CLEVELAND -- In the early days of Spring Training, when his spot in the Indians' rotation was not yet assured and the memories of a disastrous 2007 were still all too fresh, Cliff Lee made his mindset clear to anybody who asked. "I absolutely have no desire to go and pitch in Buffalo ever again," Lee said. "I do have another [Minor League] option left, but ... it's not something I'm considering in my mind." To think that Lee's remaining Minor League option was even a topic of discussion is laughable now that he's a 22-game winner and bona fide Cy Young Award favorite.
But it also just goes to show how far the 30-year-old Lee has come this season. After a demotion to Buffalo in '07 and an absence from the Tribe's postseason roster, Lee has made it back to being a consistent winner in the big leagues. In doing so, the left-handed Lee won the first of several expected offseason accolades. Lee was named the American League's Comeback Player of the Year on Tuesday, following a landslide vote of MLB.com reporters. Lee received 24 of 30 first-place votes. Phillies closer Brad Lidge won the award in the NL. Lee, who won 46 games from 2004-06, missed the first month of 2007 with an abdominal strain and went 5-8 with a 6.38 ERA in his first 16 starts. An 0-4 record and 11.70 ERA in July earned him that humbling trip back to Triple-A. After his name became the subject of trade rumors that went nowhere throughout the winter, Lee reported to Spring Training looking to stay healthy and regain the confidence of the Indians' decision-makers. He did all that and more. Lee gave up just one unearned run on four hits in 6 2/3 innings against the A's in his '08 debut, and the Indians took it as a good sign. Then he went on to go 6-0 with a 0.81 ERA in his first six starts, and the nation took notice. Then he turned in two scoreless innings as the AL starter in the All-Star Game, and the Cy Young Award talk became fashionable. And by the time he became the Indians' first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry in 1974, it was obvious Lee was putting together a season that could be appreciated from a historical perspective. By finishing 22-3, his .880 winning percentage ties Preacher Roe (1951 Brooklyn Dodgers) for the third highest by a 20-game winner in the modern era.
|A statistical look at the remarkable reversal that earned Cliff Lee the 2008 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award|
|Games (starts)||20 (16)||31 (31)|
|Innings pitched||97 1/3||223 1/3|
|Earned runs allowed||68||63|
"If you look at what he's done, there is a reason for it," manager Eric Wedge said earlier this year. "His focus is so much better from pitch to pitch. In Spring Training, if you remember, he had a couple of difficult outings early on. But then there was one game where he really started dialing it in. Once he got going, he really got going." To Lee, the secret to getting it going was staying healthy. "Last year, I had the ab strain, which was the second one I've had," he said recently. "Plus, I've had two hernia surgeries. So I've had issues with my abs before. So I did everything I could to avoid another ab strain." He didn't just hit his abs in workouts. He hit his spots with his fastball. His command of that pitch rarely wavered over the course of 31 starts in which he put up a 2.54 ERA that was the best in the American League. And with the fastball working so consistently, he was able to utilize his secondary pitches more effectively. "In the past, he was competitive and would want to beat you with his fastball, even when it wasn't the smartest thing to do," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "Now he's getting into the seventh or eighth inning. Instead of 100 pitches going into the sixth, now he's got 90 pitches going into the eighth or ninth." For an Indians team that dealt away reigning Cy Young winner CC Sabathia at midseason, Lee's resurgence was a saving grace, of sorts. The club can go into the offseason knowing it still has an ace up its sleeve. And Lee no longer has to worry about his job security or the threat of that Minor League option being exercised. "Any time any competitive person struggles at anything, they want a chance to rebound," he said this spring. "[Last season] was a rough and humbling year for me, and that kind of stuff can happen to anybody. You've got to find something deep inside of you that forces you to get back to where you were." Lee is back. And better than ever.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.