More than any other player of the Steroid Era, the case of Roger Clemens and the Hall of Fame is probably the most interesting. He was obviously one of the best pitchers of his generation – if not the best – BEFORE it seems he started to tinker with PEDs. Based on the record and the testimony of people involved, Clemens started taking something illegal in Toronto. Though it wasn’t at the time in violation of MLB’s drug policy. It appears that when the Red Sox decided not to pursue Clemens as a free agent after the ’96 season, Roger – at the age of 34 – decided he needed a little help. He was coming off four inconsistent, injury-marred, and sub-par (by his standards) seasons with the Sox. He was ticked off at being “disrespected” by the Red Sox front office. He heard the whispers that he was finished, that he would never put together All-Star and Cy Young quality seasons again. He responded with back-to-back Cy Young seasons for the Blue Jays, setting a career-high in K’s in his first season.
Then he signed with the Yankees, almost as a way to stick it to the Red Sox and their fans, and went on to win another Cy Young Award, that one at the age of 38. He won that elusive World Series ring (twice) as a Yankee, then won a Cy Young for the Astros when he was 41 years old. At 42 he led the National League in ERA and posted the second-lowest WHIP of his career. He fanned 763 batters after the age of 40, and had a lower ERA (2.99) than he’d had in the first five years of his 30s (3.32).
There was a stretch when he first joined the Yankees when he was a good pitcher, but not great. In his first five seasons in pinstripes he had a 3.99 ERA – just 15% lower than the league average, well below his performance later or when he was with Toronto or younger in Boston. What are we to make of that? Was he using steroids throughout his 30s and into his 40s? Did they help him stay healthy and rebound from the rigors of pitching every fifth day as he got older, or did they increase his effectiveness? Did it make him stronger and add a few miles to his fastball as he aged? How much of his performance do we discount if we believe he was using PEDs?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, and maybe nobody does. Not even Roger. He likely thought what he was doing was giving him an edge, as ballplayers have been trying to do since the game was first played. With his pride and competitiveness, I don’t believe Clemens ever thought that PEDs made him a better pitcher. I think he, and the other stars who took PEDs, thought that if all the “also-ran” ballplayers were taking the stuff, they had a right to, as well. I think the stars believed that for them all steroids did was allow them to rebound quicker from injuries and fatigue. That, when coupled with rigorous conditioning (something Clemens was famous for), it helped them add muscle. But, in their minds muscle doesn’t equal greatness. And smearing some cream on their arms or their thighs didn’t seem like the wrong thing.
But when we look at more than 17,000 players who have been in the big leagues, we see trends that are undeniable, take-it-to-the-bank facts. One of them is what players – even great players – don’t do. They don’t get dramatically better as they enter their late 30s. That’s the most damning thing about the career arcs of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Both were legends before they turned 30. Both were destined for a place among the greats of the game. Then, in their late 30s, they got even better. Not just better, though –amazingly better. They did things that no other slugger or pitcher had ever accomplished that late in their athlete-ages. Not coincidentally, each were implicated in the use of steroids.
They both will have their day in court, and more than likely they will both be found not guilty because there’s a code among athletes that one does not rat out another. But, neither of them will be looked at in the way they could have been. Both will forever have to deny rumors that they were cheaters – that they chased baseball glory via a test tube.
Batters who struck out the most times against Roger Clemens
1. Chili Davis (30)
2. Albert Belle (25)
2. Jose Canseco (25)
2. Mark McLemore (25)
2. Greg Vaughn (25)
6. Brook Jacoby (24)
7. Tony Phillips (24)
7. Devon White (24)
9. Brady Anderson (23)
9. Jim Edmonds (23)
9. Omar Vizquel (23)
Batters who hit the most home runs off Roger Clemens
1. Jim Thome (8)
2. Ken Griffey Jr. (6)
3. B.J. Surhoff (5)
3. Joe Carter (5)
3. Juan Gonzalez (5)
3. Carlton Fisk (5)
3. Trot Nixon (5)
*Mike Piazza hit four home runs off Clemens, in case you’re curious.
On power pitchers after the age of 40
If you look at the list of pitchers with the most wins, or innings, or K’s, or lowest ERA after the age of 40, you find a whole lot of soft-tossers or so-called “trick pitch” pitchers. Guys who threw knuckleballs (Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough) or guys who relied on location and mixing speeds (Jack Quinn, Tommy Johns, David Wells, Jamie Moyer). You find very few power pitchers. You’ve got Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson and Clemens, that’s it. Cy Young pitched a lot after the age of 40, but he wasn’t throwing the ball as hard at that age, picking his spots. The Ryan Express and Big Unit and Rocket were still throwing heat for a long time after they hit their 40s. No one thinks Ryan was using steroids, and no one has ever claimed that Johnson did, but Clemens has the cloud hanging closely over his big head. Did he need to use PEDs? Could he have been like Ryan and still been pumping the gas past big league hitters at the age of 45 or 46 without using drugs?