Pre-PEDs Roger Clemens is being undersold

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You see a lot of Hall of Fame ballots which include Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. You see more that include neither. You don’t see a whole lot of them which include one and not the other.  But Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald votes that way. He gives the nod to Bonds but not to Clemens.

His reasoning: Barry Bonds was a Hall of Fame player before he began using PEDs. Specifically, if he was hit by a crosstown bus before the 1999 season, when most reliable reporting has him beginning PED use, he’d still have Cooperstown numbers. Rozner does not talk about Clemens at all, but one can assume that he does not think that the pre-PED Clemens had a Hall of Fame resume.

I don’t have a huge problem with the approach as such. I don’t subscribe to it  for a couple of reasons — (a) we don’t know for sure when players began taking PEDS; and (b) we can’t simply ignore what came after PEDs as though it was purely a chemical accomplishment and pretend it didn’t happen — but it’s at least coherent.

I do take some issue, however, with what this approach says about Roger Clemens’ pre-PED accomplishments. Indeed, it’s on par with a narrative about Clemens that prevailed for quite some time after the Mitchell Report came out in which Clemens was considered a washed-up pitcher before he got on the juice and then saw a career resurrection. It’s a narrative that is bolstered by two things, primarily. First, former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette’s disparagement of Clemens when he left to join the Blue Jays, and second, Clemens’ seemingly startling improvement after he got to Toronto.

There are just two problems with this: (1) Clemens was way better in his Boston days than that old narrative would have you believe; and (2) the best evidence we have suggests that Clemens’ PED use began after his career resurgence in Toronto.

Roger Clemens was way better in Boston than you remember

We’ve heard it a million times. The once-great Rocket had run out of fuel. After dominating in the mid-to-late 80s, Clemens had grown fat and lazy and by 1997 he just wasn’t the same pitcher he used to be. That was crystallized by a now-famous quote from Dan Duquette on the occasion of Clemens’ leaving Boston for Toronto:

“We had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”

And, in 1996, you could forgive casual fans for thinking that Clemens was, indeed, in the twilight.  The man who had won 20 or more games three times to that point, and won 18 games three other times, had just completed a run in which his win totals were 11, 9, 10 and 10. Now, two of those years were shortened due to the 1994-95 work stoppage, and we all know now that win totals are a horribly flawed, but that wasn’t the broad perception. The broad perception was that Clemens’ race was run and he was going to end his career as an innings eater.

Which, to be blunt, was frickin’ insane. Roger Clemens may have only won 10 games in 1996, but he also pitched 242 innings, led the league in strikeouts with 257, struck out more batters per nine innings than anyone and posted an ERA+ — 139 — which was just a shade below his career ERA+ of 143. If you care about such things, know that he also finished second in the league in WAR with 7.7. In September of that year he struck out 20 Detroit Tigers in a single game. Yes, he walked more batters that year than he ever had, but it was a fantastic season nontheless, characterized more by bad luck and poor run support than it was by some farkakte “twilight of his career” narrative.

And what if, in November 1996, Clemens had been hit by that same errant, hypothetical bus that hit poor hypothetical Barry Bonds a couple of years later? What would his career have looked like then? How about a career record of 192-111, an ERA of 3.06 ERA (which makes for a 144 ERA+, or a tick better than his final career number), 2590 strikeouts, a 1.158 WHIP, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP and two — not one, but two — games is which he struck out 20 batters.

Those numbers are not as good as the allegedly pre-PEDs Barry Bonds, but it’s a strong, strong Hall of Fame resume. One that, if Clemens were a little more colorful or more media friendly, would probably get him induction on that alone, with writers arguing that the high peak and the dominance made up for Clemens not reaching 200 wins.

But what if that’s not the entire pre-PEDs case for Roger Clemens? What if we added 21 more wins and another Cy Young Award, ERA, wins, and strikeout title to that list? Another year in which he led the league in innings and WHIP?  Wouldn’t that make those on the fence agree that a pre-PEDs Clemens was a Hall of Fame pitcher? It’s a question worth asking, because there is an argument that Clemens’ added those numbers to his statistical pile before taking PEDs. In 1997. In Toronto. 

The “Clemens juiced up once he got to Toronto” story isn’t backed up by the evidence

It’s wholly understandable why the narrative has Clemens getting run out of Boston, fat, ineffective and unwanted, finding a pack of Winstrol at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms and juicing his way to the 1997 Cy Young Award in his first season with the Blue Jays. After all, even if his 1996 was better than it’s made out to be, it’s certainly clear that his first season in Toronto was considerably better. Indeed, it was one of the best seasons a pitcher had posted in ages at that point.

The only problem with this is that the best evidence anyone can come up with is that Clemens began juicing in 1998, a year after his resurgence began.

That’s Brian McNamee’s testimony anyway. He told George Mitchell’s investigators that he began his injections of Clemens in 1998 and continued on through 2001. Granted, McNamee was shown to be an extremely unreliable witness, but he had zero incentive to put Clemens’ PED use at a later date than it actually began. If he had any incentive to fabricate, the incentive would be to put Clemens’ PED use at an earlier date, which would cast Clemens in a worse light and make the government agents and lawyers who ruled his life for a while much happier. He didn’t, however. He testified on multiple occasions that it began in 1998. Not once did he state or even opine that Clemens began using PEDs before the two of them hooked up in 1998.

Could Clemens have started his use earlier? Of course he could have. But despite the millions upon millions of dollars and the thousands upon thousands of man hours at the government’s disposal, not one witness was ever discovered who could testify to Clemens beginning his drug use prior to 1998. And you know damn well that the government was aching to find someone who could say so. Why? Because it would make for a killer PowerPoint slide to show the jury in Clemens’ perjury trial:

  • 1996: 10-13, 3.63 ERA RUN OUT OF TOWN ON A RAIL
  • 1997: 21-7, 2.05 ERA CY YOUNG AWARD

Sure, that’s simplistic — as noted above, Clemens’ 1996 was pretty spiffy once you get past his won-loss totals — but that’s the kind of story a trial lawyer dies for. One in which there is (apparently) a clear link between the defendant’s acts and the bad behavior of which the defendant is accused. The story for the jury is way, way better if Clemens began taking PEDs before 1997 and transformed from a tomato can to a superstar. But the government could not, despite its best efforts, tell that story.

So, while it’s quite satisfying for us to believe Roger Clemens began to use PEDs when he got to Toronto, there is no evidence to support that he did. Indeed, if one wanted to speculate a bit — and this is mere speculation, not me arguing that it’s true — one could surmise that Clemens, trying to revitalize his career, simply got in better shape before the 1997 season via legitimate means and, like a lot of PED users, was exposed to PEDs in a major way once he started living in gyms and hanging around people obsessed with nutritional supplements and stuff and after that he really began the juicing.  Likely? I have no idea. But it fits the extant evidence better than the story that has Clemens starting to take PEDS in 1997, which is unsupported.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if you buy the 1997-98 story, it leaves us with a pitcher who went 213-118 with a 2.97 ERA, over 2800 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 149, a WHIP of 1.147, four Cy Youngs, an MVP and a pitcher’s triple crown.  That, my friends, is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and if you’re the sort, like Barry Rozner, who would vote for guys who had Hall of Fame resumes prior to confirmed PED use, you have to vote for Clemens.  Or, at the very least, make the case for why you’re not.

What to watch for in the second half

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The season is far more than halfway over. The two and a half months after the All-Star Game, however, is traditionally called the “second half,” and given how much more drama we’ll see during that time, it’s worth the bump-up in significance. The second half will determine who wins divisions and wild cards, who wins awards, which teams go for it, which teams cut bait and will give us a glimpse into what might transpire during hot stove season come November.

As we sit here today, in mid-July, here are the things to watch in the second half:

 

Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?

The biggest name on the trading block — Manny Machadoalready seems to have a new team (all we’re waiting for is the official announcement). Machado is not the only big name who could be moved, however. His Orioles teammates, closer Zach Britton and outfielder Adam Jones, have been mentioned prominently in trade rumors. Britton, specifically, will be highly sought-after. Other big names who could be dealt: Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, Rangers starter Cole Hamels, Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ and Padres reliever Brad Hand.

 

How about the Mets’ aces?

In a different category altogether are Mets starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. While the Mets don’t have a compelling reason to trade either — they should, actually, be working to build a winning team around these two — the team’s lack of success and the front office’s seeming inability to build a winner has made many speculate that either of them or both of them could be traded. Just last week deGrom’s agent said his client would be OK with that, implying that the talks for a long term deal have not been going well. So far the Mets have leaned heavily on the side of saying neither deGrom nor Syndergaard will be available, but if that changes, they instantly shoot to the top of the list as we approach the trade deadline.

Oh, and as we saw last year with Justin Verlander going to Houston, the “deadline” does not just mean the non-waiver deadline at the end of July. Big trades may still very well happen through the month of August.

 

The surprisingly competitive American League West

Everyone knew the defending World Series champion Houston Astros would rule the division, but most folks assumed they’d be ruling it a bit more authoritatively than they have thus far. Don’t get me wrong: the Astros have been just fine. It’s just that the competition has gotten much tougher.

The Seattle Mariners have the longest playoff drought in baseball and they lost Robinson Cano to a PED suspension early in the season. Despite that, however, they are 58-39, only five games back of the Astros and three and a half games up in the race for the second Wild Card slot. Even more surprising is the team most directly challenging them for the second Wild Card slot: the Oakland A’s, who are  55-42. Both the M’s and the A’s are playing a bit better than their Pythagorean record suggests they should be — the M’s far more so than the A’s — but those wins are in the bank and, at the moment, the next closest competitor for that second Wild Card — the Rays — is five and a half back. I suspect Houston will slowly increase their division lead, but we could have a really fun race between Seattle and Oakland down the stretch, with the loser going home and the winner taking the second Wild Card.

 

The Red Sox and Yankees trying to avoid the best Wild Card team of all time

While the A’s and M’s are hoping for a Wild Card, both the Yankees and the Red Sox are dreading the possibility of winning one. Each team is aiming way higher than that, with Boston currently on a 112-win pace and the Yankees on a pace to win 106 games. Only one other Wild Card winner has won 100 games (Oakland, 102, in 2001) but one of these two teams is destined to do so barring an historic collapse. While that may not have been as big a deal in the past, the Wild Card format these days is one-and-done so, even with playoff spots all but assured, both the Yankees and the Sox have every incentive to step on the gas to avoid a single-game matchup against James Paxton, Sean Manaea or Blake Snell.

 

The rest of the pennant races

Before the season began it seemed like all but the AL East were going to be cakewalks for the favorites in each division. While most of those favorites — the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Cubs and Dodgers — are either in first place or are winning like crazy — there have been some surprises so far. Most notably in the National League East where the Braves have held first place for most of the first half, the Phillies hold it now and the favored Washington Nationals are scuffling along, five and a half games back. The Dodgers struggled early but have come on of late. Still, those early struggles have kept the Dbacks, Rockies and Giants within striking range. The Milwaukee Brewers, while trailing the Cubs, have looked like a strong playoff contender all season long. While there is less overall parity than we saw just a few seasons ago, more races look to remain competitive longer in the second half than the experts envisioned as the season began.

 

The push for postseason awards

We have had a great number of outstanding individual performances in the first half, particularly in the American League, so picking an MVP is going to be both fun and difficult. At the moment the top contenders for that award are, in no particular order, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout. What’s more, a couple of those guys have teammates who are just as worthy of being included in the conversation in J.D. Martinez and Francisco Lindor. The Astros have a potential candidates too in reigning MVP Jose Altuve and All-Star Game MVP Alex Bregman. If the season ended today I think it’d come down to either Betts or Trout, but it’s really wide open.

The National League is not quite as explosive, but it could be just as competitive, with Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, Jesus Aquilar, Max Muncy and even a pitcher, Aaron Nola, vying for votes. You could also throw in whichever Chicago Cub has the hottest second half and perennial MVP-contender Paul Goldschmidt, who shook off a slow start and has been mashing lately.

The Cy Young Award fields are less wide open but the winner is still up in the air. Max Schezer remains a strong contender in the National League but, unlike in the past two seasons, his top competition is not Clayton Kersahw. In fact, it comes from his own division in the form of Jacob deGrom and Aaron Nola. Jon Lester, Miles Mikolas and Mike Foltynewicz lurk. In the AL any number of pitchers have been called the favorite at some point this season. At the moment that title belongs to Chris Sale, but Luis Severino, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have pitched like Cy Young contenders at various points on the year.

 

Managers on the hot seat

The most high-profile firing we’re likely to see in-season just went down when Mike Matheny got the axe in St. Louis. Earlier Bryan Price was made redundant in Cincinnati. A the moment there is no one really on the hot seat. That place is usually reserved for would-be contenders who are underachieving, and the clubs fitting that description — primarily the Nationals and, depending on your definition of “contenders,” the Mets — have new managers this year who will be given more leeway. A couple of old hands may either be shown the door or could find their way to an exit by season’s end due to a lot of losing baseball either now or predicted in the immediate future. Here I’m thinking Buck Showalter in Baltimore and, possibly, Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh, Don Mattingly in Miami and, perhaps, Ned Yost in Kansas City. All could probably keep their jobs if they want them but any might decide that a long-term rebuild or, in Hurdle’s case, organizational uncertainty is nothing they want to be a part of going forward.

 

So that’s where we are a day after the All-Star Game. Everyone gets a couple more days off and then it’s back into the breach come Thursday night for the Cardinals and Cubs, Friday for everyone else.