Lee wins 2008 AL Cy Young Award

Comeback kid: Lee wins AL Cy Young Award

The American League Cy Young Award winner is again a Cleveland Indians pitcher. But Cliff Lee's rise to greatness in 2008 was far from a repeat performance.

When CC Sabathia received his award a year ago, Lee was coming off of a humbling season that included a summer at Triple-A Buffalo and no role in the Indians' postseason run. While Sabathia ascended to greatness, Lee prepared to battle for a spot in the rotation the following spring.

That's what arguably makes Lee's 2008 season so special.

"It wasn't any fun," Lee said Thursday, "but looking back, it definitely makes for a better story."

It certainly made for a better pitcher.

Lee led the AL in wins with a 22-3 record and in ERA with a 2.54 mark, posted the third-highest winning percentage (.880) for a 20-game winner in baseball history and became the Tribe's first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry in 1974.

"It was the most incredible season I've ever seen from a pitcher at that level," manager Eric Wedge said.

The voters took notice. Lee received 24 of 28 first-place votes and finished with 132 points in balloting. He beat out the Jays' Roy Halladay, who finished second with 74 votes.

"[Lee] was already a good Major League pitcher," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "This year, he took the step to greatness."

Lee followed the trail of Sabathia and Perry as the only Tribe pitchers to win the prestigious award. But Lee's path to greatness was certainly unique, including an offseason field trip.

It came on the heels of a 5-8 record and 6.29 ERA for the Indians in a 2007 season that began with a right abdominal injury and fell apart from there. It was a bizarre position for somebody who had won 46 games over the previous three seasons, including an 18-5 record in 2005.

When the season ended, the Indians wanted Lee to work in the offseason to make sure he stayed healthy. But they also wanted Lee to connect with the message that pitching coach Carl Willis conveyed. So Willis suggested that Lee spend a couple days with him at Willis' North Carolina home.

"I think Cliff was probably wondering why that was necessary," Wedge said. "I just felt like it was something that he needed to be in an environment with his pitching coach and a guy that he trusts. [Lee's] been through a great deal with [Willis], but he needed to be in a different environment with him, without the pressures and emotions day to day, in-season that you go through."

Willis simply felt that Lee's injury left him trying to play catch-up early in the season and getting impatient. The visit set Lee up for what would be a critical winter.

2008 AL Cy Young Award Voting
Pitcher, Club 1st 2nd 3rd Points
Cliff Lee, CLE 24 4   132
Roy Halladay, TOR 4 15 6 71
Francisco Rodriguez, LAA   7 11 32
Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS   2 4 10
Mariano Rivera, NYY     3 3
Mike Mussina, NYY     2 2
Ervin Santana, LAA     2 2

"They just wanted to make sure they did everything they could and put everything out on the table," Lee said. "They wanted to make sure they did everything they could to make me the pitcher I could be, and I was all for that. It made sense.

"I don't know if that's the reason why I turned things around and got back to pitching well, but if it had anything to do with it, then perfect."

Lee had to fight for a spot on the Tribe's roster out of Spring Training. Because of the $3.75 million he was set to make, it was generally assumed Lee was the frontrunner to beat out young left-handers Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers, but the Indians nonetheless wanted him to earn the job.

It didn't take long for Willis to know that Lee was ready.

"He and I had talked a couple of times over the winter, just about the control and command," Willis said. "And his first bullpen session back in February, he really showed that. He exhibited that. And I remember when he was done with that bullpen, I said to him, 'That's exactly what we're talking about. Just keep going with that.'"

Lee took that into his first Spring Training outing, Willis said, and showed it against live competition. From there, Lee took it with him just about every time he stepped onto the mound.

"Instead of just throwing the ball over the plate, he started throwing quality strikes," Wedge said, "commanding the baseball, hitting the glove and throwing it right where he wanted to. That opened everything else for him. For him to do it for a short period of time is one thing. For him to do it over the course of 30 starts, that's pretty special stuff."

The key to that consistency, everyone agreed, was the mind-set.

"It's easier to be aware of those things when you're keeping your mind in the moment and not allowing your mind to drift," Lee said. "Just focus on what you're doing right now and make adjustments on the fly and make them work their way on base."

With the combination of a strong mental approach and pinpoint pitch execution, Lee wouldn't be in the back of Cleveland's rotation for long. He won each of his first six starts, posting a 0.81 ERA in the process, and knew this season was different.

Cliff Lee's 2008 stats
W-L22-3
ERA2.54
CG4
SHO2
SO170

"I think probably after my fourth or fifth start, when I had under a 1.00 ERA, that's when I knew it was going to be a special year," Lee said. "I never rested on that and felt I had it figured out. I still continued to keep my mind in the moment. I wasn't going to get away from that."

Lee won a career-high 11 straight decisions from July 11-Sept. 12 -- the longest such streak in the bigs since the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter won 13 straight in 2005. Lee was the AL Pitcher of the Month in April and August, and the AL's starter in the July 15 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.

To put a little more historical perspective on Lee's season, consider that he was just the seventh pitcher since 1920 to win 22 of his first 25 decisions, according to STATS.

When all was said and done, Lee finished second in the AL in complete games (four), ninth in strikeouts (170), second in innings pitched (223 1/3), 13th in opponents' batting average (.253), first in homers allowed per nine innings (0.48), second in baserunners per nine innings (10.2) and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.38).

"His approach to each game was consistent," Shapiro said. "His focus was consistent. Nothing derailed his execution. The result was a very unique, very special season."

As a result, the Indians have back-to-back Cy Young Award winners, a point Willis said is a source of pride for the entire organization rather than just himself or the staff. With Sabathia gone, Lee will enter the 2009 season as the ace rather than a fifth guy.

The rest of the Indians enter with a tough streak to follow.

"It would be great to see [Fausto] Carmona win it next year," Lee said.

He'll have to beat out Lee first.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.