The best pitcher in history

Forget the steroid talk; Roger Clemens dominated his era like nobody before him

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We can argue about the logic of it all, but it’s pretty obvious that different sorts of cheating in sports inspires different levels of rage. For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers pretty openly cheated during the 1960s when they built up the pitching mound at Dodger Stadium higher than the 15-inch height allowed at the time (the limit was lowered to 10 inches in 1969). Nobody seems to care too much about this kind of cheating, though it might have been a difference-maker in two Hall of Fame careers:

Sandy Koufax

At Dodger Stadium: 57-15 (.791), 1.37 ERA, 754 K’s, 142 walks .221 SLG, 34 homers in 715 innings.

Away from Dodger Stadium: 108-72 (.600), 3.39 ERA, 1,642 K’s, 675 walks, .350 SLG, 170 homers in 1,606 innings.

Don Drysdale

At Dodger Stadium: 65-43 (.602), 2.19 ERA, 773 Ks, 204 walks, .304 SLG, 51 homers in 1,107 innings.

Away from Dodger Stadium: 144-123 (.539), 3.32 ERA, 1,713 Ks, 651 walks, .374 slugging, 229 homers in 2.321 innings.

Now, it is true, a pitcher will generally pitch better at home than on the road. But you would have to say that these are extreme differences. And because the Dodgers moved to Dodger Stadium in the middle of Koufax’s and Drysdale’s careers, you can see how they pitched at home before that. Koufax had 17-23 record with a 4.33 ERA at the LA Coliseum. True, he was younger and had not harnessed his talents yet, but that’s still quite mediocre. Drysdale was 36-25 with a 3.14 ERA at the LA Coliseum, and he was 12-5 with a 3.13 ERA at Ebbetts Field. Those fit more easily with the rest of his career.

Would Koufax have been Koufax if not for the high mound at Dodger Stadium? Would Drysdale have been voted into the Hall of Fame? These are questions without definitive answers, but the point here is that the Dodgers’ blatant cheating did not — and does not — inspire much outrage. Baseball let it happen. It is generally filed in the “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” drawer.

Also filed in that drawer: Corking bats, throwing spitballs, all forms of play acting to fool the umpire.

The same is generally true about amphetamines. Everyone knows that greenies were an open secret in baseball for many years; players would talk about how they were just available in the clubhouse along with bubble gum and sunflower seeds. The very best players — and some of the most beloved players in baseball history — admitted using the illegal drug, which has since been banned by Major League Baseball. Every now and again, people will bring up the greenies usage of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but usually as a way to point out that people are being inconsistent with their outpouring of anger at steroid users. As for actual rage against greenies users … I don’t really sense it.

Beyond that, there is a clear absence of rage against steroid users … in football. And it’s not like football fans are all level-headed or happily willing to overlook all manner of cheating. Football fans will go absolutely ballistic about the possibility that Tom Brady had a ballboy let out a little air on the ball to make it easier to grip. They will add “gate” to just about any word in order to turn cheating into a major controversy, especially if Bill Belichick is involved.

*By the way, what the heck ever happened to that deflate thing? I assume the NFL is working around the clock investigating. I thought at the time, and I think even more now: That just might be the stupidest controversy in the history of professional sports.

But steroids in football? Eh. I’m sure nobody wants them in there. The outrage toward steroid use in football is like the outrage toward someone who drives 10 mph over the speed limit or someone who chomps a few grapes in the supermarket. It’s clearly wrong, but, you know — football is a violent game, the players are faced with almost inhuman challenges and grotesque pain. Most people seem willing to accept that players will probably use steroids just so they can work out hard enough to survive. Of course, fans don’t want any players getting CAUGHT. That means suspension. That hurts the ballclub. But if football players quietly use steroids, most people seem perfectly content to look the other way.

Of course, if you look at it another way, steroids in football is much, much worse than in baseball because in football the steroid user isn’t only a danger to himself. He’s also a bulked-up danger to the players he hits. But, the point here isn’t to deconstruct the logic. The point is that steroids in football simply does not inspire the levels of anger that steroids in baseball inspire. In fact, almost no form of cheating in sports seems to rise up to the level of anger that PEDs in baseball inspire.

But we can take yet another step. Even within that somewhat focused category — performance-enhancing drugs in baseball — there are different levels of rage. We all know that certain players inspire more of it than others do. Nobody really seems to care that Jason Giambi used. Nobody really seems to care that Andy Pettitte used. Some players who have never tested positive and have declared they never used are assumed cheats by a large percentage of people, while other players who never tested positive and have declared they never used are assumed clean.

Finally: Even within that more focused category — players who inspire extreme anger because of PED use — I think Roger Clemens stands apart. If I had to list the players who have the most hate-arrows pointing at them because of presumed PED use, the list would probably look like this:

1. Barry Bonds
2. Alex Rodriguez
3. Roger Clemens
4. Ryan Braun
5. Mark McGwire

Based on this, you would think that it is Bonds who stands apart … and he does. But the thing about Bonds is that he is the cause celebre of steroid use and because of that there is a backlash against some of the sanctimony and criticism. Also, he has a lot of fans. Also, even the biggest Bonds haters concede — or have to concede — that he was an otherworldly player. The years he put up in the early 2000s are simply unmatched in baseball history. Nobody, not even Ruth of Williams, put up seasons like those. And the guy won three MVPs, hit 400 homers, stole 400 bases before any of that. Bonds may not get into the Hall of Fame for a long time. But there is no chance that he will be forgotten.

Clemens, on the other hand, people already forget.

As it stands on the books, in my opinion, Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher in baseball history. The only pitchers in baseball history with more wins above replacement are Cy Young and Walter Johnson, and they pitched more than 100 years ago, in an era called Deadball, when countless things were different. How good was Roger Clemens? Well, yesterday I pointed out that his career is better than Sandy Koufax and Johan Santana.

But Matthew Namee — who was once Bill James’ research assistant — does me one better. He sent Tom Tango a comparison that shows that Roger Clemens is, basically, Sandy Koufax PLUS Pedro Martinez, the two greatest short-career pitchers in the game’s history.

How does he figure that? Start with Pedro:

Clemens in Boston: 81 WAR, 56 Wins Above Average, 2776 innings.
Pedro career: 86 WAR, 61 WAA, 2,827 innings.

Yes, Pedro’s career is a LITTLE better than Clemens in Boston. But this is very close. This doesn’t seem possible. But it is. You can look at more familiar numbers if you like:

Clemens in Boston: 192-111, 3.06 ERA, 144 ERA+, 1 MVP, 2 Cy Youngs.
Pedro Martinez: 219-100, 2.94 ERA, 154 ERA+, 3 Cy Youngs.

Pedro’s five best years were his absurd 2000 season, his almost as absurd 1999 season, his Cy Young year in 1997, his very good but somewhat clipped 2003 season and his solid 1998 season. Those five years, he had a combined 45.6 WAR.

Roger Clemens’ five best years in Boston were his MVP 1986 season, his about as good 1987 season, his amazing 1990 season, and his superb 1991 and 1992 seasons. Total? Yep: 45.6 WAR.

Now, let’s bring in Koufax.

Clemens after Boston: 58 WAR, 39 WAA, 2,141 innings.
Koufax career: 53 WAR, 31 WAA, 2,324 innings.

Again, is this possible? Is this some sort of advanced statistical trickery? Well, look again at the basic numbers and decide:

Clemens after Boston: 162-73, 3.21 ERA, 140 ERA+, 4 Cy Youngs.
Sandy Koufax: 165-87, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1 MVP, 3 Cy Youngs.

Now let’s put Pedro and Koufax together and put them up against Roger Clemens (Totals from Namee):

Win-loss
Pedro and Koufax: 384-187
Clemens: 354-187

ERA+
Pedro and Koufax: 144
Clemens: 143

WAR
Pedro and Koufax: 139
Clemens: 139

WAA
Pedro and Koufax: 92
Clemens: 95

Innings pitched
Pedro and Koufax: 5,152
Clemens: 4,917

Strikeouts
Pedro and Koufax: 5,550
Clemens: 4,672

ERA Titles
Pedro and Koufax: 10
Clemens: 7

Cy Youngs
Pedro and Koufax: 6
Clemens: 7

Pretty staggering stuff. But I suspect a healthy percentage of people tuned out on this long ago because Clemens was named 10 trillion times in the Mitchell Report and was involved in those seemly and unpleasant trials.

I guess it comes down to this: Everyone gets that, whatever role PEDs played in it, Barry Bonds played baseball at a level that would put him in the conversation with Ruth, Mays, Cobb and Aaron and the rest for greatest player ever. Whether he deserves to be in that conversation  — whether his performance was, in Bob Costas’ word, “authentic” — is opinion, but nobody doubts that Bonds really was that good.

What people will miss is that Clemens — whatever role PEDs played in his success — is not only in the conversation for greatest pitcher ever. He IS the conversation. He played in a time with some of the greatest pitchers ever — Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro. He trumped them. He played after the era of 300-game winners — Tom Seaver the best of them but also Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro and the lot. He trumped them. He is two generations from Koufax’s era, Bob Gibson’s era, and before that there was Bob Feller’s era and Lefty Grove’s era. His career trumps all of them too. Then it’s back to Deadball and a different form of baseball.

Roger Clemens, by the numbers and context of his time and place, is the greatest pitcher who ever played baseball. The steroid fog is what makes that hard to see.