Cliff Lee cruised into the seventh inning in Wednesday night's game against the Yankees, but three of the first four batters he faced in the top of the seventh got a hit, including a leadoff double by Robinson Cano and a booming ground-rule double to the warning track in right center by Lance Berkman. That last came on Lee's 100th pitch and brought the tying run to the plate. Berkman's hit seemed to me an obvious sign that Lee, who had given the Rangers six strong innings and one extra out, was finished for the night, but Ron Washington left him in to face Brett Gardner, who singled in another run, driving Lee from the game.
I'm sure Washington's motivation was largely maintaining the platoon advantage with the lefty Lee facing the struggling lefty Gardner, but Berkman's blast seemed like such a clear sign that Lee was done that, in my head, Washington was also leaving Lee in simply because he's Cliff Lee and Cliff Lee doesn't come out before the eighth inning (Lee had completed at least eight innings in each of his first seven starts since being acquired by Texas). That, in combination with the growing assumption that the Yankees are going to sign Lee as a free agent this winter (to the degree that I had to stop myself from calling him "future Yankee Cliff Lee" above) got me thinking about Lee's workload this year.
Wednesday night's game was just the second time all season Lee had failed to complete seven innings, which is both extremely impressive, but also, one assumes, fairly taxing. Lee has averaged just a hair over eight full innings in his 20 starts this season and, despite missing most of April, he is on pace to pitch roughly 230 innings in just five months, and that doesn't include his contributions in the Rangers' postseason run.
Here's the good news: as a late bloomer, Lee didn't throw 200 innings in a season (majors, minors, or both combined) until he was 26, and though he jumped form 223 1/3 innings in 2008 to a total of 272 between the regular and postseasons in 2009, he hasn't shown any ill-effects from that monster workload this season and, in fact, has been better this year than he was last.
Then again, he did miss April. That was due to an abdominal strain, not an arm problem, but one wonders if either a) the injury was in some way fallout from that massive 2009 workload or b) the time off was necessary for the effectiveness he's shown since returning.
It could be there's nothing to see here. Lee will be 32 on August 30, so he's neither too young to be worked this hard, nor too old. He has shown no real decline as a result of his workloads, and he has not thrown more than 118 pitches in any of his starts this season, meaning he hasn't really pitched into the danger zone of exhaustion despite all of those innings (you can do that when you only walk nine guys in 20 starts).
When the Yankees signed Lee's former teammate and good friend CC Sabathia, there were a lot of questions about Sabathia's heavy workloads as the Indians went deep into the postseason in 2007 and the Brewers rode him hard to get to the playoffs in 2008. I dismissed those because, I argued, Sabathia had the body type to endure such work and had been properly built up and conditioned to throw 250 innings a season. Lee is a very different pitcher, physically, and did have that big jump from 2008 to 2009, but his calm, easy demeanor and delivery also suggest he's a pitcher who can handle the load. Still, it bears watching, particularly if the Rangers go deep into October.
Ken Singleton actually beat me to this on last night's broadcast, but with Mark Teixeira missing the Texas series and then some due to the birth of his third child, I was made to wonder why baseball allows teams to put players on bereavement leave, thus allowing them to fill the vacated roster spot, but don't do the same for paternity leave. Actually, check that, I don't wonder why. Major League Baseball is perpetually forty years behind the curve in everything except digital media. I do wonder, however, when they're going to sort this one out.
Singleton suggested that it be brought up in the next collective bargaining agreement. That's fine. I can't imagine why either side would object. The teams get to maximize their rosters, the players get to be with their wives and children without feeling like they're hurting the team (as much), and someone in the minors gets a few extra days on the 25-man roster. Still, the current CBA expires in December 2011, and it seems silly to play another season under the current antiquated rules. Bringing up Juan Miranda for five days isn't going to make or break the Yankees' season, but penalizing teams for their players being good fathers and husbands doesn't make a bit of sense.