Facing the Facts on Clemens
A lot has changed since I started writing my first book, “Facing Clemens.” What was meant to be a fairly cut and dry baseball book about what it’s like for a hitter to try and ply their craft against the Rocket over the course of his career has obviously turned into much, much more. That being said, I still maintain the book has relevance. Regardless of where you stand on the current news surrounding Roger Clemens, the challenge of trying to hit him hasn’t changed. Perhaps his career has been forever tainted, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t one of the toughest pitchers of all-time for a hitter to try to make a living off of.
The numbers, of course, more than back it up. He finished the 2007 season – now certainly his last – eighth on the all-time list in wins. Only one pitcher whose career was after 1940 is ahead of him: Warren Spahn. You’ve seen the other victory numbers. He’s first all-time on the active list and he reached 350 wins with the second fewest losses in the game’s history, behind only the guy who’s name is on the pitching award.
Now, before all the sabermetricians click elsewhere or write me off as an old fogey who knows nothing, I’ll go further. Wins, of course, can be misleading because they are so often not within a pitcher’s control. Clemens is second all-time in strikeouts and his name can be found on career leaderboards in a host of categories from things that show off his longevity, like games started or innings pitched, to his dominance, like shutouts, or to “new-fangled” stats like adjusted ERA+, which measures a pitcher’s ERA against the league average with ballpark effects taken into account (he’s ninth all-time, in case you were curious). Something like that helps bridge the generational divide for a “greatest pitcher of all time debate.” When stacked against his contemporaries, it almost isn’t fair. He leads just about every active career statistical list.
Then, of course, there’s the hardware and honors. With the seven Cy Youngs, the MVP Award, the 11 All-Star appearances, the World Series rings and total appearances, he’s off the charts on the Black Ink and Gray Ink Tests. The scores, 100 (fifth all-time) and 314 (eighth), speak for themselves. So does his Hall of Fame Monitor mark (336, second only behind Walter Johnson) and the Hall of Fame Standards Test score (73, eighth all-time behind Grover Cleveland Alexander). Now these numbers may be a bit meaningless now in terms of Hall of Fame chances, but it does give a more complete picture of just how dominant this guy was for 24 years.
In trying to determine who would be the best subjects for the book, I dug deeply into the numbers behind Clemens’ career (a quick thanks to the folks at retrosheet.org is essential at this point). I was quick to find who had faced Clemens the most (Cal Ripken Jr.), who had had some level of prolonged success against the Rocket (Ken Griffey Jr., especially in their AL days) and who really hadn’t had any luck at all (Torii Hunter and his 0-for-28).
Of course, numbers in baseball are like layers of an onion. Once you start peeling, you find more. How many realized that in Roger Clemens’ two 20-strikeout games, 10 years apart, he walked a grand total of zero? That’s right, no walks and 40 strikeouts over 18 innings (As an aside, I also learned Clemens wasn’t supposed to pitch against the Mariners that fateful night in 1986. He was slated to go the game prior, but it had been rained out.).
In researching for the Ripken chapter, I discovered that the Hall of Fame Oriole never once struck out more than 100 times in a season. In fact, the only two times he was over 90 were the first two seasons of his career when he was redefining what a shortstop could and should be. He struck out a grand total of 1305 times in 11,551 at-bats, or once every 8.85 AB. He whiffed 17 times in 109 at-bats against Clemens for a 6.41 per AB average.
A lot of fuss was made about the controversial time, in 1998, about how Clemens was scuffling in the first half, then “miraculously” turned it around in the second. Clemens had a 3.55 ERA in that first half and 120 strikeouts in 119 IP. I’m not saying this exonerates the man, but that first-half figure alone would have put him right near the top 10 for the year in ERA. The league ERA, by the way, was 4.61. Even in 1996, his last with the Red Sox when he was supposedly finished, he was sixth in the league with a 3.63 ERA while topping the league in K/9 and overall strikeouts.
Where does that leave us now in trying to figure out his legacy? It’s an extremely difficult question to answer. I’m not one who usually does everything by numbers – one of the things I appreciated about doing this book is how the stats were backed up by experiences, recollections from actual human beings. But sometimes, numbers can be the most impartial.
So let's say we completely believe the Mitchell Report and the ensuing testimony and Clemens started taking performance enhancers in 1998. Let's take a look at his career at that point. He had won four Cy Young Awards and gone to seven All-Star Games (I’m counting the 1998 Midsummer Classic because he earned that one pre-injections, according to the report). He’d earned five ERA titles, an MVP Award, gone to a World Series and led the league in those dreaded wins three times. He also took home four strikeout crowns and a pitching Triple Crown in 1997.
He had 213 wins at the end of the 1997 season. He had a 2.97 ERA. There wasn’t a league average ERA during that span under 4.00. Is that enough for a Hall of Fame career? Maybe not quite – though the Sandy Koufax argument could be made – but it’s not far off.
Even the biggest detractors of Clemens wouldn’t argue that he would’ve had to hang ‘em up in 1998 if it weren’t for Brian McNamee. The odds of him pitching another nine years are slim, but an argument could be made that he would’ve been done by, say, 2003, the year he “retired” for the first time in the World Series against the Marlins. Go ahead and take away the Cy Youngs in 1998 and 2001, if you must. Truth be told, his Yankee numbers aren’t all that overwhelming and his ERA, at best, hovered around where that 1998 first-half figure was. You have to figure he falls into about 13 wins per year as a Yankee, rough estimate. That’s another 65 victories to bring him to 278, all the previous hardware and a career ERA probably not too far off from his current mark of 3.12 (Again, league average in his career: 4.46).
What’s my point in all of this? To be honest, I’m still not sure. Like many fans, albeit one with a vested interest, I’m trying to figure all of this out. I’ve been covering the game long enough for nothing to shock me one way or the other. One thing is certain: Clemens’ image is forever tarnished, regardless of what happens in the future. I can’t foresee the Baseball Writers Association of America voting him into the Hall of Fame any time soon, assuming he actually is retired.
What I would ask is for those voters, as well as fans trying to make up their minds as well, to take a closer look at the numbers, even deeper than I’ve delved here. I think you might find, beneath the scandal, the congressional hearings, the “he said, he said” of the past few months, there’s still a pretty damn good pitcher under all of it, warts and all, who made it extremely difficult for hitters for a really long time.
Jonathan Mayo is a senior writer for MLB.com. He joined Major League Baseball’s official website in April 1999 and has covered three World Series, seven All-Star Games, the Opening Series in Japan and Puerto Rico, the Caribbean World Series in Mexico, and the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. More recently, Jonathan has focused his efforts on covering minor league baseball, the baseball draft, the Arizona Fall League, and baseball’s winter meetings. You can learn more about him and his first book on his website.