Lee came over for one reason: to deliver the Rangers to playoff success. So far, so good on that front with the Rangers having not only won their first ever playoff series but their first ever American League pennant and a trip to the World Series. Texas also ousted the New York Yankees, their playoff tormentor of the 90's, in the process.
Lee had become a household name last October when he led the Phillies to the National League pennant before falling in the World Series to the Yankees. Before that though, despite having won a Cy Young award in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians, Lee wasn't well known - nor is his complete history.
In 1997, the Florida Marlins drafted Cliff Lee in the eighth round of the First-Year Player Draft out of Benton High School in Arkansas. Lee opted not to sign with the Marlins instead choosing to attend Meridan Community College. He would again be drafted the following year by the Baltimore Orioles - but 12 rounds later in the 20th round. He again elected not to sign and attended the University of Arkansas to continue his collegiate career.
Lee was drafted for a third and final time by the Montreal Expos in 2000 in the 4th round. He reported to the South Atlantic League after signing in early July 2000. The results weren't pretty, however, as he went 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA, giving up 50 hits in 44 innings while walking 36. He did, however, post a 12.69 SO/9 ratio. Lee did not even rate in the Expos Top 15 prospects of 2001 according to Baseball America.
In 2001, Lee reported to the Florida State League (A+) as a 22 year old and thrived. He pitched to the tune of a 2.79 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and maintained a high strikeout rate, getting batters to whiff 10.59 per nine innings. Lee would crack Montreal's top 15 prospects according to Baseball America for 2002, rating as the eleventh best in the system. The 10 players ahead of him? Brandon Phillips, Brad Wilkerson, Grady Sizemore, Donnie Bridges, Josh Karp, Justin Wayne, Rich Rundles, Zach Day, Luke Lockwood and Eric Good.
Fast forward to June 28, 2002. Montreal Expos general manager Omar Minaya decided that he needed to try to save baseball in Montreal by doing something irrational. With the Expos trailing the Atlanta Braves by 6.5 games, and with Montreal having a negative eight run differential, Minaya pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Indians. Montreal sent Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and Lee Stevens to Cleveland in exchange for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. Colon was the owner of a 10-4 record with the Indians with a 2.55 ERA at the time of the trade and wound up pitching to an identical record in Montreal, going 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA and 1.32 WHIP.
The Expos would finish a distant 19 games behind the first place Braves. Montreal would actually lose their next three games before Colon even made a start for the Expos, putting them 9.5 out of the division before their prized ace threw a pitch. The season was already over before Colon toed the rubber for the Expos but Omar Minaya decided to gut the Expos farm system and essentially kill Montreal baseball forever by trading away Sizemore, Lee and Phillips.
Cliff Lee, however, would find new life with the Indians and turn into one of Cleveland's best prospects. Lee made eight starts in AAA with the Indians in 2002, pitching well but not great. He posted a 3.77 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP with a 4.6 BB/9 and 6.28 SO/9. Lee would even make his MLB debut with the Indians in '02, pitching 10 innings while walking eight and striking out six and allowing only two runs. Solid, but not spectacular all in all. Certainly nothing like the Cliff Lee we all know and love today.
Lee would be rated by Baseball America as Cleveland's No. 3 prospect headed into 2003, behind only Brandon Phillips and Victor Martinez. Lee was described by Baseball America's Jim Ingraham as a pitcher who can "win without his best stuff." His fastball was seen sitting between 91 and 93 mph with a slider that had "good late action." Both his curve and change "gave hitters something else to worry about."
The knock on Lee back then was his velocity which had dipped down into the high 80's at times and that he needed to be able to adapt to pitching in the majors and make every pitch count. Baseball America correctly claimed that Cliff Lee had the most upside between fellow Indian farmhand southpaws Billy Traber and Brian Tallet.
Lee would spend his 2003 season essentially split between AAA Buffalo and Cleveland, logging 63 effective innings in Buffalo and 52 effective innings in Cleveland. Lee went 3-3 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with the Indians that year, striking out 44 and walking 20. A promising rookie campaign but still nothing to indicate his future.
Lee would finally struggle in 2004 at the Major League level. He made 33 starts while logging 179 innings. Despite posting a 14-8 record, Lee pitched poorly. He held a 5.43 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in '04, while walking 81 - good for a 4.07 BB/9 ratio.
Lee found his groove again in 2005 and began to show a glimpse into his future. He went 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and nearly cut his walk rate in half - walking only 52 in 202 innings of work, translating to a 2.32 BB/9.
2006 was another year of regression for Lee. His walk rate jumped slightly but not substantially, up to a 2.6 BB/9. His ERA jumped from 3.79 to 4.40 and his WHIP went from 1.22 to 1.41. He was suddenly much more hittable in 2006, surrendering 10.05 H/9 compared to his 8.64 rate in '05.
Lee was a disaster in 2007 and continued his regression. Lee made 20 appearances with the Indians, 16 of which were starts, and was torched. He posted a 6.29 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 10.36 H/9 and his walk wate regressed as well, sliding all the way back to 3.33 BB/9. He was demoted to AAA and pitched well - but not great with a 3.51 ERA and 1.39 WHIP while walking an astouding 5.49 per nine innings.
Then something clicked.
Cliff Lee went from possible AAAA pitcher to Cy Young winner between 2007 and 2008. Lee was magnificent in 2008 en route to winning the Cy Young award for the Cleveland Indians. He went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and his walk rate magically cut itself nearly in three, falling all the way to 1.37 BB/9.
Lee went on to have success some success with Cleveland in '09 but even more success after being traded to the Phillies, including that postseason run we've heard time and time again.
Amazingly, Lee's control improved futher to historic proportions in 2010. Cliff Lee walked 18 batters in 2010 between his stints in Seattle and Texas. His strikeout to walk ratio was an astoundiing 10.28. As Robbie Griffin pointed out, only Bret Saberhagen in 1994, a strike shortened year, had a better K/BB ratio in Major League history than Lee's 2010 campaign.
When you watch Cliff Lee take the mound on Wednesday to make his second consecutive World Series Game 1 start, which was last done by Jack Morris in '91 and '92, realize that you are watching a pitcher who wasn't always an ace. Lee was never supposed to be this good. Nobody really is supposed to be as good as Lee was in 2010. Lee overcame a fair share of struggles and didn't become a prolific pitcher until he nearly 30 years old.
Cliff Lee wasn't born an ace. He was a lefty with upside who had to learn how to make "every pitch count." Perhaps his struggles throughout his career in Cleveland gave him the mental toughness to have postseason success that few in Major League history can boast. Maybe it was his improved command that has brought him to where he is today with his holy aura about him. Regardless of what the exact reason is that brought Lee to where he is, he's there and doesn't appear to be going back.
Enjoy these Cliff Lee World Series starts, Rangers fans.