Thursday, August 31, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #2: Roger Clemens

It's been more than two decades since Greg Maddux became my favorite pitcher and eventually my favorite player, but when I was younger it was Roger Clemens whose poster adorned my wall. He was on the mound, holding a baseball that was also a rocket, because that was his nickname. (Do they still make posters like that one, which were everywhere when I was young? If not, kids today are really missing out.) The poster must not have been officially licensed, because he wasn't wearing his Red Sox uniform. I'm not exactly sure what drew me to Clemens, but given that he won the Cy Young Award each of the first two years I was paying any attention to baseball, and he struck out a million guys, and had that cool nickname, it doesn't seem especially surprising. When I was 12 years old he appeared on The Simpsons as the pitcher for the team of ringers Mr. Burns put together for the big power plant softball game, which probably brought my Clemens fandom to its peak. The 25 years since then brought a gradual but precipitous decline of that fandom, eventually reaching a point where that Simpsons episode is about the only thing I still like about him. Still, the man could really pitch.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Clemens is often cited as one of baseball's great Texans, and his fiery demeanor is said to stem from that status, but Clemens was born and raised in Ohio, only moving to Texas when he was partway through high school. In any case, he was a tremendous young pitcher, winning All-American honors in each of his two seasons at the University of Texas before being drafted by Boston in the first round of the 1983 draft. Clemens immediately dominated in the minors, posting a 1.33 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 81 innings of work during the rest of that summer. Less than a year after being drafted, he was already making his MLB debut, and in 1986 he had a tremendous season, winning not only the first of his eventual record seven Cy Young Awards, but also American League MVP honors. Fitting, because that started a seven-year stretch when Clemens wasn't just baseball's best pitcher (and by an absurd margin), he was baseball's best player. From 1986 through 1992, Clemens averaged more than 250 innings a season, with a 2.66 ERA and 1673 strikeouts.

Those were the years that put him on that poster, that put him on The Simpsons, that put him on a seemingly certain path to the Hall of Fame before he even turned 30. During the next few years, Clemens missed some time with various injuries and ailments, and was generally more good than great. I don't know how hard the Red Sox tried to re-sign Clemens when he hit free agency after the 1996 season, but at the time my sense (and I think the general sense) was that they were happy to let him move on. His numbers in recent years hadn't been as impressive as they were earlier in his career, and this wasn't surprising, because he was now 34 years old. I was surprised to see that he led the American League in strikeouts in 1996, and was 7th in ERA and 5th in innings pitched. FIP didn't exist in 1996, but we know now that he led lowest FIP in the league that season, so there's a viable argument that he was actually the best pitcher in the AL in 1996. Even if you buy into that line of thinking though, Clemens' 1997 was a whole other thing.

Clemens signed with the Blue Jays and promptly had the best season of his career, leading the league in innings, strikeouts, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and FIP. I started following baseball in 1986, and Clemens' 11.9 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) is the highest figure by any pitcher for a season since then. He won his fourth Cy Young, then his fifth the very next season. By that time I'd stopped cheering for Clemens, and felt mostly indifferent, which is a weird way to feel about two of the most impressive back-to-back seasons ever. Following 1998, Clemens signed with Yankees, and that took me from indifference to distain in an instant. He had a number of great seasons after that, winning a Cy Young with New York and then another with Houston in 2004, when he was 42 years old, making him the oldest ever to win the award, a staggering 18 years after he'd won his first.

I don't recall quite why I lost interest in Clemens during the early to mid 90s. Some of it was probably him not seeming quite as great as he had before, some of it was Greg Maddux feeling more relatable to a kid who pitched well enough to make the All-Star team but never threw very hard, some of it was... I don't know. It was good timing though, because during the late 90s and into the 2000s, Clemens became an increasingly difficult player to defend. There's the PED stuff, but that's not what I'm talking about.

The most famous incident on the field took place during the 2000 World Series, when Clemens picked up a broken shard of Mike Piazza's bat and flung it at (or in the general direction of) Piazza as he ran toward first base. He repeatedly got into screaming patches with opponents as well. He made a derogatory comments about Japanese and Korean people, and reportedly angered a number of teammates and coaches over the years. Cito Gaston, a respected manager for many years, called Clemens a "double talker" and "a complete asshole." Late in his career Clemens rarely traveled with his teammates, only appearing for games in which he'd be pitching. More significantly, away from baseball he's been a serial adulterer, including one with a women he began grooming when she was only 16 years old.

Clemens retired with 354 wins, 4672 strikeouts, and a 3.12 ERA despite playing much of his career during an era dominated by offense. He made 11 All-Star teams and won a record seven Cy Young Awards. There is a very strong argument for Clemens as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. The only other arguments involve putting him behind guys who pitched more than a century ago, when baseball was a pretty different game in a variety of ways, or discounting Clemens because of the performance-enhancing drugs. I don't especially care about the PED stuff, and as evidenced by his placement on this ranking, I clearly don't deny his greatness, but when I think of Clemens now, it's as an asshole.



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