Roger Clemens is a free man. It could not be proved he lied to Congress, in a hearing at his own behest. This absolves him legally. He won’t be absolved in public perception where most would assume, at least at various points during his post-Boston renaissance, he was using performance enhancing drugs. This will effect his Cooperstown candidacy, but should it?
Clemens was not a great pitcher. He was an all-time great pitcher, without performance enhancement. For simplicity’s sake we’ll use Baseball Reference’s “wins above replacement,” or WAR. An 8+ WAR season is an MVP-level year. A 5+ WAR season is all-star level. Here is Clemens’ career. For differentiation, we will give the post 1996 seasons under suspicion an asterisk.
MVP: 1986, 1987, 1990, 1992, 1997*
All-Star: 1988, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998*, 2001*, 2004*, 2005*
With the Red Sox, Clemens was rated either all-star or MVP level in 9/11 years from 1986 to 1996. He missed significant time with injuries the other two seasons. Distilling things down to a seven-year prime from 1986 to 1992, he finished either 1st or 2nd in the AL in WAR in five of seven seasons (also top five in 1994 and 1996). He averaged a 2.66 ERA (160 ERA+, had 1,673 strikeouts in 1,799 innings, had a 1.089 WHIP and averaged 257 innings per season. He won Cy Young Awards in 1986, 1987 and 1991. He was robbed in 1990 and had a very good case in 1992.
Clemens was the best pitcher and player in baseball in his prime. Had he retired after leaving the Red Sox in 1996 he was in the HOF. Had his career played out naturally, with a few more declining and injury-plagued years, he was still in the HOF. That didn’t happen. Like Barry Bonds, Clemens found the fountain of youth. He became a cancerous version of himself. He didn’t age. He recovered faster from season to season, start to start and pitch to pitch.
He became a better pitcher at 34 than he was at 24 and later replicated that dominance at age 42. Declining and struggling with injuries in his early 30s, he went on to pitch 11 more seasons and make at least 29 starts in every season where he was a full-time pitcher from Opening Day. Like Barry Bonds, this last part of his career is indelible but difficult to interpret.
Clemens did not cheat. To cheat, Clemens would have violated a rule. An inherent component to a rule is the ability to enforce it. Bud Selig made a lame proclamation about steroids. There was neither testing, enforcement nor punishment. Claiming that was a policy is as stupid as terming it the “so-called” Steroid Era in retrospect. It’s a perversion of reality. Clemens likely used PEDs in the same way previous generations used amphetamines. It was a level playing field, in that everyone had access to them.
His latter career inflates his career numbers. Viewed within their own context, however, Clemens’ numbers are not necessarily inflated. Hitters were using the same substances. Clemens didn’t have some super-awesome steroids. He was better. How that is valued is open to interpretation, but the interpretation has little to do with the man himself. It’s about how one views the baseball Hall of Fame.
Is Cooperstown a museum to highlight baseball achievement, or does it have some broader mandate to reward competitive virtue? That’s the fundamental question and the answer will determine whether Bonds, Clemens and others are elected.
[Photo via Presswire]