Roger Clemens: Going, Going. . .And Still Going
You've heard of the seven-year itch before, right? Well, how about the nine-year twilight?
Roger Clemens, in defying Dan Duquette and Father Time, is pitching about as well as ever in what is now his 22nd season in the majors and the ninth since the former Boston Red Sox general manager deemed the then 34-year-old future Hall of Famer "in the twilight of his career." Duquette let Clemens become a free agent after the 1996 season, and the Rocket has gone on to win more Cy Young Awards after his departure than before.
The Red Sox-turned-Blue Jay-Yankee-and-now-Astro great is gunning for his eighth Cy Young Award and the fifth since leaving the franchise that originally signed him as their first-round pick (19th overall) in June 1983. If Clemens were to win another one this year, it would mark the third time that he has been saluted in consecutive seasons.
The soon-to-be-43-year-old had another strong outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday (7 IP, 8 H, 2 R/ER, 1 BB, 4 SO), yet increased his major-league leading ERA from 1.41 to 1.48. Clemens has now thrown 122 innings this year and is on pace for 232, his highest total since his second season north of the border in 1998.
If history is any guide, it is unlikely that Clemens can maintain a sub-1.50 ERA for the remainder of the year. To wit, Bob Gibson (1.12) is the only pitcher to go that low over a full season since 1919, and he did it in 1968 in the so-called Year of the Pitcher when the league ERA was under 3.00. Should Clemens regress to his career norm (3.14) the remainder of the way, he would end the season with an ERA of 2.27. Interestingly, only Pedro Martinez (1997, 1999-2000, 2002-2003), Greg Maddux (1994-95, 1997-98), Kevin Brown (1996), and Clemens (1997) have bettered that mark since the offensive explosion began in 1993.
Chris Carpenter (13-4, 2.51 ERA) and Dontrelle Willis (13-4, 2.39) are Roger's main competition for the Cy Young Award this year although I wouldn't rule out Pedro Martinez (9-3, 2.80), Roy Oswalt (11-7, 2.44) or, based on what the voters look for, Livan Hernandez (12-3, 3.48). Chad Cordero (2-1, 1.17 ERA, 31 saves), in the midst of an Eric Gagne-like 2003 season, might get a lot of support, too, especially if the Washington Nationals win the NL East.
The fact that Clemens has had eight no-decisions thus far works against him even though it should have virtually no bearing when voting for the best pitcher in the league. His 7-3 record projects to 13 or 14 wins and 5 or 6 losses.
No starter has ever won the Cy Young with fewer than 16 victories (Rick Sutcliffe, 1984). Sutcliffe was a special case in that he was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Chicago Cubs in the middle of June, and he was perceived as the catalyst for the Cubbies finishing atop the standings for the first time in nearly 40 years. However, his combined record wasn't particularly impressive (109 ERA+), owing to a 5.15 ERA over 94 1/3 IP with the Tribe prior to the trade.
In fact, there have been just two winners with 17 victories over the course of a full season (Pedro Martinez, 1997 and Randy Johnson, 1999) and only four with 18 (Clemens, 2004 and 1991; Martinez, 2000; and Pete Vukovich, 1982). Based on the above, Clemens will have a difficult time convincing voters to give him the nod unless he wins at least 10 more games this year.
One stat the writers might want to take into consideration before filling out their ballots is the home-road splits. Clemens has been nearly flawless away from Minute Maid Park, the eighth-most hitter friendly ballpark in MLB.
IP H R ER BB SO ERA Home 69 50 19 17 18 64 2.22 Road 46 24 1 1 15 44 0.20
The only run Clemens has allowed on the road this year was in Colorado! He gave up a solo home run to Preston Wilson at Coors Park on June 28.
As shown above, Roger has pitched 60% of his innings in Houston despite the fact that the Astros have played an equal number of games at home and away. Last year, Clemens pitched 62% of his innings at Minute Maid. His unbalanced schedule isn't a surprise though. When he signed with the Astros, it was agreed that the father of four wouldn't always travel with the team--allowing him to spend more time with his wife Debbie and their sons Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody.
Speaking of splits, the funny thing is that managers are trying to beat Clemens by stacking their lineups with left-handed hitters. Guess what, guys? The Rocket has been mowing down LHB (.181/.238/.222) at an even better clip than RHB (.181/.249/.293). Home or away. Lefties or righties. Day or night. Early innings or late innings. Ahead of the count or behind the count. It doesn't really matter. Clemens has been dominating hitters all season long.
With Eric Gagne on the disabled list, I believe it is safe to say that Clemens throws the best splitter of any active pitcher in the game. He disguises it like a fastball, running it up there at close to 90 MPH. But, unlike his heater (which sits in the low-90s and can easily get as high as 95 or above), the bottom drops out of the ball just as it approaches home plate. Although the splitter has undoubtedly become his "out" pitch, Clemens can still go up the ladder on hitters with his four-seam fastball, and he can mix in an occasional slider (usually as a backdoor pitch to left-handed batters) and slow curve (which serves as nothing more than an off-speed offering to keep 'em guessing).
As a power pitcher, Clemens uses his strong legs a la Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan. He is a warrior on the mound and his competitive--maybe even arrogant--nature adds an intangible element to his pitching akin to Ryan, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson. What separates Clemens from his idol Ryan is the fact that the younger Texan has always had better control. Nolan arguably was more overpowering at times (as evidenced by his all-time best seven no-hitters and 5714 strikeouts), but it's hard to ignore Roger's two 20-strikeout, 0-walk outings in 1986 and 1996 when discussing the best single-game pitching performances ever.
One of the keys to Clemens' success this year has been his ability to keep the ball in the park. The man who began his major-league career in 1984 has only had two seasons in which his home run rate has been lower than 2005--in his fourth Cy Young Award season in 1997 and in his Cy Young Award-snubbing campaign in 1990. Looking at that latter year, can anyone please tell me how Bob Welch won and not Clemens?
IP H R ER HR BB SO W L ERA ERA+ Clemens 228.1 193 59 49 7 54 209 21 6 1.93 211 Welch 238.0 214 90 78 26 77 127 27 6 2.95 126
Let's hone in on those metrics which the pitcher has the most control over.
K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Clemens 8.24 2.13 0.28 Welch 4.80 2.91 0.98
Must have been the park factor, right? Nope. Clemens pitched his home games at cozy Fenway Park and Welch pitched his home games at spacious Oakland Coliseum. Fenway had a park factor of 104 and Oakland a 95. Granted, Clemens may have won an extra Cy Young Award or two along the way, but he was obviously much more deserving than Welch in 1990.
Clemens won his third and final Cy Young Award as a Red Sox the following year. He was allowed to leave Beantown five years later when Duquette made the mistake of thinking that Roger was losing his effectiveness and fast approaching the end of his career. Duquette, a numbers man, should have been able to see past Roger's misleading 10-13 record as the Rocket topped the AL in strikeouts (257) and K/9 (9.53), placed second in H/9 (8.01), fourth in ERA+ (142), and seventh in ERA (3.63) and WHIP (1.33).
Not only did Clemens put up numbers that made him one of the best pitchers in the league in 1996, but he finished the season by going 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA in his final 10 starts. Moreover, in his third-to-last appearance in a Boston uniform, Clemens fanned 20 without walking a single batter while holding the Detroit Tigers to four hits en route to a 4-0 shutout. If that's "twilight," I'd sure like to see what daybreak or sunrise looks like.
Duquette later admitted, "I think I motivated Roger, don't you? I think I did him a service." A free agent, Clemens signed a three-year contract for $24 million with the Blue Jays. He strung together two of his best seasons, winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1997 and 1998 when he led the AL in ERA, wins, and strikeouts--the Triple Crown of pitching.
Discouraged by the fact that Toronto finished more than 20 games back both seasons, Clemens forced a trade to the New York Yankees in February 1999. He helped the Bronx Bombers win the World Series in each of the next two seasons, then won his sixth Cy Young in 2001 on the back of his stellar 20-3 record.
Clemens, who announced his intention to retire following the 2003 season, filed for free agency in November that year, giving himself the option to negotiate with other teams if he changed his mind. After former teammate and close friend Andy Pettitte signed with the Astros, Clemens was persuaded to ink a deal with his hometown club, too. He accepted a below-market contract that guaranteed him $5 million, of which $3.5 million was deferred without interest until July 1, 2006. He earned an additional $1,825,000 in bonuses based on his selection to the NL All-Star team and Houston's home attendance.
On the heels of winning his seventh Cy Young last year (and the fourth during the "twilight" of his career), the 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander signed an $18 million contract with Houston for 2005. The transaction made him the highest-paid pitcher in the history of baseball.
Will Clemens return for a 23rd season in 2006? Given the fact that Houston just drafted Koby, a third baseman from Memorial High School in Houston, in the eighth round, is it possible that Roger and his oldest son could spend February and part of March together in Kissimmee, Florida? Stay tuned. In the meantime, the elder Clemens has some business he needs to take care of prior to worrying about what he's going to do in the twilight of his career.