January 11, 2013
The Good Old Days: Roger Clemens
In a Hall of Fame class that was chock full of controversy because of chemical enhancements—both proven and suspected—that helped to obfuscate baseball's sacred record book, Roger Clemens stood out as a potentially-tainted hurler in a sea of power bats. His performance record is one of the greatest of all time, with a major-league-record seven Cy Young awards spread over a 24-year career, but the PED cloud that hangs over the Rocket is blocking his ascension to baseball's highest plane. Much like batting doppelganger Barry Bonds, Clemens experienced a tremendous spike in performance at an age when most players are planning their retirement, raising suspicion as to the legitimacy of his numbers.
Clemens was drafted by the Boston Red Sox with the 19th pick of the first round in the 1983 draft, selected out of the University of Texas after having spent some time at the baseball factory of San Jacinto Community College. His minor-league numbers were unfair: an ERA of 1.47 in 208.7 total innings across three levels, with 240 strikeouts against just 38 free passes for a K-to-walk ratio better than six to one, and just five homers allowed. Less than a year after signing with Boston, the right-hander was pitching in the Show.
Clemens’ introduction to the majors was a bumpier ride, though a rookie-season ERA of 4.32 belied his otherwise solid peripherals. His strike-zone stats went backwards in 1985 while his batted-ball numbers saved his stat line, as Clemens suffered from shoulder woes through the first half of the season. The ailment shelved him for the month of July, and after returning for a pair of August starts, he went under the knife, requiring surgery to repair his pitching shoulder.
The Rocket came back with a vengeance in 1986. Clemens not only shook off the shoulder injury, but he was the most dominant pitcher in the American League, compiling a 24-4 record and 2.48 ERA across 254 innings, with a K:BB ratio of 3.5 and a league-low WHIP. The highlight of his season came on April 29, 1986, when Clemens established a new major-league record by striking out 20 Mariners. The display earned Clemens the Cy Young award in addition to the AL MVP award, but he was just getting started, as the right-hander would exceed his '86 total of 4.9 WARP in four of the next five seasons.
During the stretch between 1986 and 1992, Clemens threw 1800 innings of masterful baseball, mixing high-90s heat with a loopy curveball that came tumbling from an over-the-top arm slot. He finished in the top three in Cy voting in five of those seven seasons, taking home a trio of trophies, though he was mysteriously absent from the All-Star roster during his successful Cy defense of 1987. He was the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff for a Red Sox team that often extended its season into October but fell short of the ultimate prize.
A groin injury limited Clemens’ 1993 campaign, the first of just two seasons in which he had a sub-.500 record. The Rocket's arm survived the heavy workloads until his vulnerable right shoulder flared up again in April of '95, and though his last year with the Sawx would fall short of his lofty standards, Clemens gave the Boston faithful a lasting memory on September 18, 1996, throwing another 20-K gem to cement his Red Sox legacy.
Signed by the Blue Jays as a free agent, the Rocket was nothing short of dominant during his brief tenure in Toronto, taking home the Cy Young hardware in each of his two seasons north of the border. He completed the clean sweep, winning the AL pitching Triple Crown both seasons by leading the circuit in ERA, strikeouts, and wins. His strikeout percentage in Toronto was the highest of his career, exceeding 28 percent each season, besting his best stateside seasons by three percentage points. Clemens re-invented himself with the Blue Jays, and though his high-90s heat was still his calling card, he traded in the old bender for a splitter that opposing batters could not see coming.
Clemens continued his tour of the American League East when the Blue Jays traded him to New York following the '98 season, drawing ire from Boston fans who had already felt betrayed by Wade Boggs’ defection six years earlier. Clemens would get to pitch in four World Series during his five years in the Bronx, winning two championship rings, though his run-prevention collapsed during his time with the Yankees.
In New York, Clemens surrendered more hits and homers than at any other point in his career. He still flashed the dominance that defined his reputation, but vintage Clemens made less frequent appearances as he aged into his late 30s, though he stuck around the Big Apple long enough to record some major milestones. Clemens snagged another Cy Young during his five years in New York, and in 2003 he recorded his 4000th career strikeout in the same game in which he earned his 300th major-league win.
Clemens pitched in New York from age 35 to 40, so the statistical decline was understandable for a pitcher who was padding his Hall of Fame case and hunting for rings. He kept hanging on, signing a team-friendly deal with the Houston Astros to play near his hometown for a modest five million bucks, appearing to settle into the saddle for his ride into the sunset. Then the Rocket flew off the reservation.
The native Texan defied Father Time while in Houston. Clemens earned career Cy Young award number seven in his first year by the Gulf, though his prize was deceivingly supported by a shiny won-loss record. He nonetheless converted the hardware into an $18 million payday, and he proved that the performance was not a fluke the following season, pitching another 211 innings of dominant baseball at the age of 42 and finishing with a microscopic 1.87 ERA, earning a third-place finish for the Cy.
Clemens would pitch the 2006 season for Houston as a gun-for-hire, coming aboard halfway through the summer for an exorbitant prorated salary, though he earned his wages with a vintage performance. Clemens took a page out of the retirement playbooks of Michael Jordan and Brett Favre, coming back multiple times in order to scratch the competitive itch. His last big-league hurrah was a return engagement with the Yankees in 2007, though his 99-inning cameo only hurt his career numbers in New York.
The final numbers are staggering. Clemens finished with the third-highest strikeout total of all time, 4,672, and though the jig is up on wins as a value metric, his 354 career victories place Clemens ninth on the all-time list, a total that is more impressive when one considers the era in which he played. At a time when offensive numbers were soaring, the Rocket joined an elite fraternity of hurlers who defied the high-octane environment.
Mechanics Report Card
When evaluating the grades for this “Good Old Days” series, I have chosen to anchor on each pitcher's peak mechanics, but making the decision for Clemens required a ruling on a player with multiple statistical peaks. He was dominant through his 20s, but his mechanical profile was dripping with extremes. In the early years, the Rocket had 70-grade momentum but 40-grade posture, with an over-the-top delivery that functioned well for the flight path of his big-bending curveball but was a strike against his mechanical efficiency.
Clemens had some of the best momentum of his career during his time with the Yanks, though inconsistent balance and issues with mechanical timing were a barrier to consistency. There is a natural trade-off between momentum and balance, as it becomes increasingly difficult to stabilize the delivery as a pitcher adds kinetic energy to the system.
Clemens slowed things down near the end of his career, though his burst to the plate was still better than average, and the tempered delivery was easier for the right-hander to coordinate consistently. His balance and posture bordered on elite during the twilight of his career, with positive ripple effects on pitch repetition, though the overall lack of momentum and the diminished torque left him short of peak mechanics.
When analyzing his entire body of work, the best mechanical report card is from Clemens’ seasons with the Blue Jays. The individual grades may have fallen short of his career extremes, but the total package featured above-average scores in every single subject, and Clemens demonstrated the best combination of momentum and balance while pitching his home games at the SkyDome. The report card reflects the well-rounded mechanical profile that produced the best stats of his illustrious career.
Clemens always maintained a high level of torque, though he derived most of his hip-shoulder separation through the hips component, with minimal upper-body load yet a heavy delay of trunk rotation that allowed the hips to open. The hip-heavy torque combined with his elite natural arm strength to produce high-90s velocity, and at his peak the Rocket achieved excellent depth at release point that created a later break on his splitter, giving opposing hitters little choice but to guess whether the baseball was going to plunge.
In the spirit of this week's Hall of Fame drama, allow me to include a couple of match-ups that feature fellow members of the controversial Cooperstown class of 2013. The first video is from 1989, when Clemens surrendered the first home run of Sammy Sosa's career.
Finally, we'll end with a couple images of the two most extreme players of the power era, in which a 41-year old Clemens was able to get the best of a 39-year old Barry Bonds, freezing the all-time home run king not once but twice in the same game: