Rocket Science


The Roger Clemens deal. It’s all everybody who’s anybody is talking about these days— especially those who write for the local papers. Front page, back page— Clemens is the number one story everywhere you look. But as usual, there’s loads of disinformation and muddled thinking out there. So, as a service to the baseball fan and those who just want to be in the know, here’s a handy-dandy FAQ to cut through the tabloid haze.

Is Roger Clemens better than David Wells? OK, we start with an easy one. Despite Wells’s rep as a gamer, it’s not even close. But let’s add some context. Since he’s been a starter, Wells has never posted a single ERA lower than Clemens’s career mark of 2.95. Wells’s 163 strikeouts last year were a lifetime best. Clemens has averaged 210 Ks over his 15 years in the bigs. The Rocket’s winning percentage was 71 points higher. As to who’s better on his best day, you’ve gotta say that two 20-strikeout games beat one perfect game. Or just listen to David Cone: “They could have thrown me in and it would still be a great trade.” Cone, Clemens, and Wells will all end up in Cooperstown someday. It’s just that Wells is going to have to buy a ticket.

Is Clemens the best pitcher in baseball? Yup. As you can see from the chart below, over the past two years the Rocket holds a slim but substantial lead on the league’s elite pitchers across the board— he’s first in wins, winning percentage, and, most importantly, ERA differential. His 2.33 ERA is impressive enough, but he was the only one to post it exclusively in the hitting-happy American League. The differential means that he’s been more than two and a quarter runs a game better than the average AL pitcher over two seasons. How good is that? Only three pitchers this century— Kevin Brown, Pedro Martinez, and Dazzy Vance— have been able to post a diff that high for a single full season. And Clemens’s 1997 diff of 2.51 is an AL record.

Is Clemens the best pitcher to ever wear a Yankee uniform? Did Lefty Grove ever try one on? If you’re talking about peak value, the Ron Guidry of 1978 can give the Clemens of 1997 a run for his money, but since Gator trails Clemens by 63 wins and counting, it’s really no contest. What about Whitey Ford? They’re almost even in total wins (236 versus 233), and Ford’s ERA (2.75 versus 2.95) and winning percentage (.690 versus 653) are both marginally better. But let’s take this one to the voters— the Cy Young voters. Clemens has five Cys— that’s more than the whole Yankee franchise (Ford, Guidry, Sparky Lyle, and Bob Turley with one each) combined. Ford, on the other hand, won the award once, in 1961, and astonishingly only received one other vote. Even if he’d been pitching in the Cy-for-each-league era, Ford might’ve copped the AL hardware in ’63, but that would’ve been it. Advantage Rocket.

Is he the best pitcher ever to pitch in New York? The National League offers much stiffer competition. How does Clemens stack up against Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, and his ’86 Red Sox teammate Tom Seaver? Judging by their career numbers, each one of them is great— lots of wins with low ERAs. But look at the dark type in the ERA column— who led the league how many times? Lots of ink on Clemens’s side. He led the AL in ERA six times. That’s more than Mathewson (5), Walter Johnson (5), Sandy Koufax (5), Seaver (3), Hubbell (3), and anyone except Grove, who did it a remarkable nine times and is generally considered the greatest pitcher of all time. The answer, therefore, is yes.

Is Toronto GM Gord Ash on drugs? Ash’s big mistake was getting into this situation in the first place. If baseball history has shown us anything, it’s that it’s virtually impossible to get anything close to comparable value for a Hall of Fame­type player. The conventional wisdom has been to go after prospects— current superstar for future superstar is the logic. But remarkably, that almost never works. Think Seaver for Steve Henderson. Most of the “prospects that come back to haunt you” trades— Lou Brock, Nolan Ryan, Fred McGriff, Jeff Bagwell— seem to involve midlevel players, not superstars.

Couldn’t he have done better? Ash probably could have held out for Andy Pettitte or Ramiro Mendoza, and not be facing the same “I want out now” situation with Wells that he faced with Clemens. One fleeting rumor was that the Indians were willing to trade Manny Ramirez, who’ll be one of the best hitters in baseball for the next decade, straight up for Clemens. If this was true— and it probably wasn’t— Ash passed on one of the most potentially lopsided deals in baseball history.

Will Clemens win 300 games? Probably not. According to baseball guru Bill James’s Favorite Toy— a method used to determine a player’s chance of reaching a statistical goal— Clemens has only a 17 percent chance of joining that elite club. He needs 67 wins, and even at his current pace of almost 19 wins a season he has to pitch effectively for three and a half more years— or until he’s 40. According to Favorite Toy, Clemens should top out at 278 Ws. Clemens’s chance of getting to 300, however, is better than any other active pitcher besides Greg Maddux, who has a 26 percent chance.

How long will Clemens last? Favorite Toy estimates that a 36-year-old pitcher has 2.4 seasons left. But a look at the record book suggests that he might have a few more. Of the 20 pitchers who’ve won more than Clemens’s 233 games since 1960, 15 of them pitched until at least age 40, with an average career of over 21 years. And most were quite effective in their old age. Seven of them— Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Tommy John, Early Wynn, and Jack Morris— won 20 games at least once after age 37, while Seaver went 14-2 in strike-shortened 1981, when he turned 37. And everyone except Juan Marichal would post at least one season with a dozen or more wins. Clemens, who turns 37 in August, has pitched 15 seasons, so we can count on anywhere between three— the Jim Palmer model— and ten— the Nolan Ryan model— more summers from the Rocket.

How many strikeouts will Clemens end up with? Favorite Toy predicts that Clemens will end up with 3814, which would leave him third on the all-time list behind— make that way behind— Nolan Ryan (5714) and not all that close to Steve Carlton (4136).

Is Clemens underpaid? Patrick Ewing might think so. And in the world of baseball economics, he is. After all, even Todd Stottlymyre is getting $8 million— the same as Clemens. But that’s not the reason the Yanks will give Clemens a nice, fat Kevin Brown­type extension. It’s simply because his trade demand gives him the leverage. But until then, the Yankees are getting a real New York bargain. Even at $2400 a pitch.

Will Roger Clemens get gout? Probably not.

Who’s the Best?

The chart below shows 1997­98 stats for the five pitchers who can stake a claim to being the best in the game. ERA differential shows the difference between the pitcher’s ERA and the league ERA (i.e., the average pitcher). The higher the diff, the better the pitcher.

Pitcher W L Pct K ERA ERA DIFF
Roger Clemens 41 13 .759 563 2.33 2.28
Pedro Martinez 36 15 .706 556 2.39 2.04
Greg Maddux 37 13 .740 381 2.21 2.00
Randy Johnson 39 15 .722 620 2.81 1.69
Kevin Brown 34 15 .694 462 2.53 1.68