Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Top 100 Red Sox: No. 5

If we were going to do the Mount Rushmore gimmick, which we're not, here's the last of the faces that would miss out on the honor:

10. Smoky Joe Wood, P
9. Babe Ruth, P
8. Tris Speaker, OF
7. Lefty Grove, P
6. Manny Ramirez, OF

5. Roger Clemens
We all know how great Clemens was in 1986 and 1987 and 1990. But we also talk all the time about how bad he was in 1993 and 1995 and 1996 -- was he really that bad?

From the Gospel According to Bill Simmons:
On Roger Clemens in 1993: "Clemens signed a four-year, $20 million contract and took much of the next three-plus years off, almost like a professor who gets tenure and doens't feel like grading papers anymore. Unveiling a historic double chin, ... Clemens battled arm problems en route to his first losing season."

On Roger Clemens in 1995: "After rededicating himself for the strike-shortened '94 season (9-7, 2.85 ERA), he arrived the following spring like he was auditioning for the John Goodman Story. ... When Clemens squandered his only playoff start, that only fueled those 'can't win the big one' doubts."

On Roger Clemens in 1996: "Chunky, disinterested and increasingly agitated about Boston's failure to offer him a contract extension, the Rocket turned on his jets once the team fell out of playoff contention, going 6-2 over his last 10 starts and striking out 20 Tigers in mid-September. Classic Roger, through and through. You could always count on him when it mattered least."

Harsh stuff.

To be fair, this came from a column Simmons wrote for entitled "Is Clemens the Anti-Christ?", so you knew it wasn't exactly going to be a love letter.

Still, though, harsh stuff.

Clemens finished in the top three in the American League in Cy Young Award voting in 1990, 1991 and 1992. He won the award (for the third time in his career) in 1991, but his more impressive season might have been 1992, when he had a 2.41 ERA and won 18 games for a team that finished last in the American League East.

Over the next four years, though, he won 30 games -- total -- and only once had an ERA under 3.00. The numbers are there to make a case, as Simmons did, that Clemens took three and a half years off. But is it really true?

Let's take a look, shall we?

1993: A lousy year. There's no getting around it. But he actually started off hot; he had a 1.73 ERA and a pair of complete games through eight starts, including a complete-game shutout at Baltimore in May in which he struck out 13. He then started to scuffle; he had a 6.48 ERA from mid-May until he went on the disabled list with a groin injury at the end of June. After he came back, he was hit-and-miss -- he gave up five or more earned runs in seven of his last 10 starts.

All in all, he went 11-14 with a 4.46 ERA and 160 strikeouts; it was the first time he'd failed to top 200 strikeouts since 1985. His ERA+ was 104, the lowest it would ever get between his first full season and when he turned 35 years old. (To compare him to some contemporaries: Greg Maddux's lowest ERA+ in his prime was 125, at age 33, but Tom Glavine got down to 106 when he was 28 years old.)

1994: A pretty good year, all things considered. The win total (nine) has to be taken with a grain of salt given that the strike cost him the last month and a half of the season -- and after a couple of subpar outings to start the year, he went 6-2 with a 1.44 ERA and 90 strikeouts between April 15 and June 11. In July and August, he had a 2.44 ERA and took a couple of hard-luck losses. (He lost one game in which he allowed two runs in seven innings; he lost another game in which he allowed three runs in eight innings.)

All in all, he was 9-7 with a 2.85 ERA as well as an American League-leading ERA+ of 177 -- the second-best ERA+ of his career to that point.

1995: Certainly not a bad year considering the shoulder injury that cost him the first two months of the season. (Simmons blames Clemens' poor conditioning for his injuries; that might be it, but the fact that he threw at least 225 regular-season innings every year from 1986-1992 might have had something to do with it, too.)

He allowed five earned runs in five innings in his first start back, but he had a 1.90 ERA in his next four starts and, after a series of stinkers in July, a 2.88 ERA in August and September as the Red Sox clinched their first division title in five years.

And that playoff start, the one that "only fueled those 'can't win the big one' doubts," Clemens retired the first nine Indians in order and wiggled out of trouble in the fourth, thanks in part to a strikeout of Albert Belle with two runners on base. He surrendered three runs on a walk and three hits in the sixth, but he left the game after seven innings having allowed just those three runs on five hits to go along with five strikeouts and one walk.

1996: The contract year. This is the year that seems to grate on Simmons the most. Let's read the case for the prosecution one more time:

"Chunky, disinterested and increasingly agitated about Boston's failure to offer him a contract extension, the Rocket turned on his jets once the team fell out of playoff contention, going 6-2 over his last 10 starts and striking out 20 Tigers in mid-September. Classic Roger, through and through. You could always count on him when it mattered least."

Again, this merits a closer look. The Red Sox went 14-20 in Clemens' starts in 1996, including 0-6 in April as they tumbled quickly into last place in the American League East. Clemens, though, had a 4.17 ERA in April -- far from spectacular, sure, but not exactly disastrous, either. His worst start was a loss to Cleveland on April 21 in which he gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings. His best might have been five days later against Kansas City; it was a start in which he gave up two runs in seven innings while striking out 11 -- only to take the loss because the Red Sox couldn't manage more than one run through the first eight innings.

And five days after that, he went the distance against Detroit to earn his first win of the season; he allowed one run on six hits, striking out 13 and walking no one. Yet another gem was next on the agenda; he allowed just two runs in 7 2/3 innings against Milwaukee and struck out 10. At that point, he had a 3.38 ERA.

From there, his ERA began to climb slowly northward. He allowed six earned runs at Toronto on May 12, four earned runs to Seattle on May 23 and six earned runs at Oakland on May 28. He then allowed six earned runs against the Yankees on July 16, seven earned runs at Kansas City on Aug. 1 and five earned runs against Chicago on Sept. 13.

Those clunkers, though, tended to be sandwiched around some classic Clemens-type outings -- a 10-strikeout effort at Detroit on July 11, an 11-strikeout effort in a complete-game win against Oakland on Aug. 22 and, of course, that 20-strikeout game at Detroit on Sept. 18.

He finished the year with a 3.63 ERA -- by far the best among Red Sox starters. (Tom Gordon had a 5.59 ERA; Aaron Sele had a 5.32 ERA.) His ERA+ even ranked him fifth in the American League ahead of Kevin Appier, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina.

A year later, of course, he'd go 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA and win the first of his two Cy Young Awards with the Toronto Blue Jays. It's fascinating, though, that he's so villified for using Dan Duquette's snub as motivation to turn himself back into an elite pitcher -- particularly because he wasn't nearly as bad in 1994, 1995 and 1996 as some would have you believe.

Coming up: The final infielder on our list -- and the second-greatest power hitter in the history of the franchise.

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