Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Shaq and Roger

Nothing to add to this terrific piece by the Sports Guy on the Shaq trade, which manages to make the case that Shaq's trade was a big mistake while somehow also working in Jimmy "Super Fly" Snuka and an exegesis of Walter Hill's The Warriors (the Sports Guy is freakin' brilliant).

The Sports Guy, like every other die-hard Red Sox fan, hates the Rocket. So does this guy. To top it off, Roger's awful hometown start in the All-Star Game in last night elicited much schaudenfreude among the press, even from the great Thomas Boswell. Besides Barry Bonds, can you imagine any other living legends getting this kind of treatment? What if Dan Marino embarrassed himself in his last start? Or Jordan? It's bizarre that the two most dominant baseball players of the last five decades are also among the two most hated. Not that there isn't justification: these aren't the nicest guys in the sports. Bonds is widely loathed for being an all-around boor, while Clemens is lambasted for hypocrisy and nuttiness.

Clemens is only recently widely appreciated by fans, but still not widely respected as he should be. This is the most dominant pitcher of the last 50 years, possibly the most dominant pitcher we'll see in our lifetime. So he's no astrophysicist, but he deserves the respect his dominance accorded him.

What distinguishes Clemens from Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux, the only other pitchers in his rarefied league, is sustained excellence. Check out his career numbers. The Hall of Fame numbers are the 320 wins and 4,000+ Ks, but the key is at the bottom: Clemens posted the top adjusted ERA (ERA adjusted for the league average) in 7 seasons, and was a top five finisher in 12 seasons spread over 18 years. Adjusted ERA measures pitching performance relative to the league -- correcting for "juiced ball" and annual quirks. It's one of the best measures of actual pitching performance, and nobody in the last 50 years -- not Seaver, Koufax, Maddux, Pedro, or the Unit -- have been that dominant for such a long stretch. Clemens was one of the top 5 pitchers in his league for over pretty much his entire career, one or two fluke seasons aside.

The knock against Clemens was that he floundered in the mid-90s, just going through the motions until he can cash in as a free agent. Duquette famously described Roger to be in the "twilight of his career" in 1996, and Sox fans take it on faith that the Rocket coasted that year, but the numbers don't bear it out (nor does it make any sense -- if he's a greedy fat bastard who could turn it on at will, wouldn't his free agent year be the perfect year to do so?). In 1996, Clemens actually recorded the 4th best adjusted ERA that year in the AL. And that year, what I remember most was Clemens laboring through games at 120+ pitches at start, trying to strike out everybody because Duquette assembled a team of DHs who can't catch worth a lick. The bad defense fucked with Roger's head, leading him to throw way too many split-fingers. Still he was one of AL's top five pitchers, and finally went to Toronto and recorded two of the most awesome seasons in baseball history.

Give the man his due.