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Pre-PEDs Roger Clemens is being undersold

Jan 1, 2013, 9:10 AM EDT

Roger Clemens Red Sox

You see a lot of Hall of Fame ballots which include Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. You see more that include neither. You don’t see a whole lot of them which include one and not the other.  But Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald votes that way. He gives the nod to Bonds but not to Clemens.

His reasoning: Barry Bonds was a Hall of Fame player before he began using PEDs. Specifically, if he was hit by a crosstown bus before the 1999 season, when most reliable reporting has him beginning PED use, he’d still have Cooperstown numbers. Rozner does not talk about Clemens at all, but one can assume that he does not think that the pre-PED Clemens had a Hall of Fame resume.

I don’t have a huge problem with the approach as such. I don’t subscribe to it  for a couple of reasons — (a) we don’t know for sure when players began taking PEDS; and (b) we can’t simply ignore what came after PEDs as though it was purely a chemical accomplishment and pretend it didn’t happen — but it’s at least coherent.

I do take some issue, however, with what this approach says about Roger Clemens’ pre-PED accomplishments. Indeed, it’s on par with a narrative about Clemens that prevailed for quite some time after the Mitchell Report came out in which Clemens was considered a washed-up pitcher before he got on the juice and then saw a career resurrection. It’s a narrative that is bolstered by two things, primarily. First, former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette’s disparagement of Clemens when he left to join the Blue Jays, and second, Clemens’ seemingly startling improvement after he got to Toronto.

There are just two problems with this: (1) Clemens was way better in his Boston days than that old narrative would have you believe; and (2) the best evidence we have suggests that Clemens’ PED use began after his career resurgence in Toronto.

Roger Clemens was way better in Boston than you remember

We’ve heard it a million times. The once-great Rocket had run out of fuel. After dominating in the mid-to-late 80s, Clemens had grown fat and lazy and by 1997 he just wasn’t the same pitcher he used to be. That was crystallized by a now-famous quote from Dan Duquette on the occasion of Clemens’ leaving Boston for Toronto:

“We had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”

And, in 1996, you could forgive casual fans for thinking that Clemens was, indeed, in the twilight.  The man who had won 20 or more games three times to that point, and won 18 games three other times, had just completed a run in which his win totals were 11, 9, 10 and 10. Now, two of those years were shortened due to the 1994-95 work stoppage, and we all know now that win totals are a horribly flawed, but that wasn’t the broad perception. The broad perception was that Clemens’ race was run and he was going to end his career as an innings eater.

Which, to be blunt, was frickin’ insane. Roger Clemens may have only won 10 games in 1996, but he also pitched 242 innings, led the league in strikeouts with 257, struck out more batters per nine innings than anyone and posted an ERA+ — 139 — which was just a shade below his career ERA+ of 143. If you care about such things, know that he also finished second in the league in WAR with 7.7. In September of that year he struck out 20 Detroit Tigers in a single game. Yes, he walked more batters that year than he ever had, but it was a fantastic season nontheless, characterized more by bad luck and poor run support than it was by some farkakte “twilight of his career” narrative.

And what if, in November 1996, Clemens had been hit by that same errant, hypothetical bus that hit poor hypothetical Barry Bonds a couple of years later? What would his career have looked like then? How about a career record of 192-111, an ERA of 3.06 ERA (which makes for a 144 ERA+, or a tick better than his final career number), 2590 strikeouts, a 1.158 WHIP, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP and two — not one, but two — games is which he struck out 20 batters.

Those numbers are not as good as the allegedly pre-PEDs Barry Bonds, but it’s a strong, strong Hall of Fame resume. One that, if Clemens were a little more colorful or more media friendly, would probably get him induction on that alone, with writers arguing that the high peak and the dominance made up for Clemens not reaching 200 wins.

But what if that’s not the entire pre-PEDs case for Roger Clemens? What if we added 21 more wins and another Cy Young Award, ERA, wins, and strikeout title to that list? Another year in which he led the league in innings and WHIP?  Wouldn’t that make those on the fence agree that a pre-PEDs Clemens was a Hall of Fame pitcher? It’s a question worth asking, because there is an argument that Clemens’ added those numbers to his statistical pile before taking PEDs. In 1997. In Toronto. 

The “Clemens juiced up once he got to Toronto” story isn’t backed up by the evidence

It’s wholly understandable why the narrative has Clemens getting run out of Boston, fat, ineffective and unwanted, finding a pack of Winstrol at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms and juicing his way to the 1997 Cy Young Award in his first season with the Blue Jays. After all, even if his 1996 was better than it’s made out to be, it’s certainly clear that his first season in Toronto was considerably better. Indeed, it was one of the best seasons a pitcher had posted in ages at that point.

The only problem with this is that the best evidence anyone can come up with is that Clemens began juicing in 1998, a year after his resurgence began.

That’s Brian McNamee’s testimony anyway. He told George Mitchell’s investigators that he began his injections of Clemens in 1998 and continued on through 2001. Granted, McNamee was shown to be an extremely unreliable witness, but he had zero incentive to put Clemens’ PED use at a later date than it actually began. If he had any incentive to fabricate, the incentive would be to put Clemens’ PED use at an earlier date, which would cast Clemens in a worse light and make the government agents and lawyers who ruled his life for a while much happier. He didn’t, however. He testified on multiple occasions that it began in 1998. Not once did he state or even opine that Clemens began using PEDs before the two of them hooked up in 1998.

Could Clemens have started his use earlier? Of course he could have. But despite the millions upon millions of dollars and the thousands upon thousands of man hours at the government’s disposal, not one witness was ever discovered who could testify to Clemens beginning his drug use prior to 1998. And you know damn well that the government was aching to find someone who could say so. Why? Because it would make for a killer PowerPoint slide to show the jury in Clemens’ perjury trial:

  • 1996: 10-13, 3.63 ERA RUN OUT OF TOWN ON A RAIL
  • 1997: 21-7, 2.05 ERA CY YOUNG AWARD

Sure, that’s simplistic — as noted above, Clemens’ 1996 was pretty spiffy once you get past his won-loss totals — but that’s the kind of story a trial lawyer dies for. One in which there is (apparently) a clear link between the defendant’s acts and the bad behavior of which the defendant is accused. The story for the jury is way, way better if Clemens began taking PEDs before 1997 and transformed from a tomato can to a superstar. But the government could not, despite its best efforts, tell that story.

So, while it’s quite satisfying for us to believe Roger Clemens began to use PEDs when he got to Toronto, there is no evidence to support that he did. Indeed, if one wanted to speculate a bit — and this is mere speculation, not me arguing that it’s true — one could surmise that Clemens, trying to revitalize his career, simply got in better shape before the 1997 season via legitimate means and, like a lot of PED users, was exposed to PEDs in a major way once he started living in gyms and hanging around people obsessed with nutritional supplements and stuff and after that he really began the juicing.  Likely? I have no idea. But it fits the extant evidence better than the story that has Clemens starting to take PEDS in 1997, which is unsupported.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if you buy the 1997-98 story, it leaves us with a pitcher who went 213-118 with a 2.97 ERA, over 2800 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 149, a WHIP of 1.147, four Cy Youngs, an MVP and a pitcher’s triple crown.  That, my friends, is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and if you’re the sort, like Barry Rozner, who would vote for guys who had Hall of Fame resumes prior to confirmed PED use, you have to vote for Clemens.  Or, at the very least, make the case for why you’re not.

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