For much of the 1980s and 1990s, no player defined the Red Sox the way Roger Clemens did. Blessed with an undeniable competitive streak, a legendary fastball, and a larger-than-life reputation, Clemens was not the most popular Red Sox great in the team’s history, but was surely one of the finest performers on the field.
Though it may not be true of Red Sox fans, many baseball observers may forget that more than half of Clemens’ storied career came with Boston, especially with how much press had been given to his later exploits. The Rocket spent 13 of his 24 seasons playing home games at Fenway, and posted enough quality numbers that he could have retired after 1996 as a legitimate Hall-of-Famer, before ever suiting up for the Blue Jays, Astros, and (ugh) Yankees.
Let’s forget about the scowls, the PED accusations, and the Suzyn Waldman hyperbolic calls for a little while, and focus on the skill … and the numbers. When the narrative is boiled away and we distill the hurler’s career into the digits and the performances, we can see real greatness from a combination of consistency and skill.
1984-1985: Ramping Up
The first two seasons of Clemens’ career were good — don’t get me wrong — but they hardly indicated what would come of the next 22. Coming out of the University of Texas, Clemens made his debut in May of 1984, and immediately had an exceptional impact. Most pitchers don’t start their careers spitting hot fire, but Clemens was most certainly not most pitchers. We can use cFIP — a metric that uses context and fielding-independent peripherals like strikeouts and walks and home runs — to measure the “true talent level” of a pitcher over the course of a season. Clemens’s cFIP in his 20 starts in 1984 was 56, a truly exceptional number. That’s a Kershaw-esque score … think Matt Harvey in 2013, only slightly better than that.
Clemens pitched well in ‘85 too, but he wasn’t as skillful as the previous year in a limited 15-start run. In both of these first two seasons, he showed glimpses of the pitcher he would become in his underlying peripherals. His Deserved Run Average (DRA) — a measure of how many runs he should’ve given up on a rate basis — was between 3.54 and 3.60 … which was good, but not otherworldly. Otherwordly would have to come later.
1986-1988: The Best In The World
To many, 1986 was the “big one” for the Rocket. You know about his 24 wins, most likely, and you probably also know about the Red Sox’s run to the World Series. Clemens took home all the hardware in this season: the Cy Young, the MVP, an All-Star selection … well, he missed out on that big October trophy, but picked up most everything else. The stats were stellar, of course: he led the AL in wins, ERA, FIP (which wasn’t really a thing back then), and WHIP among qualified starters. This could be considered the peak of his powers.
He’d get better.
Clemens would be the best pitcher in baseball by DRA and cFIP in each of the next two seasons as well. Oh sure, he deserved his Cy Young award in 1987 (281.7 innings, 2.97 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 3.08 DRA), but his 1988 season was a true masterpiece. In that year, despite only finishing sixth in Cy Young voting, he put up one of the greatest individual pitching seasons of the last half-century.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking … how could that possibly be the case when a guy posts a good, but not-legendary 2.93 ERA? Well, look at the underlying peripherals. In this, an offense-heavy year, in an offense-heavy park, Roger also threw for a 2.23 FIP and a 44 cFIP. That cFIP, in particular, makes my head spin. A cFIP of 70 or lower is considered superb. 44? That’s magical. Randy Johnson beat that during his unreal 1995 season. Both Pedro Martinez and RJ topped it in both 2000 and 2001. Curt Schilling in 2002. And that’s it for better cFIP performances since ‘88. Roger’s ‘88 season demonstrated more raw talent than all but six others since that time. And he threw a boatload of innings, making him worth 10 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP). That’s remarkable, especially for a pitcher.
Posting a cumulative 26.4 WARP in just three seasons is straight-up amazing. Let’s try to put it in perspective. If you could gather up all the value that Jon Lester ever had while wearing a Red Sox uniform — and yeah, let’s include all those postseason innings — and then mashed them into three seasons, that’s what you’d get in those Clemens years. All of Jon Lester’s career value, distilled into three fabulous years.
1989-1992: Just Pretty Great
I’d say that from a statistical perspective, Clemens would never again reach the heights of his 1988 season, or of the combined majesty of ‘86-’88. But the next several years were nothing to sneeze at either. ‘89 was a bit of a down season, as a worsened walk rate (8.9%) diminished his ability to keep his overall peripherals down, and raised his ERA a hair. Still, his performance was solid, and he more than earned his share of value.
The next three seasons were a blur of excellence, three top-3 Cy Young finishes (one win in 1991) and a remarkable run of consistency (31+ games started in each season) revealed a true, definitive ace in every sense of the word. Was Clemens the best pitcher in baseball over each of those three seasons by the metrics I’ve been citing in this piece? Nope: Just two of them (1990 and 1991). By 1992, other, younger starters like Greg Maddux and Charles Nagy (what?) had eclipsed Clemens’ single-season performance … but make no mistake, the Rocket was still an amazing force.
When looking at the Rocket’s performance in each season, he was dominant, and often the best hurler in the game. But in the aggregate, over all the seasons to this point? Forget it. No other pitcher had the combination of innings pitched, runs allowed (or in his case, not allowed), and pure talent via the strikeout. His run from ‘86 to ‘92 could be considered one of the best seven-season runs in the history of the game. For comparison’s sake, here’s Roger’s seven years compared to Clayton Kershaw’s last seven:
Remember how when you’ve watched Clayton Kershaw over the past few years, you were amazed? And how analysts and announcers keep talking about what a transcendent, legendary talent he is? Well, yeah, Roger Clemens basically did that too. Only over an extra 300 innings. Because he was amazing.
All good things must come to an end, but little did anyone know that the twilight of Roger’s Red Sox career would just be the midpoint of the whole thing. And yet, 1993 started a downward trend — at least for a little while — that ended Roger as the gold standard of all pitchers. From here, he looked more like an average-ish pitcher in some seasons, and a star in others.
For the next three seasons, Roger’s signature durability wavered, and he didn’t cross the 200-inning threshold again until 1996. In addition, when he was on the bump, he wasn’t the same exact pitcher. In 1993 he posted a 4.46 ERA (and 4.21 DRA). In 1995, he was — dare I say it — average! He only posted 1.8 WARP, and looked more Roger Rabbit than Roger Clemens. 1994 wasn’t bad at all — he was quite effective, if limited in innings — and 1996 saw a real return to ace-level form. During that last, fateful season in Fenway, Roger was the same guy he was during his best years. His DRA was 3.24 and his cFIP was 63, which is shorthand for this: he was one of the five best pitchers in baseball once again, and a Hall-of-Fame-style ace.
But, after 1996, JNCOs were NOT cool, but Clemens was. He famously took a four-year $40-million contract with the Blue Jays that ended his career in Boston and separated him from the team he had come to define. It’s fair to say that while there was the expectation that he would have a solid finish to his career, few expected Clemens to post 11 more seasons and over 2,000 more innings. (Especially at such a high level of performance.)
Upon arriving in Toronto, Roger immediately recaptured some of his peak-performance magic, earning two straight Cy Young awards and cementing his reputation as an all-timer. That could have been the nice finish to a 15-year career, but Clemens moved on to the Yankees to win two World Series, pad his resume, and put the finishing touches on his all-time stats. He won another Cy Young for his hometown Astros, but never reached the same peaks he had during his best years with the Sox.
If you can look at the overall body of work over those first 13 seasons, the results are pretty astounding. First, 2,776 innings pitched was more than any other pitcher in baseball over that timeframe, so even despite his injury-marred seasons, he dropped more fastballs in than just about anyone else (only Mark Langston was particularly close). His ERA over the span (3.06) was equally impressive, only bested over that period by the criminally-underrated John Tudor — who only pitched 1160 innings — and Greg Maddux. His FIP in that timeframe (2.94) was third in baseball as well, behind Nolan Ryan and Doc Gooden.
And, of course, there’s the ultimate measure of his overall value: WARP. His WARP with the Red Sox was 72.9. In perspective, John Smoltz’s career WARP is 68.0. Tom Glavine’s is 62.2. Roger earned more value as a member of the Red Sox than either of those players did during their entire careers … at least according to BP’s metric.
That doesn’t even account for the 20-strikeout games — games which are arguably among the greatest single-game performances in the history of baseball. Anyone can throw a no-hitter — we see nearly four per season these days — but only two pitchers have ever struck out 20 hitters in a game: Kerry Wood and Clemens.
Of course, Clemens did it twice — both times in Boston, and over 10 years apart.
Since Clemens left Boston, the memories have been mixed. Never the most popular fan-favorite, few pitchers in history delivered more value to a team than the Rocket. No player has worn Roger’s #21 since his exit from Fenway, and that makes a lot of sense. Despite any personal feelings fans might carry about the man, his performance in a Red Sox uniform was an unparalleled combination of longevity and effectiveness from a starting pitcher. Only Pedro Martinez came close in modern times, and Pedro pitched for roughly half as long in navy and red as Roger.
On an overall value basis, Clemens is likely the most valuable Red Sox pitcher of all time. The power of his fastball was undeniable, and the impact he had on so many Sox games will stand for decades to come.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images