Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Clemens is the best pitcher ever

I wanted to send out a warning that this post is quite long. If you like baseball, then I hope you find this interesting and informative. If you don't like baseball, then don't read this because you will be upset with me. It's long and it's about baseball. You have been warned!

Clemens is the best pitcher ever (in my humble opinion)

The best player of all-time in any sport is rare by definition alone. There can only be one Wayne Gretzky or one Michael Jordan. In some sports, like football, the greatest player could be one of a number of athletes. Being able to see the greatest player ever should be the sports fans equivalent to winning the lottery. How much would you pay to see Babe Ruth play a full season? How amazing would it be to have Gretzky in his prime currently in the NHL? Nolan Ryan isn’t even one of the 50 greatest baseball players ever but I’d probably shell out $500 out of my own pocket to get him back for another season in his prime. I’ve got good news for you though. The greatest pitcher in baseball history is in Major League Baseball right now. Contrary to most aging players, this player isn’t wasting away at the end of someone’s bench with a 5+ ERA. Rather, he had one of the lowest ERA’s in the majors since 1968 and beat every other pitcher in ERA by at least a full run. In case there was any doubt, I’m talking about “The Rocket” Roger Clemens.

Best pitchers of this ERA

We are living in an era dominated by veteran pitchers. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are just some of the active players over 35 that are sure-bet Hall of Famers. Before Roger Clemens can be considered the best pitcher of all time, he has to be the best pitcher of his era. Greg Maddux gives Clemens a run for his money in this category. Sports Illustrated even ran a cover story a few years back about Maddux being the pitcher in 50+ years. Maddux has 313 career wins. He’s led the league in ERA four times. He’s won four Cy Young awards and boasts a career winning percentage of .632. Maddux is even 13th on the all-time strikeout list despite not being a strike out pitcher. Maddux is among the best pitchers in baseball history by any measure. If we take Clemens out of the comparison, Maddux has clearly been the best pitcher in baseball over the last thirty years. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez can compete with Maddux in certain categories like strike outs, winning percentage, and ERA but neither can compete with Maddux on longevity. To put it more simply, would you rather have Maddux’s career numbers (3.00 ERA, 1.13 whip, 4,322 innings) over 20 seasons or Randy Johnson’s (3.11 ERA, 1.16 whip, 3,523 innings) over 17 seasons? Maddux has pitched close to 1,000 more innings than Randy Johnson and has better career averages. You can bring Pedro Martinez into the equation but Pedro has only pitched 2,446 innings. Maddux has close to double the amount of innings as Pedro. In 14 seasons, Pedro has started 33 or more games three times. Maddux has started 33 or more games 15 times. Do you want Pedro’s statistics (2.71 ERA, 1.02 whip, 2,446 innings) or Maddux over 4,322 innings? I didn’t see the Braves give Maddux the boot at age 33. If Pedro was so untouchable, I doubt Boston would’ve been so eager to let him go. Remember, Pedro has broken down in almost every season of his Major League career. Aside from Clemens, it is clear that Maddux has been the best pitcher of this era.

Clemens Vs. Maddux

Now we have a championship fight for “best pitcher of this era”. Clemens vs. Maddux. The Rocket vs. The Professor. The only active pitchers with 300 career wins. The problem with this championship match is that it ends up being more like Tyson-McNeeley rather than Hearns-Hagler. When you break down the numbers, it simple isn’t close. I was willing to give Maddux a chance so I compared him with Clemens in a number of categories.

Clemens 341
Maddux 318

Winning percentage:
Clemens .665
Maddux .627

Clemens 4,704.1
Maddux 4,406.1

Maddux 3.01
Clemens 3.12

Maddux 1.13
Clemens 1.17

Batting Average against:
Clemens .229
Maddux .246

Clemens 172
Maddux 189

Strike outs:
Clemens 4502
Maddux 3052

ERA titles:
Clemens 7
Maddux 4

Cy Young awards:
Clemens: 7
Maddux: 4

20-win seasons:
Clemens 6
Maddux 2

Those are eleven categories representing the most notable pitching statistics. Clemens has a 9-2 advantage (Clemens would beat Randy Johnson 8-2-1 in this comparison). Maddux has a better ERA but Clemens played almost his entire career in the AL which has the designated hitter. There’s no question that facing a DH will cause a higher ERA than facing a pitcher in the 9th spot. I don’t know how big of a difference this makes but I think it’s reasonable to think that it could equate to .11 (the difference between Maddux and Clemens) earned runs per nine innings. That means that a DH would only have to add one run every 81 innings to offset the advantage by Maddux in ERA. It’s more than probable that a DH would add at least that much over a pitcher.

A MLB pitcher is judged ultimately by two things 1) wins and 2) winning percentage. All the other numbers are nice but a pitcher is paid to win and not lose. Clemens has Maddux beat by a good margin in both of these categories. It is clear from looking at the statistics that Clemens has clearly been the best pitcher in baseball over the last 20 years.

However, just to drive home the point, I’ll give you one more comparison. In 2000, notable Baseball Historian, Bill James compared Clemens to Maddux and concluded that Clemens was better than Maddux. He said, “I’m not suggesting it is cut and dried or that Maddux is not a worthy candidate. But in my opinion, Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher of this generation.”

Let’s give Maddux the benefit of the doubt and assume that when James made this comment in 2000, Clemens and Maddux were tied. Since 2000, this is how the two pitchers have fared:


Clemens 95
Maddux 97

Winning percentage:

Clemens .728
Maddux .621

Clemens 3.39
Maddux 3.48

Cy Young awards:
Clemens 2
Maddux 0

Clemens and Maddux have virtually the same amount of wins but Clemens has been a better pitcher. He has a significantly better winning percentage. He has a better ERA and has won two Cy Young awards. If Clemens and Maddux were tied in 2000, the last five years would clearly give Clemens the edge. However, they were not tied in 2000. Clemens was still the better pitcher five years ago.

Steadily improving quality of play

Bill James thinks that the quality of baseball has steadily improved over time. For me, this is more about common sense than analysis. Things improve with time. The quality of car production has improved steadily over time. The quality of technology has improved steadily over time. The only exception might be gum. Anyhow, I’ll list the indicators in which James uses to prove his belief and a short excerpt from his book on the topic:

1). Hitting by Pitchers
2). The average distance of the players, in age, from 27
3). The percentage of players who are less than six feet tall or more than 6’3”
4). Fielding percentage and Passed balls
5). Double Plays
6). Usage of pitchers at other positions
7). The percentage of fielding plays made by pitchers
8). The percentage of games which are blowouts
9). The average attendance and seating capacity of the games location
10). The condition of the field
11). The use of players in specialized roles
12). The average distance of teams from .500
13). The percentage of games which go nine innings.
14). The standard deviation of offensive effectiveness
15). The standard of record-keeping
16). The percentage of managers who have 20 years or more experience in the game.

“Anyway, my point is that if you track major league baseball from 1876 to the present, all of these indicia, without exception, have advanced steadily. As late as the 1920’s, there were still major league managers who had little experience with the game. I know that many people passionately disagree with me when I argue that the quality of play in the majors has continued to increase, but even since 1950, all or virtually all these indicators would suggest that the quality of major league plays has improved steadily:

The best-hitting pitchers of the 21st century don’t hit anything like what bob Lemon hit, or Spahn, or Newcombe, or the other good-hitting pitchers of that era.

Success in the majors by very young players has become significantly less common (although success by old players has probably become more common).

In 1950 major league pitchers averaged about 240 assists per team; in 2001, in a longer season, the average will be less than 200.

In 1950 there were about 1.2 double plays for each error. In 2001 the ratio will be at least 1.3 to one.

Player-managers, who were the youngest and least experienced managers, have become extinct.

The stadiums and crowds are bigger, the statistics are better, the grounds keeping standards are far higher. The teams are closer to .500. I haven’t studied it, bit I would be there are fewer blowouts, fewer lop-sided games.”

I buy James’ argument but there are more obvious advancements that would indicate the quality of play has improved. Here are just a few of that I’ve been able to come up with:

1). Weight and flexibility training
2). Better instruction
3). Technology
4). The ability to use history as a learning tool
5). Taller pitchers
6). Nutrition
7). Better understanding of body mechanics and pitching motion
8). Better understanding of off speed pitches
9). Talent pool

The best of all time candidates

When I was 15 years old, I was convinced that the three best pitchers ever were Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Cy Young. I have since come to learn a little more about Lefty Grove and Pete Alexander (Grover Cleveland Alexander) so they’ll be grouped in with the other three. These five pitchers have phenomenal career statistics and are almost universally listed in the top ten pitchers in baseball history. I certainly don’t question their dominance over other pitchers from their generation but I do want to explore the notion that the best pitchers of all time all played in the same era.

In, 2002 Bill James lists his top five pitchers of all time as follows:

1). Walter Johnson
2). Lefty Grove
3). Pete Alexander
4). Cy Young
5). Warren Spahn

Is it reasonable to believe that the five best pitchers in baseball history all started their career before 1943? Is it also reasonable to believe that the top four pitchers of all time started their careers before 1926? It is possible I suppose. However, I have to believe that the last 62 years would produce at least one of the top five pitchers of all time. I think that this goes a long way in showing that pitchers from the dead ball era are vastly overrated in terms of their place in history. I won’t deny that these men were great pitchers. They dominate the record books. However, if three of these pitchers were pitching at the same time, I think that lends some credence to the argument that the atmosphere of baseball was much different. One of the factors that can help determine the best pitcher ever is the pitcher’s performance relevant to his peers. Clemens is far and away the best pitcher of his era. On the other hand, Walter Johnson has four other pitchers from his era alone listed #2, #3, #4, and #7 on James’ list.

Additionally, the ratio of the American population to the MLB population is significantly higher than it was in 1900. The path to the majors was much easier. I have many books detailing the atmosphere of baseball at the beginning of the 20th century. Players would just show up from a local league at a try-out and make the team. Let’s look at it this way. Which person will win more money, someone who buys a lottery ticket in a pool of 1,000 or a person that buys a ticket that has 1,000,000 players? This is why the winner of the Powerball lottery makes so much more money than the winner of a state lottery and a state lottery winner makes more money than former Michigan booster Bill Martin’s GM lottery. The greater the pool, the greater the reward will be. The very best pitcher in a pool from 2005, should be better than the very best pitcher from a pool in 1905. This would be true if we’re talking about the same population group. However, the acceptance of African-Americans and the emergence of Latin players make this population much more talented.

When I say Roger Clemens is the best pitcher ever, I mean that his career was the best career ever. So when I say that I think that the quality of play in the majors is better now than in 1900, I don’t mean to say that every player in 2005 had a better career than every player in 1905. It’s all relative. Cleary, I think Walter Johnson was better than Kevin Brown and Tom Glavine. I also think he was better than Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. I don’t really know how I feel beyond that but I just want to make clear that I’m not saying all players from 2005 are better than all players from 1905. However, I do think it’s acceptable and necessary to give a player like Clemens more credit since he has done his work against much better competition. Another factor is a comparison to his peers. Bill James thinks that Walter Johnson is the best pitcher in MLB history. However, he also says that three of the top four (and four of the top seven) pitchers ever were playing in 1911. What are the odds of that? Could that be a result of the playing conditions rather than the pitching ability?

African-American ballplayers were not allowed to play in the major leagues until 1947. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Pete Alexander, Cy Young, and Christy Mathewson never had to face an African-American in a major league game. Bill James lists 12 Negro League players in his top 100 Greatest Players of All Time. “The Big Train” Walter Johnson never had to face Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston. Charleston is considered by many to be the greatest baseball player ever. For anyone who remains unconvinced that the Negro Leagues had major league quality players; within the first seven years that MLB allowed African-Americans to play, the Negro Leagues produced Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks. If five of the greatest players in baseball history came out of the Negro Leagues in seven years, how many do you think there were in the previous forty years? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that James’ top pitchers in MLB history came from a time when they didn’t have to face the best competition. Can you imagine if Latin American players weren’t allowed in MLB today? There would be no Alex Rodgriguez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Delgado, Bobby Abreu, and Sammy Sosa just to name a few. Do you think the pitching numbers would be a little better if these guys weren’t in the league? I bet the league ERA would drop a whole run if Latin players were banned from baseball. Clemens is pitching against the best from all backgrounds. The degree of difficulty that Clemens is facing dwarfs what Walter Johnson faced.

The rules of baseball have also favored pitchers from the early 1900’s. There are three factors that I can think of that have distorted the dominance of pitching in the early part of the 20th century. First, baseballs were used as long as they could be seen. The dirtier the ball got, the harder it became to hit. Foreign substances like dirt and sweat affect the trajectory of the ball. In MLB today, they pretty much use a different ball for every batter and sometimes more often than that. Second, pitchers were allowed to scuff the ball. At first pitchers were content with making smaller scuffs but then it evolved into tearing up half the ball. This made for a lethal pitch. Third, the equipment that players use in MLB today virtually eliminates the inside corner of the plate. Pitchers used to own the inside corner which prevented hitters from crowding the plate and subsequently hammering any outside pitch. Now, players are begging to be hit. It won’t hurt because of the ridiculous padding they wear, and they get a free base out of it. Also, the odds of the batter charging the mound after being hit makes it a less than desirable option for a pitcher to run one inside. All of these factors would make it significantly more difficult to pitch in the present day than in the early 1900’s. In fact, I can’t think of a single factor that would make it more difficult to pitch back then.

Even though I think I’ve done a decent job of showing that an elite pitcher in 2005 is probably better than the elite pitcher of 1905, there is still the question of career statistics. No matter how convincing the argument is that baseball is just simply harder today than it was in the early 1900’s, some people will insist on looking at the stats. The examples that are the most maddening are arguments that say something to the effect that Walter Johnson won 20+ games in ten straight seasons so he must be better than Roger Clemens. Johnson also lost 10+ games in 16 seasons. Pitchers from that era often started 40+ games per year. You cannot compare wins and ERA from one era to wins and ERA to another era on their face value alone. You have to do it relative to the league. Other arguments that I’ve actually witnessed are “that the Cy Young award is not named the Roger Clemens award so Cy Young must be better” and “that people overrate people from their generation so Clemens is just the benefactor of that”. If anything, Clemens is underrated. First, it’s clear by looking at any list of top baseball pitchers that players from the 1900’s are the ones that have been vastly overrated. Players from this era have been significantly underrated. Second, for one reason or another, Clemens is not well liked by baseball fans. The last argument that I want to address before I move into the statistical comparison is the one that says, “pitchers today are punks who only have to pitch five innings while pitchers from the 1900’s were tough because they pitched complete games”. I can’t stand that argument. That has to be my least favorite of all pitching arguments. The truth is that if Walter Johnson pitched in this era, his innings would be limited too. Contrastingly, if Clemens pitched back then, he would have more complete games and innings. The difference in complete games and total innings pitched is a result of a philosophical change in managing rather than a sudden influx of cowardly pitchers. Pitchers rarely, if ever, want to be taken out of the game. Also, if the people that made this argument took the time to research these things, they would realize that this argument doesn’t apply to Clemens anyway. Clemens is one of the most durable and dependable starters in baseball. He averages over seven innings pitched for his career.

I think most of the fine readers of my blog are smarter than that so I expect that statistics, the era in which the pitcher pitched, and degree of difficulty will be weighted appropriately. However, if Walter Johnson’s career stats are drastically better than Clemens’, then he may in fact be the best pitcher of All-Time despite playing in a comparatively easier era. Walter Johnson pitched in the dead ball era. Roger Clemens pitched during the steroid era. It’s very difficult to compare their statistics since each player played in a significantly different era. Walter Johnson has a career ERA of 2.17. Clemens’ is 3.11. Johnson has 417 career wins. Clemens has 341. On paper, it looks like Johnson is far and away the better pitcher. The problem is that ERA and wins from 1907 are not the same as ERA and wins from 2005. For instance, in 1909, Walter Johnson went 13-25 with a 2.22 ERA. He had 25 losses in one season while allowing only 2.22 runs per nine innings. In 1916, Johnson lost 20 games with a 1.90 ERA. Can you imagine a pitcher in 2005 losing that many games with a 1.90 ERA? Throughout Johnson’s career, the league ERA was 3.17. Throughout Clemens’ career, the league ERA is 4.47. If we wanted to compare ERA’s, we’d have to use ERA compared to the league average. Johnson was 1.00 runs under the league average. Clemens is around 1.35 under the league average. Clemens has won seven ERA titles and Johnson won five. To recap, Clemens saves more runs under the league average but Johnson saves a slightly higher percentage off the league average. Clemens led the league in ERA seven times to Johnson’s five. Comparing ERA’s doesn’t really do anything to help separate the pitchers.

As for wins, Johnson has 79 more career wins than Clemens. Clemens has played 22 seasons. Johnson played for 21 seasons. Johnson has appeared in 802 games while Clemens has appeared in 640. In one less season, Johnson has appeared in 162 more games. We certainly can’t hold it against Clemens that the average pitcher in 1907 pitched more often that the average pitcher in 2005. The fact of the matter is that if Walter Johnson pitched in this era, his innings would be considerably lower and conversely, if Clemens pitched in the early 1900’s, his innings would be markedly higher. In fact, if we compare these two pitchers in wins with relation to their peers, Clemens wins in a landslide.

Of the pitchers from Johnson’s era, here is how Johnson compares in wins:

Cy Young 511
Walter Johnson 417
Pete Alexander 373
Christy Mathewson 373
Pud Galvin 364
Kid Nichols 361
Tim Keefe 342
Eddie Plank 326

Out of the pitchers that have pitched the majority of their career through the home run or steroid era, here is how Clemens ranks:

Clemens 341
Maddux 318
Glavine 275
Randy Johnson 263
David Wells 227

In comparison to his peers, it is clear that Clemens was much better at winning than Johnson was.

The one statistic that probably transcends generations is winning percentage. A pitcher can’t help how many starts per year the average pitcher makes in his era. A pitcher can’t help the playing conditions that influence the league ERA average. However, a pitcher can help how many times he wins compared to the amount of times he loses. I understand that run support plays a factor but a pitcher’s job is to win and not lose. Clemens winning percentage is .667. Johnson’s is .599. I won’t claim that Clemens is the better pitcher simply because his winning percentage is higher. It’s been noted through history that Johnson received an unreasonably low amount of run support so it’s impossible to say what his record could’ve been if things were different. Also, Johnson had seven seasons in which he finished at or below .500 in winning percentage. Clemens has two. Nonetheless, Clemens has a significantly better winning percentage.

I feel good about Clemens being better than or at least equal to Johnson based on their career values. Clemens was more efficient with wins and losses. Clemens was better than Johnson in wins compared to his contemporaries. Clemens won more ERA titles. Clemens has seven Cy Young awards (and was the best pitcher in MLB this season) which is by far the most in MLB history. The Cy Young award did not exist in Johnsons’ time so we don’t know how many Johnson would’ve had but to suggest that Johnson would’ve won more than seven Cy Young awards is probably a little much.

I mentioned above that if Johnson’s career numbers were drastically better than Clemens, then he would have every right to be named as the greatest pitcher of All-Time despite Clemens playing in a more difficult era. Since I think that Clemens is either better than, or at the very least, equal to Johnson based on their career values, then the fact that I think baseball has steadily improved over time and that pitchers have steadily improved over time would crown Clemens the better pitcher. The fact that Johnson never faced African-American ball players is icing on the cake. It’s not Johnson’s fault that African-American’s were not allowed in MLB when he pitched but if two pitchers have similar arguments to being the best ever, and one of them played against the best of the best and the other didn’t, I think it’s more than fair to give the advantage to the guy who did it against the best.

Baseball historians have been very kind in rating ball players from the early 1900’s. They can do this, in part, because it’s very difficult to disprove that someone who played 80 years ago wasn’t as good as their statistics indicate. On the flip side, it’s quite easy to look at career numbers and conclude that someone was the best. Walter Johnson’s numbers are ludicrous. However, I think that Bill James actually makes the argument for why Johnson should not be regarded as the best pitcher ever even though he has him ranked #1. James writes, “(Cy) Young began his career in 1890 under conditions so favorable to pitchers that we simply have to discount them somewhat, unless we want to conclude that all of the greatest pitchers in baseball history pitched before 1893.”

In theory, this statement makes sense. However, James pretty much violates his own rule by concluding himself that all of the greatest pitchers in baseball history pitched before 1943. Of his top seven pitchers, six of them began their careers before 1943. Of his top four pitchers, all of them began their careers before 1926. It seems to me that baseball conditions in the 1920’s were so favorable to the pitchers that many pitchers from that era are rated among the best ever. He makes an adjustment for Cy Young’s numbers but he doesn’t make the adjustment for Walter Johnson’s. I fully understand that Cy Young pitched under conditions even more favorable than Johnson’s, however, with so many pitchers from the early 1900’s infiltrating the top 10 of all time, it’s obvious that something was going on in that era that favored pitching. I don’t believe that this precludes Johnson from being number one. He couldn’t help the conditions that he played under. However, Bill James rates Johnson #1 in large part because he pitched so many innings and he contributed with the bat.

Anybody who follows baseball knows that innings pitched in 1920 are totally different than innings pitched in 2005. Johnson pitched 5,914 innings. He averaged over 25 complete games per year. Is it reasonable to think that Johnson could average over 25 complete games per year today? Last year, Mark Mulder led the American League with five complete games. As far as hitting goes, a). Clemens can’t help that he played the majority of his career in the American League where pitchers don’t hit. If the argument is that Johnson helped his team more because he also hit, then I would have to disagree. Johnson’s career batting average was .235. Any DH that’s worth anything will hit better than .235. Johnson was better than the average pitcher at hitting but I don’t believe you can count that as a positive over Clemens. Clemens didn’t have to hit. Nobody knows how he would’ve hit so that’s a moot point. That’s if you buy into the fact that pitchers have the same hitting abilities now as they did in 1920. The reality of the situation is that pitchers were much better hitters in 1920 than they are today. Or, I should say, pitchers weren’t quite as good then as they are now so pitchers were able to produce more at the plate. James states that one of the factors that proves that the quality of baseball has improved over time is that “hitting by pitchers” has steadily declined. If “hitting by pitchers” has steadily declined over the years, then that indicates that hitting has become more difficult. The only way that hitting can become more difficult is if the pitching gets better. So, not only should Johnson’s respectable career batting average not be considered an advantage over Clemens, it also shows that Johnson pitched in a time where pitching was worse than it is now.

It might be a bit of a stretch to argue that the best pitcher of the best era is better than the best pitcher of a different era. This would be like saying that the best player on the Pistons is better than the best player on the T-wolves because the Pistons were a better team. As a Piston fan, I have no problem admitting that Kevin Garnett is better than any player on the Pistons. However, it’s entirely possible that the comparison would be more like the best player on the Pistons is better than the best player on North Carolina. The NBA is a much better league than college. It really depends on how much better you think MLB baseball is today than MLB from the 1920’s. If you think it’s as similar as two NBA teams, then you might think that Johnson is the greatest pitcher ever. If you think that it’s more like a pro vs. college team, then you probably think that Clemens is better. James listed 16 factors that show that baseball has steadily inclined over the last century. This means that 1930 was slightly better than 1920 and 1940 was slightly better than 1930. Since there have been ten decades since 1910, you could assign a value to each decade. 1910=1 1920=2 1930=3 etc. If you’d rather use half numbers or something smaller to indicate a smaller difference between decades, then go for it. I’m just trying to illustrate how big of a difference there is between the two eras. The value assigned to each decade would indicate the level of difficulty. 2000 would be assigned the number 10. Johnson pitched from 1907-1927. That means he pitched under 1, 2, and 3 levels of difficult. Clemens pitched under 8, 9, and 10 levels of difficulty. I personally think that the difference in difficulty is big enough that the difference between the two eras is more like pro vs. college than pro vs. pro.

I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to use this to eliminate Johnson or another other pitcher from that era as a candidate. I’m using this to discount the amount of effect that two of Johnson’s most notable achievements should have; innings pitched and his success with the bat. Both of those elements were significantly easier to master in his era.

Clemens vs. anyone else

There are three other players that could be included in the talk of best pitcher ever. Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Sandy Koufax all have statistics that could be manipulated as being the most dominant in baseball history. Koufax may have had the best four year run in MLB history but his career was short and I don’t think there are too many people that would argue that four years of greatness is sufficient to be regarded as the best pitcher ever. That leaves Gibson and Seaver.

I’ll address Gibson first since I think he probably has a weaker case than Seaver. Gibson pitched from 1959-1975. His career numbers are very impressive. But, it’s important to note a few things before I get into comparing his numbers to Clemens. Bill James says in his Historical Baseball Abstract that “From 1931 to the mid 1970’s, long-range trends against the hitters were in motion, resulting in constant increases in the number of strikeouts and steady declines in batting averages.” He goes on to say that, “In addition to this, until 1969 no one was regularly checking the height or the slope of the pitcher’s mound….When the Dodgers had Koufax and Drysdale, they built their mound up, and shaved a full run off of Koufax’s and Drysdale’s ERA. Their ERA’s on the road were more than one full run high every year except 1963).” Since Gibson pitched in an era when pitchers dominated the game, I would expect his numbers compared to the league average to be inferior to Clemens. I would expect this to show up in his ERA compared to the league average and his winning percentage. As it turns out, Gibson’s ERA was 21% better than the league average which is very good. His career winning percentage wasn’t quite as impressive at 59%. Clemens’ ERA was 24% better and his winning percentage was 67% better. He has close to 100 more career wins and has lasted five years longer. Gibson is most remembered for his unfathomable performance in 1968 when the Cardinals reached the World Series. I really don’t have any argument that this was the best single pitching season of all time. Gibson’s ERA was 1.12. It was 61% better than the league average! He had 13 shutouts which is seven more than his second best season. Gibson was a phenomenal pitcher. He’s probably one of the top 15 pitchers ever but his resume doesn’t stand up to Clemens.

Tom Seaver is actually the best challenger (along with Walter Johnson) to Clemens in being considered the best pitcher ever. Bill James says, “There is actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time. Of the five pitchers rated ahead of him, four pitched before World War II, the other just after World War II. Three of those four had their best years before World War I, at a time when big pitchers dominated the game much more than they do now. Where Seaver rates relative to those pitchers, then, depends, to a large extent on how steep one believes the incline of history to be. Since no one can say with any confidence how much tougher the game has become, it is certainly reasonable to argue that accomplishments of early pitchers should have been marked off by more than I have discounted them, and thus that Seaver’s record, in context, is more impressive than Walter’s.”

I actually buy James’ argument that Seaver has a legitimate argument as being regarded as a better pitcher than Walter Johnson. James goes on to say, “Seaver pitched for eight losing teams, several of them really terrible, and four other teams which had losing records except when Seaver was on the mound. As the Win Shares system sees it, Seaver was dragging his teammates to victory to a larger extent than any of his contemporary stars. “

It’s certainly not Seaver’s fault that he played for such lousy teams. It’s common knowledge that a league MVP winner will come from a winning team. That’s just the way things are in baseball. However, I don’t think the best pitcher of all time necessarily has to win championships and pitch for a winning team his entire career. If Seaver is the best pitcher ever, he deserves to be recognized as such. His numbers will give us a better idea of what his case actually is. His career winning percentage is .603 which is fairly low compared to the other great pitchers in baseball history. However, when you take into consideration the caliber of teams that Seaver pitched for, it is probably as impressive, if not more, as Clemens and Johnson. Seaver’s teams had a combined .484 winning percentage. His winning percentage compared to his team’s winning percentage is the difference between the Red Sox and Tigers this year in the standings.

Since Clemens has generally played for teams that were good regardless of whether he was pitching or not, his winning percentage compared to his team’s winning percentage is likely not anywhere close to that of Seaver’s. However, we really can’t hold that against Clemens. It merely gives Seaver an excuse for having such a lower winning percentage compared to Clemens.

The next statistic is ERA compared to the league average. The fact that Seaver played for terrible teams shouldn’t impact the ERA. Seaver’s ERA is an impressive 21% better than the league average which is the same as Bob Gibson. Clemens is 29% better. The fact that Clemens has Seaver beat on wins doesn’t say too much since we know that Seaver played for terrible teams. Clemens has won seven Cy Young awards. Seaver won three. Bill James calculates who the best pitcher in baseball (both leagues combined) is every season dating back to the 1800’s regardless of who won the Cy Young. James has Clemens as the best pitcher in baseball five times through 1999 (I don’t have his listings past 1999). Clemens has won two Cy Youngs since and he was clearly the best pitcher in baseball this past season so it could be that Clemens has been the best pitcher in baseball eight times according to James. James has Seaver as the best pitcher in baseball one time. Despite Seaver’s impressive winning percentage while playing for crappy teams, it seems as though Clemens has Seaver beat in statistical comparison.

However, even if what I’ve said doesn’t do anything to differentiate the pitchers, Seaver cannot touch Clemens on longevity. From 1967 to 1980, Seaver was dominating. However, the last six seasons of Seaver’s career were marginal at best. He had a twenty year career but was an elite pitcher in only 70% of those years. Clemens, on the other hand, has pitched 22 seasons and he’s been an elite pitcher 100% of those years. To me, this is the knockout punch. I believe Clemens has Seaver on statistics but he clearly has him beaten in longevity.

Icing on the cake

Roger Clemens has had a phenomenal career that can stand against any pitcher in baseball history. He’s 43 years old and could retire having accomplished everything there is to accomplish. However, up until the last part of the 2005 season Clemens was having the greatest season in baseball history. For the first 65% of the 2005 season, his ERA to the league was better than Maddux in ’94 and Gibson in ’68 or any of Koufax’s brilliant seasons. Clemens was 11-4 with a 1.32 ERA. His Whip was .93 and his batting average against was .186. His home park is a hitters park yet his home ERA was 2.08. His road ERA was .37!!!!! With a career as long and successful as Clemens there isn’t much he could do to change his place in history short of having one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher ever. Well, he basically did that. He already has arguably the best career resume of any pitcher ever and now he’s adding to it one of the single best single season in baseball history. Clemens is providing the exclamation point to his argument as greatest ever.

Adult reality vs. childhood fantasy

When I was a sophomore in college, I spent much of my summer compiling a list of the greatest baseball players ever. My goal was to create the All-Time baseball team. I settled on a pitching staff of:

Walter Johnson
Christy Mathewson
Cy Young
Warren Spahn
Lefty Grove
Steve Carlton
Nolan Ryan
Eddie Plank

The truth of the matter is that my mind was pretty much made up before I even looked at the stats. Throughout my childhood I heard how great and dominating Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson were. Cy Young has the most wins in MLB history and has an award named after him. Just look at their names. Christy, Cy, Lefty and Walter. I tried to be unbiased. It’s hard to argue against any of these players by simply looking at their stats. I’m a little older now and I realize that stats from 80-100 years ago can’t be taken at face value. I think as we get older, we develop perspective. We learn to focus on the important things and analyze based on facts rather than hopes. My list would look much different today, and, my college self would really have no chance of defending itself because that list was heavy on hopes and fantasy, and light on perspective.

The reality is that Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, and Grover Alexander would be on the first team. Christy Mathewson, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, and Eddie Plank would be shipped off to the second team. Randy Johnson is very close to making the top ten and Pedro is just a few seasons away. I didn’t make a list of the ten best pitchers ever back then but it would’ve gone something like this:

Walter Johnson
Christy Mathewson
Cy Young
Warren Spahn
Lefty Grove
Nolan Ryan
Bob Gibson
Tom Seaver
Greg Maddux
Pete Alexander

Today my list would be vastly different. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time separating these pitchers so I’m not 100% concrete but off the top of my head it would go:

Roger Clemens
Walter Johnson
Lefty Grove
Tom Seaver
Pete Alexander
Warren Spahn
Greg Maddux
Cy Young
Chrsity Mathewson
Bob Gibson

There is such an emotional connection to baseball history. There are more baseball legends than in all other sports combined. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker are just some of the players that have been immortalized as baseball icons. They are a link to a time where things were simple. People want to like those players. The same way in which everyone insists that there will never be anything greater than their childhood, people will forever insist that no body will ever be better than a player from years ago. It’s a stubborn trait that all people possess. I just experienced it five minutes ago when I put together that top ten pitchers list. I cringed at putting Roger Clemens ahead of Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson and I almost had a heart attack when I put Greg Maddux ahead of Cy Young. I really don’t expect people to ever consistently rate Roger Clemens as the best ever. I think that would be asking too much from people that value the past above all else. However, it is my belief that if sentiment and childhood fantasy are stripped away, then Roger Clemens has to be rated as the top pitcher ever.

Don’t take him for granted

I want to make it clear that nobody will ever know who the best pitcher in baseball history is. It’s a subjective argument. Everybody has a right to form their own opinion. Some arguments might be more persuasive than others but the fact remains that this is purely speculation. Roger Clemens was the best pitcher in baseball this season at 43 years old. His ERA was an unthinkable 1.89. He finished with a winning record despite pitching in eight games where the Astros scored zero runs! He’s one of the primary reasons why the Astros made the playoffs after a miserable start. He’s won 7 Cy Young awards. Nobody in the history of baseball can say that they had the best season of their career and were the best pitcher in the league at 43 years old. In 2000, Bill James said of Clemens, “like Seaver, there is actually a good argument that he is the greatest pitcher who ever lived.” That was five years ago. That was two Cy Young awards and 95 wins ago. I hope Clemens doesn’t retire after the season because he can do some things statistically that were previously unimaginable. He has an outside chance of becoming the all-time strikeout leader. He has an outside chance at 400 career wins. I fear that he’s not too concerned with reaching those numbers and that his last season may be this one or next.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s very rare to witness the greatest player in the history of a sport. Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky were probably the two greatest players in their sport. They’ve retired and the odds are that no player in either hockey or basketball will be better than those two for a long, long time. I’m peeved at how much Clemens is being overlooked. I won’t go as far as saying that Clemens doesn’t get any press but nobody is giving him the press he deserves. I think he’s being taken for granted. Houston started off terrible which put Clemens on the backburner. However, he’s single-handily kept them afloat and now has them in position to go deep into the post-season. ESPN should have been airing every Clemens start and they should continue doing that until his career ends. Clemens is an icon and is truly one of a kind. I hope this encourages people to watch Clemens a little more while they have the time. I would pay a handsome ransom to see Nolan Ryan pitch again and Clemens is twice the pitcher Nolan Ryan ever was.


Matt S said...

I have a hard time believing Clemens' hasn't been juiced up the last few years. Just look at the size of him. That ain't from throwin' hay bales around.

Anonymous said...

Everything you said makes sense. I would like to think Clemens is the best ever because we get to watch him. But, his longevity with sustained performance does seem slightly fishy. Also, the amount of innings pitched back in the day gives those pitchers an enormous disadvantage for longevity. Clemens probably has never had issues of pitching on a burned out arm. I also agree that MLB's quality has definitely improved, however, I don't see how that affects the argument. Progress is progress, it's equal throughout. Johnson pitching now would have more abilities (cutter, split finger, pitching coaches, better trainers and nutrition) and Clemens, in the early 1900's, would have a straighter fastball, a less breaking curveball, a simple change up, train food, and a crappy place to sleep. That's like saying today's best soldier is better than the Middle Ages best knight because today's soldier has a gun. However, by comparing Clemens to his era and Johnson to his, I think you made it quite clear that Clemens was the better pitcher. That is, in my opinion, the only way an argument about players from different eras can be settled.

Anonymous said...


Judge Smailes said...

I agree with the other posters - Clemens is a likely juicer. He's way bigger than he was 20 years ago and he throws almost as hard as he did as a rookie. It's really a shame because he was one of my favorite players from his 1986 season through the late 90s (until he started throwing at Mike Piazza's head).

I am of the opinion that Randy Johnson in his prime was better than Clemens or Maddux. Johnson was so dominant from the mid-90s through about 2003. The thing about Johnson is that he kind of got a late start on greatness because he was so wild during his first few years in teh majors.

Phil O said...

You make some good points but omit a very important factor, which is why Bill James uses two different lists for each position - one for greatest over the span of an entire career and one for who was the greatest at some point in their career, i.e., some bloc of time during which they were at their very best and that's what they're judged on. That's why players like Mantle and Koufax are lower down on the career list but so high on the best output list. Bottom line, all the marbles on the table, one game, I'll take Koufax (or Gibson or Clemens).

Phil O

Anonymous said...

If Seaver had a strength trainer, a flexibity trainer, a conditioning trainer, modern medecine, state of the art training facilities, cutting edge supplements, and virtual reality video equipment where he can see his mistakes literally in between innings, he'd be the best ever too. Not to mention the old steroids.

Terry said...

Now that it has been largely confirmed that Clemens has been taking 'roids, he should be removed from consideration. He may be great, but he cheated. And Am League pitchers don't bat, which protects them from injury both on the basepaths and due to retaliation. Lots of folks would have been gunning for that fat head.

When SI did their comparison (Aug 14, 1995) they looked at a 10-year stretch and concluded that Maddux was the best ever. He has only added to that. If he pitches just two more years with his current level of performance Maddux stands to become the career modern era leader in wins, and near the top in every other category. IMHO, the best ever. Go to a game soon, so you can tell your grandchildren.

For a shorter time span - say 5 years - I would suggest that Sandy Koufax was the best ever. And for one game, give me Bob - either Feller or Gibson.

Anonymous said...

All of your arguments make sense; Clemens is certainly the greatest pitcher ever. I completely agree with your argument that the quality of baseball players has increased over time. I have argued with several people about this; it's nice to know I'm not alone.

I have a few comments about your argument, though. There is a significance between left-handed pitchers and right-handed pitchers. As you know, right handed hitters hit much better against left-handed pitchers, and since the majority of major league players are right-handed, left-handed pitchers are at a disadvantage. Randy Johnson, for instance (who I consider to be the greatest lefty to ever pitch) faced approximately 9 right-handed batters for ever 1 left-handed batter, and the right-handers he faced, were, on average, better hitters (because managers adjust their line-up according to the pitcher's handedness, and if a right-handed hitter would do better than an alternative left-hander, they would leave him in). If you read this, consider it. (And I don't think this makes him better than Roger Clemens by any means.) Right-handed pitchers, according to my theory, have a significant advantage. (I'm not going to get into the percentage of left-handed batters right-handed pitchers faced, but it verifies my claim.)

I also disagree with your placement of Nolan Ryan in your "second team". Looking at his winning percentage relative to his team and his ERA compared to the league average, the reasoning becomes obvious. I know that your argument is for Roger Clemens, but I just thought I would comment on that.

I also argue that Randy Johnson is better than Greg Maddux. Johnson spent half of his career in the American League facing designated hitters, while Maddux spent his career in the National League. Johnson's ERA compared to the league average beats Maddux, and his winning percentage relative to his team's beats his as well. Of course, Maddux did pitch far more innings, but it is still only about 4000 compared to 5000. This is the only statistic that makes me unsure.

As you can tell, my favorite player is Randy Johnson. I just finished my freshman year of college, so I'm still young and biased, just as you were at about the same age.

Jake said...

Actually, I don’t think we disagree on anything. My rankings near the end of this post were totally off the top of my head. Don’t pay any attention to them. I created a top 100 list of all-time MLBers shortly after this list in which I gathered every piece of information I could get my hands on. Here it is:

I have Randy Johnson just ahead of Maddux and I have Nolan Ryan the 24th best starting pitcher of all-time. Clearly that would not put him on the “second team” but rather the third or fourth. Take care!


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