There’s something that’s been buggin’ me over the last few years, and that is the constant reference by many to Roger Clemens as the best pitcher of his generation. Some have gone so far as to anoint Clemens as the best pitcher of any era.
Then, the unfortunate and bothersome issue of Clemens and PEDs arose, casting a shadow on his achievements. More on that particular issue later.
In recent decades we have been fortunate to witness a number of all-time great baseball performances and careers, not the least of which is that of pitcher Greg Maddux. Maddux has officially retired, and for all practical purposes, Clemens is retired too.
He just hasn’t formally announced it yet.
So, for kicks, I thought I’d take a few minutes to examine and compare their career accomplishments. In this process, I’m just looking at the raw numbers and not extrapolating anything beyond that—nothing as to their ability in the “clutch,” or how they may have influenced their teams and teammates.
While I looked at all the statistics that I could find (from various Internet sources), I’ve limited my comparisons here primarily to those by which pitchers are typically ranked—wins, losses, ERA and the like:
First Round, Boston, 1983
Second Round, Chicago, 1984
MLB Years Played
Batting Average Against
First, some general discussion. As can be seen, their statistics are remarkably similar. You’ll note that I didn’t include strikeouts, because this stat, in my mind, doesn’t really speak to the overall greatness of a pitcher.
It does say something about their ability to dominate hitters, and for this and a few other reasons, Nolan Ryan gets my vote as the greatest pitcher ever. But that’s a discussion for another day.
The only substantive difference between Clemens and Maddux is in Clemens’ lower amount of losses (and hence, a higher winning percentage) and Clemens’ very low “batting average against” number.
It’s as if he faced a career’s worth of hitters the caliber of Bob Uecker! Maddux’s .231 average against is also very good, but Clemens has a clear edge here.
Both Clemens’ and Maddux’s career winning percentage is over .600, impressive on its own. Hall of Fame great Tom Seaver (311-205 win/loss record) once said that among his many career achievements, perhaps the one he was most proud of was that he could go on a 100-game losing streak and still be a winning pitcher.
Clemens and Maddux can both make that claim, but in Clemens’ case, he could go on a 150 game losing streak and still be a winning pitcher! So, in win/loss totals, the edge goes to Clemens.
Clemens played one more year than Maddux, but Maddux pitched in 44 more games. Their innings pitched totals are essentially the same, as are their results for ERA and WHIP (Walks+Hits per Innings Pitched).
I like using the WHIP stat in pitcher evaluation because it quickly tells the story of a pitcher’s success, or potential for same. The fewer base runners a pitcher allows, the fewer can score, and therefore, the better his chances of winning. Low WHIP usually leads to a low ERA.
They are essentially even in these key areas. But, since Clemens pitched primarily in the American League (and thereby faced DHs) I give him the edge here as well.
As for major awards, both Clemens and Maddux are high achievers:
CY Young Award
0 – highest finish,
Seven Cy Youngs is crazy, like Barry Bonds’ seven MVPs. These may be two records to never be broken. Yet, when Maddux won his four straight CYs (1992 – 1995) I remember thinking that this particular record would never be broken. To break it would require 5 straight CYs, which probably will never happen.
But then we have to consider that Randy Johnson also won four straight CYs, so, I think five straight CYs could happen. If a pitcher gets hot during a five-year stretch of his career while at the same time, no one else distinguishes themselves, it could happen. I see this as a greater possibility than someone breaking Johnny Vandermeer’s record of two straight no-hitters.
To break this record, it would take three straight no-hitters, which will never happen at the big-league level!
Add to Clemens’ seven CYs an MVP and he clearly has the edge here as well. Maddux did win 18 Gold Gloves, which speaks to his standing as a well-rounded performer. But I’d trade the 18 Gold Gloves for an MVP, and perhaps Maddux would as well.
So, looking strictly at the numbers, Clemens appears to have had the superior career over Maddux. But we can’t just look at the numbers, because of Clemens’ apparent use of PEDs. Do I know Clemens used PEDs? No.
But I watched every minute I could of Clemens’ various TV appearances, and I read everything I could get my hands on regarding this issue. Bottom line for me? Clemens did not conduct himself as an innocent man. I’d bet a LOT of money that he used PEDs.
So this sheds a whole different light on each of their careers. Maddux and Clemens are contemporaries. Maddux is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. At one time, Clemens was too. I used to wonder if Clemens would be the first unanimous inductee, but now I doubt he’ll ever get in. Perhaps Maddux will be the first unanimous inductee.
I think he should be, but there’s no accounting for the goofy thinking processes of the voters. If Cal Ripken didn’t get 100 percent of the vote, probably no one ever will—yet another discussion for another day!
Here’s how I look at Clemens and his PED use: he is believed to have begun using prior to the 1998 season. His win/loss record (the only stat I want to look at here) from 1984 through 1997 was 202 – 121, a percentage of .625. These are not Hall of Fame numbers.
If they are, then a lot of voters owe Bert Blyleven an apology, regardless of the number of CYs Clemens had won to this point.
From 1998 through 2007 (Clemens last competitive year) he’s 141 – 66, a percentage of .681. So, the last 10 years of his career were more successful than his first (read: younger) 14 years. Knowing what we do about the human body, this is simply not possible. Unless, of course, there is some significant outside source of help, such as PEDs.
So let’s look at Clemens’ numbers another way. Let’s say he doesn’t use PEDs during his last 10 years. How many games does he win (if he even is capable of making a team) as a viable pitcher? Who knows? Lets say he continues with the same winning percentage of his first 14 years (an impossibility, to be sure). His win total drops to 331, still HOF worthy.
How about if he wins only 50 percent of his games over the last 10 years, a not unreasonable guess. His win total is now down to 306, again, still HOF worthy. The problem with both of my guesses about the latter part of Clemens career is that we’ll never know how it would have turned out without his use of PEDs.
To take my guessing game one step further, what would Greg Maddux have accomplished with the use of PEDs? Can we safely conclude he would have won more than 355 games? Clearly, yes. Maddux has never been associated in any way with PEDs, and he sure doesn’t look like a user. Clemens, by contrast, does.
To wrap this up, Maddux won one more game than Clemens WITHOUT the use of PEDs! So, raw numbers aside and given the substantial advantages one obtains using PEDs, Maddux’s accomplishments are much more impressive than Clemens, and for this reason, I think he had the more impressive career.