Top 40 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #19 Roger Clemens

William Roger Clemens | SP | 1997-1998 | Career Stats

Roger Clemens is the best player to ever don a Blue Jays uniform. Period. In a Hall-of-Fame career that has spanned 23 seasons, Clemens has amassed 7 Cy Young Awards, 348 wins, and a 3.10 ERA in 4817.2 IP. But this list only accounts for his time with the Blue Jays, which spanned a mere two seasons. They were two dominant seasons, in which he re-established himself as the best pitcher in baseball, and perhaps of all-time. Since this list accounts for both peak and longevity, of which, as a Blue Jay, he has plenty of the former but very little of the latter, Clemens is not ranked higher than 19th. Nevertheless, no one on the list spent less time with the organzation, so it's quite an accomplishment that he's ranked in the top 20, let alone the top 40, all-time greatest Blue Jays.

Following the 1996 season, one year removed from the free agent departures of Roberto Alomar, Al Leiter, Paul Molitor, and Devon White, the Blue Jays decided to substantially increase their payroll, which had been in freefall since it was the game's highest only a handful of years earlier (Yes, you read that correctly, the Blue Jays once had the highest payroll in all of baseball).

In addition to signing Clemens to a three-year, $24.75 million contract, which was then a record for a pitcher, the Blue Jays inked Pat Hentgen, who was the reigning Cy Young Award winner, to a three-year contract worth a maximum $20.5 million, depending on whether Hentgen met certain benchmarks. Those two, along with Juan Guzman, who won the AL ERA title the year before, helped form what many predicted to be the best starting rotation in the league. Gord Ash, the former Blue Jays GM who once showed up to a game dressed up as Dr. Evil, voiced his excitement in the January 13, 1997 issue of The Sporting News: "Toronto is a baseball Mecca again. Right now, we have to be the favorites." Of course, the Blue Jays failed to deliver on Ash's optimism, though not because of their pitching. It was Ash's other moves, which were suspect at the time they were made, that spelled their doom. For example, his decision to essentially dump John Olerud (along with $5 million) on the Mets in order to replace him at first base with an aging, unproductive Joe Carter, whom manager Cito Gaston inexplicably favoured over Olerud, cost the team a handful of wins in 1997, as well as plenty more in the future.

Upon his arrival in Toronto, Carlos Delgado changed his uniform number from 21 to 25, for Clemens had worn the former throughout his days in Boston. As a token of his appreciation, Clemens handed Delgado, who at the time had never earned more than the league minimum, a Presidential Rolex watch. Beforehand, Delgado had worn the number 21 in honour of Roberto Clemente, who was a fellow Puerto Rican. But, according to the Boston Herald, he explained his rationale behind the switch:

The way I look at it, it's a seniority thing. He's been in the league 13 years, he's been the MVP, won the Cy Young. He's a great player. I just hope a younger player would do the same for me.

In his first start as a Blue Jay, on April 3, 1997, against the Chicago White Sox, in what was being hyped as a battle between the highest-paid pitcher in the game, Clemens, and the highest-paid player in the game, Albert Belle, who signed a monster five-year, $55 million contract, he pitched a complete game, allowing just one run in a 6-1 victory. With a repertoire that featured five pitches -- a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a forkball, a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup -- Clemens struck out nine batters while walking just one in what would be the first of eleven consecutive wins to start the season, a feat which tied former reliever Dennis Lamp's team record for consecutive wins. His only awful start until then occurred in a home game versus the Seattle Mariners, on April 25, 1997, in which he surrended six earned runs over seven innings. On a personal note, that was the only Clemens start I would personally attend, which was a let down, especially since I had spent a long time hyping him up to my dad, who took me to the game and knew very little about baseball.

Following Clemens's first loss of the season, on June 11, 1997, again versus the Mariners, though this time in the Kingdome, he was slated for an interleague affair against Denny Neagle of the Atlanta Braves. Neagle, who was acquired the season before in a deal that involved a very young Jason Schmidt, was in the midst of a career year, as he was 9-1 with a 3.15 ERA prior to entering that game. It was billed as a matchup between two leading Cy Young candidates, and the results did not indicate otherwise. Both men pitched complete games, with Neagle tossing a five-hit shutout and Clemens racking up twelve strikeouts. Neagle's offspeed stuff, complemented by a decent fastball that allowed him to seamlessly change speeds, disrupted the timing of the Blue Jays hitters, and led to a bevy of lazy fly ball outs. Meanwhile, Clemens delivered heat, which, combined mainly with a deadly split-fingered fastball and pinpoint slider, led to a lot swings and misses. While his record fell to 11-2 following two consecutive losses, he didn't demonstrate all that many signs of slowing down.

At the All-Star break, his numbers were downright incredible, as he sported a 13-3 record to go along with a 1.69 ERA. Of course, he seemed to be the most deserving American League pitcher to start that season's All-Star game, which was played at Jacob's Field in Cleveland. However, since Clemens pitched a shutout against the New York Yankees only two days earlier, Randy Johnson, who was having a fine season in his own regard, got the nod ahead of him. Clemens entered the game in the third inning, sporting a blue glove as a sign of his allegiance to the Blue Jays, and retired the first three hitters in order. Only four days later he would be in Boston to take on his former team, an affair which had been pointed to, discussed, and analyzed everyday since Clemens jumped ship to join the Blue Jays.

Like many athletes who experience high-levels of sustained success, Clemens possesses a lot of confidence (some would employ another, more negative word to describe it). As a result, he was part of a good number of on-field altercations, even before his well-publicized spat with Mike Piazza. For instance, as a brash young pitcher with the Red Sox during the 1980s, he would sometimes yell at opposing hitters who couldn't quite catch up with his deliveries (taken from the April 29, 1997 issue of The Kansas City Star):

Clemens is also the guy who, as former teammate Bill Buckner remembers, would yell sarcastically, "Swing a little harder!" at hitters who flailed hopelessly at his pitches.

In 1988 against the Royals, he yelled at Willie Wilson, who was perched at second base, because Clemens thought Wilson was stealing signs from the catcher and relaying them to George Brett at the plate.

"Who does he think he is?" Wilson said after the game. "He struts around there like, 'Hey man, I'm God. I'm Roger 'God' Clemens, and nobody is going to hit me.'

Well, that same confidence was on display when he returned to Boston on July, 12, 1997. Dan Duquette, who became villified as the man who let Clemens go, was on hand to watch his former star strike out a season-high 16 batters in eight innings to cap off a 3-1 victory, his 14th of the season.

In order to put that into context, let's revisit how the feud between Clemens and Duquette first began. In 1996, Clemens posted a 10-13 record with the Red Sox, leading to a combined record of 40-39 from 1993-1996. Many experts pointed to that run-of-the-mill record as proof that Clemens, who was then 33, was in the twilight of his career. They arrived at this conclusion despite the fact that his ERA+ total in each of those seasons was above 100, including an impressive 177 in 1994. In an article from June 3, 1997, Peter Schmuck of the Charleston Daily Mail explains:

The Rocket is back. Yet he never left.

There's really no great mystery here. Clemens had a nagging groin injury in 1993. His numbers were watered down by the players strike in 1994. He had a sore shoulder in 1995. And his won-lost record didn't reflect his 1996 performance, which included the second 20-strikeout game of his career. Still, four off-peak years are four off-peak years.

As a result of those off-peak years, which would be considered great years for most pitchers, Duquette low-balled Clemens in free agency, as his best offer was a four-year, $20 million deal of which only $10 million was guaranteed. From that, Clemens easily interpreted the message (also from The Kansas City Star):

The only thing that I can really say is that I know from their initial offer that Mr. Duquette put out there, in my heart I know he didn't want me back. He might tell you differently, but I think he is really happy (now).

That's why, after his remarkable performance against the Red Sox, in what is now an infamous event, Clemens tilted his focus upwards and glared at Duquette, who was seated in a private box, likely overcome with twinges of regret.

The rest of the season, Clemens went 7-4 with two more shutouts. He wasn't quite as sharp as he had been earlier in the season, for he allowed six earned runs or more in three of those games down the stretch, one of which was against the Mariners, who seemed to have his number all season long. Nevertheless, he finished with a 21-7 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.030 WHIP, and 292 K in 264 IP. He swept the AL triple crown categories (W, ERA, K) and won the Cy Young Award, garnering 25 of 28 first place votes. He finished a distant tenth in MVP voting, behind nine hitters. However, Mike Pindelski of Beyond the Boxscore argues that Clemens was wrongly denied this award, largely because of a widespread anti-pitcher bias that continues to exist among MVP voters:

Only two starters (Johnson in 1913 and Gibson in 1968) and one relief pitcher (Fingers in 1981) top the ERA+ Clemens put up in 1997.  Amazingly, only one MVP Award winning pitcher, once again Johnson in 1913, top the WARP3 Clemens put up in 1997.  

In fact, Clemens Adjusted ERA+ of 226 that season was the 12th highest single season Adjusted ERA+ posted in major league history.

Clemens 1997 season was better than most of the seasons in which pitcher's won the MVP Award. The fact his team didn't make the playoffs along the fact he was pitching during an era in which MVP voters were, and still are, shy to elect pitchers as the most valuable players of each league certainly contributed to his poor showing at the MVP polls if not killed them completely.

But did he deserve the 1997 American League MVP Award?

I would argue he did.  He was the most valuable player among candidates going by WARP, and when compared to other pitchers who have previously won the MVP Award, Clemens stacks up nicely against them.

Furthermore, Clemens's 1997 season could very well be the best single-season output of any pitcher post-1969, when pitching mounds were lowered. The obvious choice for many would be Pedro Martinez, whose peak, many would argue, has never been matched. Others might point to one of Greg Maddux's or Randy Johnson's peak seasons, for either of which cases could easily be made. However, the strength of Clemens's case, especially relative to Martinez and Maddux, lies in the 264 innings he threw that year, which were tied with Hentgen for the most in the majors. For example, in the 2000 season, Martinez posted an ERA+ of 285, the highest such figure in the history of the game. He did so, however, in only 217 IP, 47 fewer innings than Clemens threw in 1997. Others on the Red Sox, whose cumulative ERA+ total was probably around 100, give or take a few, had to chip in to make up the difference. The cumulative ERA+ of Martinez and co., therefore, was probably lower than Clemens's total of 226. That's simply one argument, and it by no means lifts the ubiquitous shadow of doubt that creeps into any conversation concerning the best season among contemporary pitchers.

After a season in which the Blue Jays, who some picked to win the division, finished 76-86, Clemens remained optimistic about the future. In the September 2, 1997 edition of The New York Times, Clemens is quoted as saying:

It's been a pleasure watching Pat and some of the other guys. I've learned a lot about a lot of guys that I only saw from afar. I don't know if it's strange to say, but it's easy to find out about a person when they're winning, but you find out a lot about them through adversity.

I'm glad I got off to a great start with this club. But we're building and looking forward to next year, which is kind of exciting.

Much like the previous offseason, Gord Ash was in spending mode, as he dipped his feet into the free agent pool once again; this time, he lured free agents Randy Myers and Darrin Fletcher to Toronto. Furthermore, Cito Gaston was let go as the team's manager, following a gloried tenure with an organization he had been with, as either its manager or hitting coach, since 1982. He was supplanted by Tim Johnson, who would later become blackballed from the game because he lied about being a veteran of the Vietnam War. Finally, in an attempt to boost the lackluster hitting performance of the year before, Gary Matthews, Sr., the father of Gary Matthews, Jr., who's currently being paid very handsomely as a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, was hired as the team's hitting coach.

Meanwhile, in Boston, as a way of tending to the wounds inflicted by Clemens's departure a year earlier, the Red Sox traded for Pedro Martinez, who was the reigning NL Cy Young award winner. That move, of course, was a stroke of genius, and it almost single-handedly kept the Red Sox in contention for years to come.

In 1998, Clemens got off to a slow start by his standards. After soaring to an 11-0 record the season before, he stood at 5-6 with an ERA in the mid-3.00s. This dip in performance was partly due to a slight increase in walks. At the end of May, through 69.1 IP, he had already walked 38 batters, or, by contrast, 14 more batters than he walked during the first two months of 1997, which spanned 82.2 IP. Nevertheless, he was still striking batters out at a fair clip, which helped mitigate his total hits allowed. His slow start could be partly due to a groin injury he suffered in early April that forced him to miss a start and likely lingered into May.

On July 5, 1998, Clemens notched his 3000th career strikeout, as he fanned seven Devil Rays in 7.1 IP. He became only the 11th pitcher to ever record a total that high. Here's how the all-time leaderboard looked at the time, as printed in The Tampa Tribue on July 6, 1998:

In the All-Star game, which David Wells started, Clemens pitched the third inning, in which he got roughed up for two runs. Despite that poor showing, Clemens went on an absolute tear in the second half, ensuring he'd walk away with his second consecutive Cy Young Award. For example, from August 15 - September 5, he pitched 34.1 scoreless innings, the longest such streak of his career. Moreover, from June 3 - September 21, he never lost a game, reeling off 15 straight victories to finish with a mark of 20-6. His ERAs in July, August, and September were 1.73, 0.90, and 2.70, respectively. His walk rate decreased significantly from the first couple months of the season, though his strikeout rate remained as high as it had ever been. He finished the season with a 2.65 ERA, a 1.095 WHIP, and 271 K in 234.2 IP.

While his season totals regressed slightly from 1997's otherworldly effort, he was the unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award. It was the fifth of his career, a total that would eventually be matched by Randy Johnson, though Clemens himself would go on to capture two more, for a total of seven.

After a season in which the Blue Jays failed to make the playoffs once again, despite posting a respectable 88-74 record, Clemens began to voice his displeasure. At the time, he had yet to win a World Series and his individual accomplishments failed to fill the void. For instance, consider a story printed in the November 17, 1998 edition of USA Today:

Toronto pitcher Roger Clemens, who won a record-making fifth Cy Young Award on Monday, isn't sure about his future with the Blue Jays. But he knows this: He's tired of sitting at home in October.

"I'd like to be 10-10 and give me the ball in the playoffs," said Clemens, who has missed the playoffs since 1995 and has not been with a World Series winner in his 16-year career. "That's the objective. I don't hear anything that we're going to catch up with the Yankees, Baltimore and Cleveland."

And so it went. On December 3, 1998, Murray Chass of The New York Times, among others, reported that Clemens had demanded to be traded to a contender. Apparently, before he signed with the Blue Jays, a verbal commitment was made by then-club president Paul Beeston that assured Clemens that the Blue Jays would be in contention throughout the course of his contract. Despite a 12-game improvement between 1997 and 1998, Clemens was not convinced that this team would compete in the near future, and GM Gord Ash had no choice but to comply.

Within a month, however, after some potential trading partners, such as the Houston Astros, balked at Clemens's requests for a high-salary extension, he rescinded his demand to be traded. Nevertheless, he remained open to a trade, and one was soon brought forth. On February 18, 1999, after months of speculation, Clemens was traded to the Yankees for David Wells, Graham Lloyd, and Homer Bush. The trade was an odd one for the Blue Jays, as it demonstrated that, despite losing their best player, they had no desire of rebuilding.

Whether you love him, hate him, or are indifferent towards him, Roger Clemens has proven to be amongst the game's all-time greats, regardless of where he's pitched. In a relatively brief stay in Toronto, he posted perhaps the two greatest seasons ever by a Blue Jays pitcher, and, if perhaps only momentarily, he single-handedly instilled hope and interest in a sport that had quickly fallen into disfavour with the local fans.

Resources: Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com were great helps, as well as the various newspapers and websites mentioned within the article.

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