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Key Statistics: In 2010, Cliff Lee struck out 185 batters and walked only 18 of them. He settled for a 1.003 WHIP and a 3.18 ERA in 212.1 innings. This amounts to a 10.28 SO/BB ratio; historically good for a starting pitcher. While these numbers were an aberration for Lee, it’s all relative – he’s never had a SO/BB ratio lower than 4.21 in the last 3 years. That’s still phenomenal for a SP. What does this mean for a fantasy owner? It means the guy is striking out a ton of batters with excellent control and thus a fantastic WHIP. He’s a key contributor in 4 of the 5 standard pitching categories. I don’t really need to go further into the numbers here – this guy is one of the best 5 starting pitchers in baseball right now.

Skeptics Say: For such a high draft pick, Lee’s ERA is a little high relative to the rest of the field. Check out the last two years of ERA from the other top SP options:

Cliff Lee: 3.22, : 3.18
Adam Wainwright: 2.63, : 2.42
Tim Lincecum: 2.48, : 3.43
Felix Hernandez: 2.49, : 2.27
CC Sabathia: 3.37, : 3.18
Jon Lester: 3.41, : 3.25
Roy Halladay: 2.79 2.44

This is because when Lee loses, he loses big. A lot of pundits will point to Lee’s second half slide, but it’s really because of how awful he pitched in August (from May to July he pitched to a 3.82, 1.76 and 2.28 ERA, in August a 6.35 ERA and September a 1.93 ERA). In 5 August starts, he gave up 4, 6, 8, 5 and 4 runs, raising his ERA from 2.44 to 3.37. In August and September of 2009, he went through a similar stretch, giving up 6, 6, 4 and 7 runs in a 6 game stretch. What this all means is that you can expect Cliff to be superb for most of the season, but don’t at all be surprised if he destroys your ERA and WHIP for a month or so.

Peer Comparison: Looking over a few SP preseason rankings, the consensus top five is Doc, Lincecum, Felix, Wainwright and Lee, with only Halladay as the consensus number 1. I would draft those 5 in this order: Doc, Wainwright, Lee, Lincecum, Felix.

Felix is last not because he is the least talented pitcher (he won the AL Cy, 1st in MLB ERA, 2nd in MLB IP, 2nd in MLB strikeouts, 5th in MLB WHIP), but because he pitches for one of most awful offenses in MLB history – one that hasn’t made any major moves this offseason. Lincecum’s ERA last season was an aberration, but I think he’ll be victimized by poor run support again by the defending champs, not to mention the addition of throwing 30 postseason innings that could affect his performance this year. That leaves Wainwright, Doc and Lee.

All three have monster offenses backing them and are dependable workhorses with a sparse injury history.. All three of these guys will win between 15 and 20 games, will have an ERA around or below 3.00 and have shown excellent control (Wainwright had the highest WHIP at 1.05). Doc just won the NL Cy Young, Wainwright came in 2nd and Lee just led a team to the Series. But Doc and Adam get the nod here because they have slightly better K/9 rates and a slightly lower ERA. Obviously you can’t go wrong with any of these 3, or 5 guys for that matter. However, if you’re going to nitpick, I’d go with Halladay or Wainwright over Lee.

Lineup Outlook: In the last 6 seasons, the Phillies have led the NL in runs scored 3 times – and were second the other 3 times. Even with the loss of Jayson Werth to free agency, Lee won’t have anything to worry about run support. He will however, have to worry about the ‘pen keeping his wins alive. The Phillies’ relievers pitched to a 4.02 ERA last year, good for 18th in the majors and 10th in the NL. The combination of Madson, Contreras, Romero and Lidge will have Lee (and fantasy owners) on the edge of their seats this summer.

What They’re Saying: Yahoo: #5 Starting Pitcher & #36 Overall; CBS Sportsline: #5 Starting Pitcher; Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN.com: #24 Overall; John Halpin of Fox Sports: #64 Overall; Couch Managers: #32 Overall; RotoChamp: #20 Overall

Projection: Last year against the National League, Cliff Lee faced 125 batters and gave up hits to a fourth of them and walked none. Imagine that over a full season.

19 wins 3.20 ERA 1.10 WHIP 196 K in 230 innings

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