Lee to a five-year, $120 million contract with an option for a sixth year. The Yankees offered a six-year, $140 million contract, according to media reports, and were ready to extend it to seven years for more than $150 million.

“I just knew I’d played in Philadelphia before and we had really enjoyed our time there,” Lee said. “I knew what I was dealing with there.

“I liked the National League. I liked facing the pitcher rather than a designated hitter. And I liked to hit, too.”

Lee was part of a dominant rotation in Philadelphia in 2011 that included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.

“Watching other really good pitchers do what they do can only help you,” Lee said. “You try to pick up on things they’re doing, the way they go about their routine, the way they use certain pitches in certain situations.

“We tried to help one another. It was nice knowing that if you did have a bad game, there were other guys with you to get our team back on track. They could rely on me the same way.”

The Phillies went 102-60 in 2011 — led by Halladay at 19-6 and Lee at 17-8 – but they lost to St. Louis in five games in the NL division series.

Philadephia didn’t finish over .500 the next three seasons, though Lee continued to pitch well until suffering what eventually became a career-ending elbow injury when he was 35.

“For a good stretch there, Cliff was the best pitcher in baseball,” Curry said. “I think he’s a really good story for players about finding yourself and figuring out who you are and being yourself. Just a good story of perseverance.”

DeBriyn said it was fun to watch Lee excel in the major leagues after he had some struggles at Arkansas.

“Cliff’s career was better than I ever thought it would be,” DeBriyn said. “I’m just happy things turned out the way they did for him.”

Lee said that when he first injured the elbow, the recommendation from doctors was rest and rehabilitation rather than surgery. After he made a start in spring training in 2015 and the pain returned, more rehabilitation was called for because surgery would have meant missing the 2015 season – the last year of his contract in Philadelphia.

“After more rehab, it still never fully went away,” Lee said. “If I had intentions to play in 2016, I needed surgery, and I declined to do that. So that was pretty much the end of it.”

Lee said he’s thankful to play in the major leagues as long as he did.

“I don’t miss what’s required to be good at that level,” Lee said. “I miss my teammates and I miss the camaraderie we had, but I don’t miss the grind of it at all.”

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.