Is Cliff Lee A Top Five Starting Pitcher?

A friend of mine and myself were at a bar about a week or so ago and got into a pretty heated, but interesting debate that I would like to extend to the rest of the internet and blogosphere: is Cliff Lee a top five starting pitcher in the major leagues? Clearly he is the top crop pitcher of the FA pool, but is he one of the five best in all of baseball? My friend says yes, and I say no, though I feel Lee is top ten.

Here is my list of the top fifteen starting pitchers in baseball (based on age, talent and durability -- salaries are ignored):
  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Tim Lincecum
  3. Roy Halladay
  4. Adam Wainwright
  5. C.C. Sabathia
  6. Josh Johnson
  7. Jon Lester
  8. Cliff Lee
  9. Jered Weaver
  10. Justin Verlander
  11. Ubaldo Jimenez
  12. Dan Haren
  13. Francisco Liriano
  14. Max Scherzer
  15. Mat Latos (yes, I really believe he is that good)
What do you think? Am I just "being irrational" because "I hate good players" or is Cliff Lee indeed overvalued? Is Cliff Lee a top five starting pitcher? Who are your top ten?

Leave the answers in the comments section.


The A Team said...

When posed this question via email, this was my off-the-cuff response:

"I don't have a clean answer for you. Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, and Felix Hernandez are better pitchers than him.

After that is a whole mess of guys who I don't really think distinguish themselves from one another. I'd call it a large tie for 4th. The thing that really throws it are the emerging pitchers like David Price, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jared Weaver. With only one season of dominant data on those guys, it's incredibly hard to say where anyone ranks. It's already a little tough to figure whether guys like CC or Chris Carpenter are distinguishable.

So really, all I can say is that there are 3 pitchers who are 100% absolutely better than Lee. Then there's half a dozen more who may or may not be. "

Zack said...

I should probably weigh in.

WAR is not the perfect stat, but it does a pretty good job of assessing a pitcher's quality while also taking into account his quantity of innings. Here are Cliff Lee's MLB ranks in pitcher WAR the last three years - 1st in 2010, 6th in 2009, 4th in 2008.
Here are ranks of the pitchers you have ahead of him...

Hernandez - 6, 5, 30
Lincecum - 12, 3, 2
Halladay - 2, 4, 3
Wainright - 7, 12, T67
Sabathia - 13, 8, 1
Johnson - 4, 14, T70
Lester - 10, 9, 12

I think that Cliff Lee, along with Roy Halladay, is one of two pitchers who can make a claim to being THE BEST pitcher in the game, let alone in the top five. He was, in fact, the best pitcher in the league this year by WAR and nothing he did was out of line with his last three years.

I also think you are underrating Verlander, who ranked 3rd this year and 2nd last year after a down 2008.

David "MVP" Eckstein said...

Fangraphs WAR uses FIP, which I value as the least reliable peripheral stat. I like to look at xFIP and tERA