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Was Roger Clemens the Greatest Pitcher in Major League Baseball History?

I've always loved watching baseball, even during the steroid era when it seemed like every great player was cheating.


The Breakout Season in 1986

Some of my earliest memories of watching baseball on television involve the great Roger Clemens. He started for the American League in the 1986 All-Star Game. I remember it well, and I know just where the VHS tape is where the game is recorded. The tape was watched hundreds of times by two young boys who dreamed of becoming Major League Baseball stars, just like Clemens and Dwight Gooden, the two starting All-Star pitchers.

I don't have a VCR to play the tape. It's kinda doubtful that the thing would play even if I had a VCR. The game was billed as the battle of the fastballs. Gooden threw more pitches over 95 miles per hour in his innings in the game than Clemens did. This was because Clemens was getting outs quickly; Gooden struggled a little bit. When the game was over, the American League was victorious, and Clemens won the All-Star Game MVP.

Clemens had started the season at a tremendous pace. He had an unbelievable win/loss record at the All-Star break, and he finished the second half of the season strong too. He'd win his first Cy Young award and the American League MVP in the 1986 season. His Boston Red Sox faced off against the New York Mets in the World Series, so it was fitting that Gooden and Clemens started the All-Star game; it was a preview of things to come. Sadly, most people only seem to remember the ball going through the legs of the otherwise outstanding Boston first baseman, Bill Buckner.

The Power Pitcher With 20 Strikeouts in a Game

Over the years, the great state of Texas has become more and more synonymous with power pitchers. A power pitcher is someone who has the ability to throw the baseball in the mid to high 90 miles per hour range. They also need to get a lot of strikeouts. Nolan Ryan, of course, was always famous for throwing those 100 miles per hour fastballs, and he is the all-time strikeout king as well.

But Clemens did something Ryan never did. He threw a game where he struck out 20 batters. He did that in 1986, and he would do it again 10 years later. This is an MLB record that has only been matched twice. So while Ryan is the no-hitter king and the strikeout king, Clemens did some damned special things in his spectacular career. He won a huge number of games at a time when the strike zone was smaller than it should have been and a large numbers of batters were juiced up on steroids. Of course, Clemens got caught up in that too. You can't separate him from the era he played in. All things considered, he may well have been the single best pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

But there is no proof that Clemens ever used steroids or any other performance enhancing drug. The idea is just someone's words and testimony against him. Words do not constitute proof against Clemens, especially when you consider some of the people who claim he used the drugs.

Roger Clemens helped the Longhorns win the 1983 College World Series.

Roger Clemens helped the Longhorns win the 1983 College World Series.

Early Years as a College Player

Clemens is from Katy, Texas. However, he was born in Dayton, Ohio. I bet not too many people know that. Texas definitely claimed Clemens as one of their own long ago. His German descent makes him fit in the state that had a lot of German immigrants in the past.

Clemens was a large boy in high school. He was scouted by MLB scouts from the time he was still a child. He went to college instead of thinking about being a pro ball player. He first attended San Jacinto College North, where he did very well as a pitcher. He was drafted by the Mets, but he didn't sign with them. Instead, he chose to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin. He compiled a record for the Longhorns that looked about like some of his finest MLB seasons. He was on the mound when UT won the College World Series in 1983. His uniform and number were retired by the University of Texas in Austin. His was the first player at that school to have his number retired.

Roger Clemens got back on top of his game in Toronto.

Roger Clemens got back on top of his game in Toronto.

Career After Leaving Boston

Clemens went from the College World Series in 1983 to pitching for the Boston Red Sox the next year. He showed flashes greatness during the 1984 and 1985 seasons. Then in 1986, he showed the world he was a master craftsman of pitching.

While Clemens put together some amazing seasons in Boston, fans believed he was getting old after 12 years there. It's true that most power pitchers start losing velocity in their early 30s. Clemens went to Toronto and had his best season in a long time; it was probably his single best season. The year was 1997, and Roger the Rocket won the triple crown of pitching, but he did more than that. He led the league in many stats, including innings pitched.

Clemens struggled with the Red Sox during his last four years there. He is hardly the only person to see his career change for the better with a change of location. One theory of mine as to why he was not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is that he moved around a lot in his career. He played for Boston, Toronto, New York City, and Houston during his career. This isn't really unusual, but Clemens didn't seem to pick up enduring fans during his career. For people like me who love the game for the game, and love the players for the thrills they got watching them, Clemens was among the greatest pitchers we're likely to ever see.

Perfect drop and drive pitching mechanics allowed him to play for many years.

Perfect drop and drive pitching mechanics allowed him to play for many years.

Flawless Pitching Motion and a Stringent Workout Regimen

Clemens is a huge man. Let me tell you something about the listings of player sizes on baseball cards, programs, or on the web. Most of them are lies. You can get an accurate listing of how tall someone is. The listed weight for a player is almost 100 percent nonsense. Clemens is listed as weighing between 205 and 225 pounds. This is laughable. He likely weighed 260 during some seasons. That's 260 very solid pounds. Was he using steroids? Maybe. You got people like Jose Canseco accusing him as well as some nobody who was a trainer and likely had a grudge. If Canseco didn't accuse you of doing steroids, you probably weren't even in Major League Baseball in the 1990s.

Clemens being huge in size isn't proof he did steroids. If you look at his pitching motion, it is perfection. He had a perfect delivery of the baseball. He was 6'4" and over 200 pounds as a rookie. Filling out is what men do as they get into their 30s, and Clemens was a highly-paid professional athlete driven to stay on top of his game. He was as fierce a competitor as there ever was. All the great pitchers have to be, it is what makes them great pitchers instead of former prospects. WhenNolan Ryanwas still playing, he reached out to Clemens and told him about the conditioning program he believed was partly responsible for his own long career. Clemens, already a very hard worker, incorporated Ryan's ideas into his own workout regimen.

Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling Both Belonged in the Baseball Hall of Fame

When comparing Clemens to one of his contemporaries, there is nobody more directly comparable than Curt Schilling. They are both about the same size, and they both pitched long careers. Both deserved to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Clemens and Schilling were very similar pitchers. Both were big right-handed flame throwers, power pitchers, and they had similar pitching styles. Both men were brought into baseball with the big fastballs. They also had the typical curve ball, slider, and maybe a change-up. Both learned the split finger pitch midway in their careers, and they went on to use it a hell of a lot of the time for a hell of a lot of success. Both men loved nothing more than to pitch deep into games, eat up innings for their teams, and strike out as many hitters as humanly possible.

While Rocket Roger would ultimately outperform Schilling in most categories, Schilling did accomplish something that Clemens never did. He was a member of the 300-strikeout club on numerous occasions. Clemens got really close during two different seasons with over 290 strikeouts, but he was never able to join that elusive club. However, Schilling never won a Cy Young award. Clemens won seven Cy Young awards, which is still an MLB record (Randy Johnson is the runner-up with five awards). They could seriously consider renaming the accolade the Roger Clemens award.

Roger Clemens testifies before the United States Congress.

Roger Clemens testifies before the United States Congress.

There Was Never Any Proof Roger Clemens Used Steroids

First of all, we need to dispense with the notion that Cy Young was the greatest pitcher of all time. The era in which Young played baseball is so far gone and removed from the current era that it may as well be a different sport.

Clemens is someone we can relate to now, but he played in a time when being muscled up on steroids was perfectly okay with everyone right up until it suddenly wasn't. No sane person can act mad or surprised by the use of performance-enhancing drugs during this period. Everyone knew what was going on. Blind old men knew Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were juiced, and even people who'd been dead for a while knew Jose Canseco was on steroids. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Everyone was fine with it. Then everyone acted like they were shocked to find out that steroids was prevalent in the league.

What was surprising was Clemens getting involved in the mess. Pitching hadn't been thought of as something that could be enhanced by steroids. But it was. Lots of pitchers have been caught juicing. These drugs help your muscles recover from stress quicker. You could think of it like getting an extra day of rest between starts. Steroids can help you recover from a high pitch count.

But there is and never was any evidence that Clemens did steroids. It is well known that Canseco isn't exactly a boy scout. His words and accusations were to sell his book. Clemens faced very serious charges of perjury. These charges were far more serious than the initial accusations of having used steroids. All the perjury charges were thrown out. So there is no evidence Clemens used drugs to enhance his performance. I find the whole affair dull. Nobody ever suspected or accused Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and a long list of other elite pitchers.

You have to ask yourself, why does Clemens elicit such outrage and so many accusations? The answer is simple. It's because he was so dominating over Major League batting lineups for so many years.

Roger Clemens loved baseball so much that when he retired, he had to find someone to pitch for. He just kept playing, giving youngsters a chance to bat against the greatest there ever was.

Roger Clemens loved baseball so much that when he retired, he had to find someone to pitch for. He just kept playing, giving youngsters a chance to bat against the greatest there ever was.

Was Roger Clemens the Greatest Pitcher Ever?

The thought has crossed my mind that Clemens was the best starting pitcher the Major Leagues has ever seen. This is mostly due to his performance during the steroid era. The notion is not mine alone. I'm not sure Clemens was the best there ever was, but there are some people who believe this is a certainty. Joe Posnanski wrote an article proclaiming Clemens as the best.

Posnanski is a big shot baseball writer. His article goes deep with the newfangled statistics that I'm slow to adopt. I prefer things I grew up with. Wins and loses, earned run average, strikeouts, shutouts, complete games—these are statistics I can more readily assess. The point of all the new statistics is to show that the older ones were inadequate. Nowadays the big one is wins above replacement. In today's game, it's Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout that would be the hardest to replace.

Sandy Koufax was only the dominant pitcher for a short time. He had about five years of being the best in the world. It was well known that the Dodgers cheated for Koufax; they had their home pitching mound higher than what was legal. Nobody cares about that. But five years of being the best doesn't put you in the same category as Clemens. What about Pedro Martinez? Well, he may have been slightly better than Clemens was in his prime. The problem is that Pedro's prime didn't last long enough to rate him with Clemens.

Nolan Ryan? No shot. Ryan is the strikeout king by a long shot. He will probably be the no-hitter king forever. Ryan was also the longevity king. What's the problem? Ryan is closer to being the all-time leader in games lost than he is to being the leader in games won.

Bob Feller could have had the numbers to compete with Clemens, but he had some damned important things to do during World War Two. He fought in it. So he lost four of his prime years to the war. Feller just can't be left out of these conversations. He only gets mentioned for having served the nation in its greatest need instead of serving his baseball statistical legacy. Hats off to Rapid Robert.

Randy Johnson? If there is anyone who could have been or was better than Clemens over the course of a career, it could only be Johnson. Both played long careers where they maintained consistency at a top level of competition. Johnson is forever second best to Nolan Ryan in power numbers. He is also second best to Clemens in Cy Young Awards. Clemens had won more games.

What about Greg Maddux? He won more games than Clemens. Maddux also had a lower winning percentage than Clemens; he actually lost a lot more games than Clemens. Baseball is a game of statistics. You can pore over statistics for days on end. You'll always arrive at the conclusion that Clemens dominated the game throughout his career. He may be the best logical answer as to who was the greatest pitcher in Major League Baseball history.

© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on May 02, 2017:

I understand. And I too think Roger probably did do some PEDs, the thing is there isn't any proof of it though - the whole case against him is testimony of exactly one person. There is no hard proof.

Here is the thing though, at this point Pudge Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell have been elected to the HOF. Both of those were users, and nobody even questions whether either of them used. So to my way of thinking, they've simply got to let them all in now. Just write it off as one of those phases Baseball went through. Use an asterick or whatnot.

Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on May 02, 2017:

Roger Clemens was a great pitcher but that cloud of performance enhancing drugs plagues him. Everything he did in Boston is amazing already but afterward is the question whether it was natural performance. I'm more tolerant of an athlete taking prescription to heal faster than taking drugs to try and get better.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on November 28, 2016:

I'm in agreement. But I do believe he took PEDs. However, it does not matter to me in terms of the Hall of Fame. Longevity matters at the MLB level. He passed that test. High quality seasons in three decades. He has my vote. Any of these arrogant writers (i.e. Bill Madden, etc.) need to get a life. Clelmens, Bonds, et. al. belong in Cooperstown.

If they want to hold the perjury against him, okay. I believe he did perjure himself. But to hold the PED thing against him is ridiculous. Henry Waxman's over the top act at those hearings was just embarrassing. He never "hurt" the game. Silly argument. Didn't Babe Ruth hurt the game by not taking care of himself during his career? Didn't Ty Cobb disgrace himself by beating a fan and being an overt racist?

Sharing everywhere. This situation needs to change. Good job.