Now that Roger Clemens has been found not guilty on all six counts of perjury, talk can resume on whether or not he is worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. This will undoubtedly lead to critical analysis of his career, though at face value, Clemens’ numbers should make his case a fairly simple one.
However, many people are under the impression that Clemens only has a Hall of Fame case because his career received an unethical boost following his bitter breakup with the Red Sox. To many, Clemens was a pitcher who was just about washed up when the Blue Jays decided to gamble that he had a little more left in the tank.
Closer inspection of Roger’s career, however, tells a very different story.
The Underrated Season
A quick question: Would you consider a pitcher who led the league in strikeouts the previous season to be “washed up”?
That is exactly what Roger Clemens did in 1996, as his 257 strikeouts highlighted one of the most underrated seasons of his storied career. Additionally, Clemens finished seventh in ERA, seventh in WHIP, fifth in innings pitched and had the league’s third-lowest home run rate.
For the sabermetrically-inclined, Clemens’ 7.4 WAR ranked second in the AL among pitchers, while his adjusted pitching stats were in agreement in rating him as one of the league’s top five starters.
If a pitcher put up those numbers in a free-agency season in 2012, the only question would be how many years he could get on an eight-figure contract.
But this was 1996, and the only stat that people saw that year was Clemens’ 10-13 won-loss record, which was the direct result of an offense that averaged 5.7 runs per game, putting up only 4.3 whenever Clemens took the hill.
This was also the third time in four seasons that Clemens had received substandard run support, which combined with the 1994-95 strike to depress Roger's win totals for a four-year stretch.
Not So Unexpected
So, Clemens signed with Toronto and put up a season that was better than anybody could have reasonably expected—or was it?
Truth be told, there was not much about Clemens’ 1997 season that he had not done before. In fact, the raw numbers that he could actually control look eerily similar to his 1988 season. The only stats in which Clemens actually established new career highs were in strikeouts (by a single K) and ERA+.
Clemens’ eye-popping “improvement” over his 1996 season was the direct result of three factors: a better defense behind him, a significantly lower walk rate and keeping the ball in the park.
Toronto allowed only seven hits per nine innings while Clemens was pitching (one lower than Boston the year before), while at the same time, Clemens was able to shave 1.6 walks off of his average from the previous year. This meant that teams were getting 2.6 fewer runners on base per nine innings.
Combine that with the lowest home run rate of Clemens’ career and improved run support (Toronto gave Clemens 4.7 runs per start), and is it any wonder that he went 21-7 while his ERA fell by nearly 1.6 runs?
I already know what you are thinking: He was 34 at the time! Yes, but it is not uncommon for pitchers to have big seasons in their mid-30s, even when coming off of seasons of comparatively lesser quality.
Nolan Ryan was 34 during the strike-shortened 1981 season, which is commonly regarded as his finest overall performance. Bert Blyleven’s career was reborn during his ages 33 and 34 seasons in Cleveland.
Steve Carlton was dominant at age 35 for Philly after a couple of pedestrian (for him) seasons in 1980. Randy Johnson went from having a decent season in Seattle to having perhaps the most dominant two-month stretch of the 1990s when he was traded to Houston—during his age 34 season.
Since Clemens is clearly in that class of talent, why is it so hard to believe that he could do the same thing?
The PED Issue
But of course, Clemens has some additional baggage on his resume in that he has been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. To many, Clemens’ longevity is due to his alleged use of steroids, and HGH is solely responsible for his success late in his career.
But here’s the thing: Clemens’ 1997 season occurred before he was ever accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Jose Canseco, who first accused him of juicing, traces Clemens’ steroid usage back to a pool party he hosted during June of 1998. This corresponds with McNamee, who claims that 1998 was the first year that he injected Clemens with steroids.
It is certainly possible that, if Clemens did in fact engage in PED usage, he did so before he ever met Brian McNamee. But at this point, that is little more than speculation.
Clemens was clearly a better pitcher in 1997 than he was in 1996, but not so much better that it was out of context with his prior level of performance. It is not uncommon for great pitchers to experience a return to greatness in their mid-30s, and attributing it solely to PEDs is quite unfair.
Just maybe, a highly-motivated Clemens returned to a zone that few pitchers ever get to see in their careers. But at the very least, Rocket still had plenty of fuel in the tank once he signed with Toronto.