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.

And That Happened . . . Classic!

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Due to the All-Star break, we now bring you a special “Classic” version of “And That Happened.” The following originally ran in the HardballTalk Tribune, the former print edition of this publication, on July 17 1949. Here are the scores. Here are the highlights: 

Reds 7, Dodgers 6: I haven’t seen Reds rally like this since Mao kicked Chiang Kai-shek’s butt over to Formosa! Brooklyn built a 4-1 lead after seven innings, but then Preacher Roe began to falter and Cincinnati clawed back. After a run on a fielder’s choice, Virgil Stallcup knocked in two with a single in the eighth to things at four. They’d trade runs and it was tied at five after nine, but Walker Cooper’s two-run homer in the top of the 10th gave the game to the visitors. This is a terrible Cincinnati team overall — you’re more likely to get a hit from a Red on the Hollywood 10 list than from one who plays in Crosley Field — but they really put it together yesterday afternoon.

Braves 9, Cubs 1: Pete Reiser tripled and knocked in three. I was thinking of ole Pistol Pete just four days ago when the owners got together and agreed to build warning paths before each fence in the outfield. Nice move, but it’s a few years too late for Pete, even if he’s still grinding it out. Meanwhile, Johnny Sain went the distance, allowing one run on six hits. Spahn won the day before. Consulting the forecast for the doubleheader in Cincinnati tomorrow now and . . . ugh, it looks sunny. I like the Reds’ chances. 

Indians 7, Athletics 3: Jim Hegan hit a three-run home run to lead the Tribe’s offense, but I’m more taken with what happened with their pitching. Steve Gromek got the “start” for the Indians, but he’s more often used as a relief pitcher. He pitched only an inning and a third, after which three other relievers — Mike Garcia, Gene Bearden and Satchel Paige — finished out the game. Seems like a kinda loopy thing to do, but it worked. I wonder if manager Lou Boudreau is trying out some sort of new strategy in which he just uses bullpen arms every few games for some reason? I’ll call it “Boudreu-ing.” I’m sure it won’t catch on.

White Sox 5, Senators 1: Cass Michaels hit a two-run double and a two-run single and Chisox starter Bob Kuzava allowed only an unearned run in a complete game. You won’t see a performance from Senators this bad until the real ones get together to ratify that “NATO” treaty next week. Don’t do it, fellas! Sure, NATO is great in theory — I’m all for stopping those Russkies before they can even get going — but this joint-defense thingamajig is TOTALLY dependent upon everyone agreeing its good and showing confidence in it! If even one country — one backwards banana republic that elects some tinpot wannabe dictator somehow — starts to undermine it, the thing will unravel and Russia’s power will grow immensely! This report hopes to God it doesn’t happen in his lifetime, but what about down the line? Hopefully the US of A will keep all of these other shaky members in line and backing their commitments.

Red Sox 11, Tigers 1: The Bosox beat the tar out of Virgil Trucks and Marv Grissom, with Williams, Doerr, Zarilla and Tebbetts each hitting homers and driving in multiple runs. The Tigers — as close to two games back of the Yankees in the American league a couple of times this year — need to get their pitching on track or else they’re gonna plummet faster than James Forrestal did in Bethesda.

Too soon?

Phillies 4, Cardinals 2: Willie Jones homered and singled in a run and the Phillies scored two more on an error and a wild pitch. Guess the catcher was more crossed-up by Harry Brecheen’s screwball than the Phillies were. Despite the win, the Phillies are struggling lately and remain 6.5 back in the National League. A month ago they were only two games out. That injury to first baseman Eddie Waitkus (15-day DL, shot in the goddamn chest by obsessed fan Ruth Steinhagen) is really starting to affect them.

Browns 4, Yankees 2: 3,481 fans showed up for this one, which isn’t bad for a Browns game! They only played six innings here because of bad weather. It may have been the greatest game so far this season for the 25-55 Browns. As for the Yankees, yes, they’ve been doing OK, but rookie manager Casey Stengel is no Joe McCarthy, and I’d wager that last year’s third place finish is a more likely result this year than them staying in first place. The Red Sox are too strong and I think Boston will take the pennant. To be honest, those two clubs should investigate a big trade — Williams for DiMaggio — that helps unload each team’s biggest problem on the other. Do it Yawkey and MacPhail! 

Pirates 9, Giants 0; Pirates 7, Giants 6: From 30 feet away the Giants look like they have an OK lineup. From 10 feet away it looks like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. At least that’s how it was in Game 1 of this twin bill when Bob Chenes shut ’em out. Wally Westlake — who hit two longballs — and the rest of the Pirates lineup beat Giants starter Clint Hartung’s teeth out and then kicked him in the stomach for mumbling. Game two was a closer affair. The Giants still couldn’t find a way to win but when you play extra innings you lose more slowly. The Giants were in first place for a time this year, but not anymore. Now they’re in the deep water. It’s dark and unclear and the taste of the salt is in their mouths. By the time the second game of the twin bill was over it was getting dark on the streets of the big city, with the rain-clouded lights of the stores soaked up by the black street.