March 6, 2008
Hitters v. Clemens
"No athlete goes through what Roger Clemens has put himself through in terms of conditioning and hard work not to win. Whatever your opinion of Clemens, there's never been any doubt about his competitive nature.
I'm sure Jonathan Mayo never anticipated that statements like these from his newly released book, Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher, would be read in such a different light just months after he penned them. Surely there is, even now, no question about The Rocket's competitive nature. However, as the legal wrangling goes on and on, the questions now revolve around the exact makeup of that legendary workout regime. But Mayo, a senior writer for MLB.com who typically writes about the minor leagues, can hardly be blamed for picking a subject in Roger Clemens that not long ago seemed ideal for a book examining the inner workings of the confrontation between hitter and pitcher. After all, what could be more interesting than picking the minds of hitters who faced arguably the best pitcher of his era?
In short, Facing Clemens is a look at what it's like to compete against Clemens from the perspective of thirteen hitters who faced him at various points in his and their careers. Beginning with Dave Magadan, whose University of Alabama Crimson Tide faced off against Clemens' University of Texas squad in the 1983 College World Series, Mayo takes us all the way through the 2007 season with Torii Hunter's final three--ultimately unproductive--plate appearances that capped his unbroken string of futility. Along the way we hear from Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken Jr. and future member Ken Griffey Jr., star players including Gary Carter, Chipper Jones, and Luis Gonzales, to lesser-known hitters like Daryl Hamilton and Phil Bradley (Clemens' 20th strikeout victim in his 1986 record-setting performance), and finally culminating with the story of minor leaguer Johnny Drennan who homered off of Clemens during the pitcher's minor league stint in 2006 as well as Clemens' son Koby.
Each chapter sets the stage not only for their confrontations and commentary by the hitter (Clemens was not interviewed for the book, but did write the Forward), but at the same time relating the events of Clemens' career in the context of those confrontations. From that perspective, the book provides some insight into how different hitters approached Clemens and how they viewed him both on and off the field. The hitters also share a number of interesting anecdotes about Clemens, as well as a few other topics.
And regardless of what the final verdict in a court of law or in the court of public opinion will be on Clemens concerning his alleged use of performance enhancing substances, as Mayo documents those circumstances can in no way lessen the difficulty hitters had in facing him. The book's introduction ably documents the litany of statistics that identify Clemens as one of the greatest pitchers ever in his on the field accomplishments, and it should be noted that our own Nate Silver showed there is no smoking gun in that record on the PED score. But still, those new circumstances do have an impact on how Clemens will from now on be viewed by both his competitors and the public.
Be that as it may, recently I was able to "sit down" with the author of Facing Clemens and ask him a few questions about the book and its subject.
Baseball Prospectus (BP): First, let me say congratulations on becoming a first-time author. Tell us about the process of writing a book of this kind and what you learned not only about the game but about your desire to do this again.
Jonathan Mayo (JM): I think the most telling thing was that when I finished Facing Clemens, at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night, my first reaction was, "OK, I'm going to be doing this again." That's a good sign. It really started with several conversations with Lyons Press about a number of possible projects. They had done two similar books with boxers and thought that baseball would work as well. Roger Clemens, it seemed at the time, was the perfect candidate to examine through the eyes of hitters. I ran with it from there. Probably the biggest thing I learned is that any Major Leaguer worth his salt wants to see how he does against the best. At the same time, they tend to be realistic and understand that it's not against the Roger Clemenses of the world that they truly make their living. If you can have success against him, great. But you really make your money off the lesser stars in the solar system.
BP: Since baseball players, like other athletes, are extreme competitors, did you find it difficult to find players like Torii Hunter willing to talk about their failures in Facing Clemens?
JM: Torii Hunter may have been the only player in the big leagues I would have even considered approaching to do a chapter on being 0-for your career against a guy [Editor's note: 0 for 25 in the regular season and 0 for 3 in the postseason]. But as he's been throughout his career, he was incredibly gracious, insightful and funny. Even some of the other subjects, though, who didn't necessarily have success against Clemens, didn't shy away from that subject. As Hunter put it, there's no shame in being shut down by Roger Clemens. Now, if I were writing "Facing Byung-Hyun Kim," maybe guys wouldn't be so willing to talk about it if the right-hander owned some of them.
BP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Roger Clemens in writing this book?
JM: That he has more friends across "enemy lines" than I would have thought. Don't get me wrong, he still was big on the No Fraternization With Opponents rule in general--even at All-Star Games he would keep people at a certain length for fear of giving up his edge--but I was a little surprised to find out that he had forged actual friendships with guys like Junior Griffey, Luis Gonzalez and Darryl Hamilton. I also enjoyed learning about him as a father though the chapter with Koby Clemens, but that might be mostly because my own son is closing in on seven years old and is really getting into baseball. I thought it was interesting that Clemens didn't push any of his kids to play or towards (or away from) any particular positions.
BP: Was there a particular approach that proved successful against Clemens that you noticed as a recurring theme as you talked to hitters he faced?
JM: Not really. Most spoke of the need to get him early in the count, regardless of what point of his career he was at. Especially as he evolved and added more pitches--particularly the splitter--if you fell behind, you didn't have a chance. So the only real opportunity you were going to have was to find a pitch early in the at-bat and hope you got it. Obviously, that didn't work out more often than not.
BP: In a book of this kind I'm sure you collected dozens and dozens of anecdotes. Is there a favorite story that didn't make the cut?
JM: I think I managed to squeeze most, if not all, into the book. But if I had to pick my favorite ones that did make the cut, it'd be Chipper Jones getting dusted in an interleague game and Ken Griffey Jr. and Clemens playfully jawing at each other after Junior had homered twice in one game against Clemens in Toronto.
BP: Having talked to players who faced Clemens both early in his career (Dave Magadan, for example, stretching back to college) and towards the end (Hunter facing the Yankees in 2007), what can you tell us about his evolution as a pitcher that we might find surprising?
JM: It's been fairly well-documented, but obviously the biggest things (outside of alleged events that have been in the news a bit lately) were the development of the splitter and then later the cutter. I don't know if as many people know about the cutter he really used well during his time in Houston. Overall, he just became a much more efficient pitcher, not relying on blowing people away, though he always had the ability to reach back for a couple of extra ticks on the radar gun when he needed it. There were times, in Houston, where he was almost a sinker-ball, ground-ball inducing type.
BP: And of course as a follow-up, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask whether any of the players, or yourself in looking at the larger pattern, detected a difference (other than the development of his split-fingered fastball) over the timeframe that's now so debated in light of the Mitchell Report?
JM: Boy, I'd love to play ignorant with this question. Re-reading it, there are a couple of questions raised, in general, about how he managed to keep it going for so long, but in the end, most had attributed it to the splitter and his overall evolution as a complete pitcher, combined with his hard work. No one once mentioned directly--not that they would--suspicions of performance-enhancers.
BP: Have you talked to any of the players interviewed for the book, such as Cal Ripken Jr., in light of the Mitchell Report and if so, has their perspective and feelings towards Clemens changed? Are you planning an epilogue to explore this new angle?
JM: There's no plan for an epilogue as of right now. That obviously could change in the future and it is something I thought a great deal about as the Mitchell Report came out and the ensuing news unfolded. There wasn't time to get something into the book this time around, but perhaps if there are future printings (so go out and buy the thing!), I'll be able to address the issue. I haven't talked to any of the players since, but I'm as curious as you to see if they'd say anything different or be willing to say much at all on the subject at this point.
BP: I know that in writing a book of this nature--and although you didn't interview Clemens himself--you spent a lot of time with the subject and developed a more intimate view of him than most of us. And in the wake of the Mitchell Report and the Congressional hearings you probably experienced a whirlwind of emotions. How has your view of Clemens changed as a result of those revelations?
JM: You hit the nail on the head with "whirlwind of emotions." I really felt I had come to know Roger Clemens in an odd way, without having talked to him for the book at all. Just closely examining him through the vantage point of his opponents was such a fascinating exercise. I truly wish it could have been left like that, but alas, I'd have to live in a vacuum for that to be possible. I've been all over the map, from trying to stay impartial to believing him, to wavering in that belief. At this point in time, particularly because of the Pettitte testimony, I'm obviously finding it hard to believe him. Not that I think Brian McNamee is the bastion of truth here, but it doesn't look good for my book subject at this point in time. That being said, I feel the context of the book is very much relevant. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Clemens' legacy today, the challenge of facing him over the course of his career didn't get any easier or less interesting than at any given point when one of the subjects dug in against the Rocket. Perhaps feelings are much different now in retrospect, but writing about how hard it was to face him from 1983 through 2007 was still a worthwhile exercise in my estimation.
BP: To end on a lighter note, this question is not really related to Facing Clemens, but in this venue we're usually all about the numbers. I couldn't help but notice that in the Juan Pierre chapter you threw in a reference to EqA. In your experience with the industry insiders you talk to, what is your sense of the acceptance of advanced performance metrics (for example, league translations as we do here at Baseball Prospectus) in the evaluation of minor league players?
JM: I was told there would be no math. Seriously, it really depends on who you're talking to. I think there's much more acceptance than there was several years ago, as everyone at BP knows. Some are more advanced than others in their thinking and some still shun the advanced metrics altogether (and all statistical analysis to a degree). I do think, though, that more teams are realizing the benefits of mixing and matching, so to speak, using some numbers in combination with good old-fashioned scouting with the eyeballs. I think the teams that continue to push the envelope in terms of melding what for so long has seemed like disparate philosophies will have the best chance at long-term success.
BP: Thanks, Jonathan, for taking the time to be with us.