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He’s faster than a speeding rocket, more powerful than a big train, able to leap flying bats with a single bound…it’s Superpitcher.

Roger Clemens is obviously a Hall of Famer. The great starters of our time, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Clemens, are among the best ever. If the 1980s boasted the best leadoff hitters in Henderson and Raines and the 1930s had first basemen Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg, the 90s will hopefully be remembered 50 years from now not for its muscle-bound sluggers, but for its fine starting pitchers. This time, our measuring stick for Clemens will not be the Hall of Fame, but Walter Johnson, the other reasonable contender for the crown as the best right-handed pitcher ever. As is our wont, we will briefly review Clemens’ illustrious career.

There is such thing as a pitching prospect

Roger Clemens was chosen by the Red Sox out of the University of Texas pitching factory with the 19th pick of the 1st round of the 1983 draft . It was a pitching-heavy draft- picked ahead of him were Tim Belcher, Stan Hilton, Jackie Davidson, Darrel Akerfelds, Ray Hayward, Joel Davis, Rich Stoll, Brian Holman and and Erik Somberg (it seems likely that finances played a role in Clemens’ draft placement). He made a stop in Winter Haven in the Florida State League, started 4 games and completed 3 of them with 36 strikeouts, no walks and no home runs in 29 innings, and a 1.24 ERA. The Sox gave him a shot at the Eastern League later that summer, and he fell to a 1.39 ERA in 52 innings (7 starts) with 59 strikeouts, 12 walks and 1 home run allowed. Possessing a blazing fastball and a nasty split and with a solid build, Clemens was revered by scouts and performance analysts alike. By the end of 1983, he was as good a pitching prospect as you can imagine. His career has followed a natural progression from his performance in the minor leagues.

Roger, Run I-Early career with the Red Sox- 1984 to 1990

After laying waste to the International League in 7 starts at the beginning of 1984, Clemens was called up to the show. He had a 2 year adjustment period, going 9-4 with good peripheral statistics, but a 4.32 ERA in 1984 and then 7-5 with a 3.20 ERA in an injury-hampered 1985. He exploded on the league in 1986, going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA in 254 innings and peripheral statistics consistent with his minor league performance. He won the first of his seven Cy Young awards, and led an otherwise ho-hum club (Wade Boggs’ adventures with chicken and Margo Adams notwithstanding) to the World Series where another memorable defeat awaited them.

At that point, Clemens, Bret Saberhagen and Dwight Gooden were the talk of baseball. From 1987 to 1990, Clemens was consistently very good and sometimes great, and led the Sox back to the post-season twice. Unfortunately for Clemens and the Sox, the A’s of the Bash Brothers and Dave Stewart were waiting and made short work of them each time. Still, by 1990, Clemens was the consensus best pitcher in baseball (consistency having eluded Saberhagen and Gooden due to injury and personal problems respectively), and had the statistics to support the claim.

Roger, Run II-The mid-career Sox fade- 1991 to 1996

From 1991 to 1994, the Sox were an uninspired club, aside from Clemens. Clemens put up 3 excellent years, and one off-season in 1993. In 1995, after the labour dispute ended, the Sox made a surprising division title run led by Mo Vaughn and John Valentin. Clemens was not at his best, but still contributed good pitching as the Sox won their last division title. Clemens pitched well against a tough Indians’ club in the post-season, but Albert Belle played hero and the Indians swept the Sox. After an off-season in 1996, Clemens’ travels began as he signed with the Blue Jays as a free agent.

Roger Redux I- the Toronto years

Shall we take a wander through memory lane? The Jays of 1997 should have been much better than they were. A starting rotation of Hentgen, Clemens, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter and Juan Guzman sounds wonderful in 20-20 hindsight. A bullpen of Escobar, Quantrill, Plesac and Timlin should have been perfectly adequate. A young core of Delgado (25), Cruz Jr. (23), Stewart (23), Green (24) and Gonzalez (24) should have supported an above-average offence. None of this happened and the team ended up at 76-86, but you certainly couldn’t fault Clemens. He threw arguably the best season ever by a 34 year old, giving the Jays 264 innings of 226 ERA+ pitching, but Carlos Garcia, Ed Sprague and a rapidly aging Joe Carter ensured that these efforts were as meaningful as Walter Johnson’s great 1912 and 1913 seasons were to the Senators.

The 1998 club improved by 12 games, as the young players developed and Jose Canseco added more punch than Carter had. Clemens did not pitch at quite the level that he had in 1997, but 234 innings of 176 ERA+ pitching is easily one of the top 5 performances by a 35 year old. Having conclusively established his greatness, Clemens set his sights on a World Series ring or two. And if that’s what you want, you go to New York. So, he did.

Roger is Rich, and Famous-New York stories-1999-2003

In New York, Clemens was just one star among many. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera had already established the Yankees as a great club prior to his arrival. Clemens was merely another cog, and he pitched like one, perhaps saving his energy for the post-season. The Yanks made 4 World Series appearances in Clemens’ 5 years, winning 2 of them. Clemens pitched about as well in the post-season as he has in the rest of the career, but fared better in the won-loss column thanks to a better supporting cast. Roger had his rings, and it was time to pack his bags again.

Roger Redux II- You can go home again

Clemens signed on with the Astros after the 2003 season, and has been simply brilliant since then. In his age 41 and 42 seasons, Clemens has gone 425 innings with a 174 ERA+. This level of performance is historically unprecedented, with only Hoyt Wilhelm’s fine relief work in his 40s bearing any remote similarity. The key has been a dropping of his home run rate since his time in New York. Whether that is due to park or league differences or simply better pitching, or a combination of the three is an interesting topic, which we will leave for now. Clemens’ performance has not been in a vacuum, as the ‘Stros have advanced to the post-season in both 2004 and 2005, making it 7 straight seasons that Clemens’ ballclubs have done so.

Roger Clemens vs. Walter Johnson-the statistical breakdown

Roger Clemens’ best two years were arguably 1997 and 1990. Let’s use those as his peak. Walter Johnson’s best were arguably 1913 and 1912. So, here is the peak breakdowns:
Season        Innings(Lg)  K/9(Lg)   W/9(Lg)   HR/9(Lg)    ERA+
Walter1-1913  346(305)     6.3(4.0)  1.0(3.1)  0.2(0.1)    259
Roger1-1917   264(239)     10.0(6.4) 2.3(3.5)  0.3(1.1)    240

Walter2-1912  369(317)     7.4(4.2)  1.9(3.1)  0.0(0.1)    226
Roger2-1990   228(237)     8.3(5.7)  2.1(3.4)  0.3(0.8)    211

Walter-top2   715(622)     6.9(4.1)  1.4(3.1)  0.1(0.1)    242
Roger-top2    492(476)     9.2(6.1)  2.2(3.5)  0.3(1.0)    227
So, there you go. At his peak, Johnson pitched more innings relatively to league standard (the #3-#5 starters during the year) than Clemens; his index by this standard was 115, Clemens was 103. Johnson also struck out somewhat more batters than Clemens (index of 168 for Walter compared with 151 for Roger) and walked fewer (index of 45 as opposed to 63). But, Clemens allowed many, many fewer home runs compared with league standards.

It should also be noted that Johnson was in 1912-13 an above average hitter (not an above average hitter for a pitcher), in additon to posting those rather enticing pitching numbers.

It appears, at first glance, that Johnson was better at his peak than Clemens, but Johnson had a much more favourable environment to pitch in during the teens. Each pitcher adapted well to the circumstances of their times. Johnson's allowed him to arguably reach a higher peak, especially if you account for his value as a hitter.

Their career numbers were:
Pitcher    Innings(Seasons)  K/9(Lg)   W/9(Lg)   HR/9(Lg)     ERA+
Johnson    5914.7(19.7)      5.3(3.4)  2.1(3.2)  0.15(0.25)   146
Clemens    4704.3(19.5)      8.6(6.0)  2.9(3.5)  0.65(1.05)   143

Now that's what I call close. They're about even in durability. Johnson's K rate is slightly better than Clemens' compared with league (156 to 143 index); Johnson's control rate was signficantly better (66 to 83 index). Their HR rate was comparable, but the figures are not park-adjusted. Johnson played in a park that was well-nigh impossible to hit a homer in. In Boston, Toronto and Houston, Clemens pitched in parks that favoured the homer. Significant edge to Clemens in that department. Objectively, I'd give a slight edge to Johnson.

A subjective approach

Another way to look at it is to compare Clemens and Johnson with the best of their peers. As both had two decade long careers, it is helpful to look at the peers decade by decade.

Johnson’s early elite peers consist of Christy Mathewson (during the early years of Johnson’s career), Ed Walsh and Pete Alexander. As Matty’s career ended in 1916 and Walsh’s in 1912, Alexander is the more helpful early comparison.

During the first decade (let’s use 1908-1917) of his career, Walter Johnson was pretty clearly the best pitcher in baseball. He was a more impressive strikeout pitcher in his time than Clemens and had very good control. It is important to understand that the conditions of the time, the deadball era, and the dimensions of his home park, Griffith Stadium, made the home run an essentially unimportant part of the game. There is pretty good circumstantial evidence that being able to pitch without fear of the home run contributed to Johnson’s exceptional early control record . He was exceptionally durable, being annually a league leader in innings pitched. Comparing Johnson to Alexander, the major difference was Johnson’s ability to strike out batters. Alexander was as durable, and had a similar control record but struck out a batter fewer per game than Johnson. Pitching in the Baker Bowl and later Wrigley Field, even in the deadball era, made Alexander's task a little less relaxing than Johnson's.

For Clemens, Saberhagen and Maddux are the most helpful early peers (1986-1995). Clemens was again pretty clearly the best of his era. Maddux was closest and did have 4 seasons that were the equal of Clemens' best during the decade, but did not become great until after he arrived in Atlanta. Clemens was better over the decade as a whole, but his advantage over Maddux was not as large as Johnson's over Alexander.

In Johnson's second decade (1918-1927), he was dominant only in the last 2 years of the deadball era, but was a very good pitcher for the remainder of the decade. Pete Alexander was probably a little better over this decade, as was Dolf Luque. Others (Eppa Rixey, Stan Coveleski and Dazzy Vance) could make cases.

Clemens' second decade 1996-2005 has seen Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson at their peaks. Clemens has had 3 great seasons over the decade, while Martinez and Johnson have had 7 each, and you'd have to rank him beneath them. It's not really a fair test, because if one is looking at 7-10 year performance, the peaks reached by Martinez and the Big Unit would probably rank among the top 10 ever, and far superior to Walter Johnson's competition in the 1920s.

Clemens' second decade was more impressive than Walter Johnson's. Overall, the subjective view like the objective one, is too close to call. Personally, I am a little more impressed with Clemens' ability to adapt to a difficult environment than with Walter Johnson's ability to thrive in a favourable one. You can't go wrong with either choice for the best right-handed pitcher ever.

We're going to pass on the other easy active Hall of Famers and tackle Tom Glavine next. Happy election day, everyone.
Hall Watch 2005- Roger Clemens | 9 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Blue in SK - Monday, January 23 2006 @ 12:42 PM EST (#140143) #
Thanks for the article, a good read. I have just one request, if anyone is able to accomodate it. Statistics aside, could someone compare Clemens and Johnson "stuff". I guess I'm asking for a scouting report, moreso for Johnson that Rocket Roger since we have all seen him for the past decade or two challenge hitters with his overpowering fastball and then put 'em away with the nasty splitter.
Shortstop - Monday, January 23 2006 @ 01:54 PM EST (#140148) #
I know Walter Johnson had an unbelivable fastball. A player once said about it, 'You can't hit what you can't see."

Stories had his fastball at around 97-99 MPH, but when you think about that, it was about 10 mph faster than the other great pitchers around his time. He had a sling shot motion, that really threw off the hitters. There is a great book called The Mind Game by Roger Angell, and a whole chapter takes a look at Walter Johnson. Its a good read.
Anders - Monday, January 23 2006 @ 02:38 PM EST (#140149) #
Well, the Big Train was considered to have a top fastball. Pitchers threw differently back then - longer delivery, and arguably got more power out of that. Im sure Craig knows more about this.

Its a bit of a crooked playing field, really. Part of Walter Johnson's value is that he pitched so much - the 3rd most innings of all time. Clearly this is a product of his environment - no one throws over 300 innings anymore, and he did it 9 years in a row. The numbers between Clemens and Johnson are similar - but Johnson threw 20% more innings.
Clemens would have to pitch 5 more years to catch up.

How much you want to consider that, is another matter.

I think that he slots up there with Johnson and Lefty Grove, and I guess Pete Alexander. I'd say he's better than Cy Young probably. Being one of the top 4 pitchers of all time - and one of the top 15 or so players is pretty good. I wonder if he'll get the highest percentage of votes ever for the hall. Hell, 11 people left Babe Ruth off their ballot, so who knows.

The closest
Tyrus Cobb 222/226
Tom Seaver 425/430
Nolan Ryan 491/497
Mike Schmidt 488/497
Geoff - Monday, January 23 2006 @ 09:09 PM EST (#140154) #
Why 2005?
Rick - Tuesday, January 24 2006 @ 10:56 AM EST (#140164) #
Clemens is certainly an obvious choice for the Hall of Fame, and I suspect there is very little doubt about that. At the same time, I have certain qualms about adding his name to the Blue Jays Level of Excellence. Certainly his Blue Jay years were remarkable, but there were only 2 of them. More importantly to me, he also asked to be traded. Then again, he is also currently the only Blue Jay to win two Cy Youngs (though hopefully that will change soon enough). Myself, I wouldn't honour him in this way, though admittedly I am at least partially basing my decision on the simple subjective reason that when I think of Toronto Blue Jays, Roger Clemens is far down on the list of players I think of. My question is as such: will he be recognized with a spot on the Level of Excellence, and more importantly, should he?
Mike Green - Tuesday, January 24 2006 @ 12:01 PM EST (#140168) #
Why 2005?

Normally (although not in the case of Clemens), I am recapping where a player stands vis a vis the Hall of Fame after the 2005 season. I got an earlier start last year and so last year's was called "Hall Watch 2004".
John Northey - Tuesday, January 24 2006 @ 12:25 PM EST (#140170) #
Clemens should not be on the Level of Excellence imo. To make it you should have been a Jay for at least 5 years. That way Robbie Alomar makes it (just) but Clemens doesn't. Ask most (casual) Jay fans and they'll agree that Alomar was a 'real' Blue Jay while Clemens was not.

Which of course brings up the question, will Alomar A) make the HOF (he should) and B) wear the Jays cap there?
Mike Green - Tuesday, January 24 2006 @ 01:20 PM EST (#140172) #
I've argued before that Alomar should be and will be a Hall of Famer. If he does, you'd think that he wear a Toronto cap, as his longest tenure and greatest accomplishments were here.
Anders - Tuesday, January 24 2006 @ 02:45 PM EST (#140181) #
I think for Alomar its got to be between the Blue Jays and a blank cap, and I think that he'll (hopefully) go in as a Jay. 2 World Series, the longest stretch of his career - plus the Jays don't have a HOFer yet. I wonder if he'll get in first ballot.

Countdown 2009.
Hall Watch 2005- Roger Clemens | 9 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.