on May 19, 2013
Jonathan Mayo's book, Facing Clemens, uses a deceptively simple but effective technique in discussing the pitching of Roger Clemens. He talks to the hitters who faced him and has them discuss the pitches he threw them, how effective the pitches were, and what they tried to do to get quality at bats against Clemens.
The book is especially pertinent because of the many false stories about Clemens invented and passed around in the years of the charges against him for enhancing his pitching by allegedly taking anabolic steroids and Human Growth Hormone. Those charges collapsed in a heap last year when he was acquitted for perjury in federal district court in Washington, D.C. Important factors in that acquittal were the testimony of his former catcher in Toronto, Charlie O'Brien, who testified under oath that Clemens was so honest that he would not even use scuffed baseballs, and of his manager in Houston, Phil Gardner, who explained Clemens's complex arsenal of pitches, including his deadly split finger fastball, developed in Toronto in 1997.
This testimony was in stark contrast to the myth that Roger Clemens was a power pitcher, a fastball or nothing guy, who declined by 1996 in Boston and was revived only by taking anabolic steroids in Toronto and New York between 1998 and 2001. In fact, Roger Clemens was a control pitcher from his earliest days, a kid with perfect command of the plate. He had no legitimate fastball until a defect in his pitching motion was discovered at San Jacinto Junior College and had no curve ball to speak of until a pitching coach at the University of Texas realized he did not hold the ball correctly.
Many baseball authorities consider Clemens the greatest pitcher in the 142 year history of the game. He won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher seven times, the most ever. He won 354 games and lost 184, a superlative winning percentage of .658. He ranks No. 3 in career strikeouts, with 4,672.
Contrary to his reputation as lousy in the post season, Clemens actually performed better as the level of difficulty and pressure increased throughout his career. His E.R.A. declined from 4.8 in first round divisional games to 3.8 in second round championship games to a stingy 2.37 in the World Series. His strikeouts per game rose from 5.8 in first round games to 7.8 in second round games to 8.16 in six World Series games. His walks per game declined from 3.5 in first round divisional play to 2.9 in championship round games to 2.0 in the World Series. And Clemens never lost a World Series game. He was 4-4 in first round games, 5-4 in divisional championships, and 3-0 in the World Series.
Because Clemens never pitched a single no hitter or a perfect game his dominance over a generation is understated. In 9 of the 14 seasons in which he did not win the Cy Young Award he was either on the disabled list or pitched only partial seasons. To put it another way, when Roger Clemens was healthy and pitched a full season, or as they say in employment law, was "ready, willing, and able" to work, he won 7 Cy Young Awards in 15 years, an astonishing accomplishment.
He had the consistency of a Swiss clock. In 21 American League seasons his strikeout to walk ratio was 2.96 per game. In three National League seasons in Houston it was 2.97 per game. Clemens's ability to throw strikes was so regular, in fact, that in years 14-24 his number of walks per year was within a hundredth of a percent of what it had been in his first 13 years in Boston, 65.846 to 65.818.
Clemens achieved this consistency even though the ravages of age eventually affected his durability. In innings pitched and games completed he declined across the board in years 14-25. In his first 13 years in Boston, Clemens averaged 213.5 innings a year. In 11 seasons in Toronto, New York, and Houston his innings per year fell to 194.5, or almost an inning less in every game. In the first half of his career he averaged 7.7 complete games, compared to 1.6 complete games in the second half of his career.
Consistency, in fact, is the essence of baseball. It is a sport where you have to adjust mentally all the time. Nobody did it better than Roger Clemens. By the time he reached the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 he worked with an expanded arsenal of pitches. His coach at Texas, the legendary Cliff Gustafson, said in 2011 that Clemens lost a little, but not much, from his fastball, until the very end of his 24 year career. It was the year that Clemens developed his most feared pitch, the one he was still able to get batters out with at age 50 in a Texas varsity alumni game, the split fingered fastball. But let Cal Ripken tell you about it.
"I remember the last few years he was with the Red Sox, and I don't know if he had some arm problems or what, his fastball came back a little bit to more of a hittable speed. So his control had to be more on. He couldn't rely on just rearing back and throwing the ball past you in the strike zone as regularly as he did before. Maybe he went through a little bit of a dead-arm period, maybe the innings he logged started to wear on him a little bit. I did notice in Boston toward the end, his fastball did come back a little bit to a normal range."
Ripken explained Clemens's basic arsenal. "He went high in the strike zone and with a breaking ball. Over time, he had a curveball that he threw every once in a while in the mid part of the plate. Then when he developed that split-fingered changeup, that was a really good pitch for him, midway through his career."
Yet David Magadan, who faced him both in college at Alabama, and later on several major league teams, dismissed the notion that Clemens was all fast ball when he was young. Magadan was the top college baseball player in 1983 and batted against Clemens in the College World Series. He had struck out only 6 times all year. Clemens struck him out twice.
"We were kind of expecting that he was going to have a good fastball," Magadan said. "It was the other stuff, the break of his breaking ball, the tight rotation of it, it's something that sticks in my mind. I remember he threw me a breaking ball and I swung through it. I can remember I thought to myself, I've never seen a breaking ball like that, that good. I can remember it like it was yesterday."
Magadan talked about facing Clemens at the Major League level. "A lot of times he got me out with the split. It wasn't a strikeout splitter; it was almost like a two-seamer that you hit off the end of the bat. Or a high, up-and-in fastball that jams you. He just got me out a lot of different ways. I usually had success against power pitchers. I liked guys who threw hard, but he wasn't like that. He was a power pitcher who could pitch and that's what made him tough."
Chipper Jones, probably headed to baseball's Hall of Fame, describes how Clemens pitched him. "He knows I'm a good fastball hitter. He knows that most times I'm sitting dead and red and he fed me a steady diet of off-speed stuff in the World Series. He wasn't going to let me hurt him and he didn't. He kept throwing me the split, but he kept throwing me the split for a strike. You have to respect the 94-95 miles per hour fastball because guys like me don't want to get beat with the fastball. He kept throwing me splits down in the zone and I kept beating them into the ground."
"He was less willing to challenge hitters, but he was still effective," Jones said. There was the split and the development of the cutter. The last couple of years, he's been a completely different pitcher. Obviously, he can still paint the 93, 94 on the outside corner, but he's developing a backdoor cutter, where if he falls behind in the count, he can paint that on the outside corner, which locks up a lot of hitters. Always in the back of your mind now, you better have that split. You have to make him throw it up in the zone. If it starts just above the knees, you're out."
Jones concluded, "He makes you work so hard during an at bat just to make contact, to put the ball in fair territory. If you get on base or get a base hit, you feel like you just hit a home run. At the end of the game, you're s o mentally drained because you're trying to think along with him, trying to work so hard to play a chess match with him. More times than not, he wins."
Julio Franco, who could still hit major league pitching in his 40s, observed, "One thing that separated him was that he wasn't scared. Your first time in the big leagues, you're scared even if you throw hard. But he was in command of his emotions on the mound."
"Every year you saw him, you could see the progress," Franco said. "Every time you saw him, he was walking the ladder. Every time you saw him, he was more dominating. He was more fearsome...This guy would make you uncomfortable at the plate. You knew you couldn't catch up to the fastball. Then when you were ready for the fastball, he'd throw you the curveball, so that there was no way you could see it. It was frustrating."
Franco describes seeing Clemens's split finger fastball for the first time in Toronto in 1997. "He was still throwing hard, but he got smarter. He lost 2 or 3 miles per hour off his fastball. His velocity was down. A smart pitcher like that has all this experience throwing fastballs 93, 94, he comes in with the split-finger that made him a better pitcher than he was before. He knew he couldn't rely as much on his fastball, but he had a good curveball and now the split-finger he can throw either way to righties or lefties. That's what baseball is all about, readjusting."
Franco last hit against Clemens in 1997. Ten years later, in 2007, Clemens's final season in the majors, he watched Clemens on television and analyzed what he saw. "He was a different pitcher but still dominant," Franco said. If you see him every day, he's a different pitcher. I saw him against the Pirates and he lost a couple of fastballs in the first inning. I'm sure he was a little pumped to come back against Pittsburgh. Then he settled down, started throwing split-fingers against a young ball club. He knew he wasn't going to beat those guys throwing fastballs so he had to go to Plan B. And it worked out."
Former slugger Darryl Hamilton became friends with Clemens. Hamilton says, "You can't take anything personally with him when you're playing against him on the field. What I mean by that, if he knocks you down, gets you off the plate, or whatever, you can't take it personally. You can't take it as if he's trying to hurt you. What he's trying to do is beat you. I can respect any pitcher who I'm friends with; I understand they have a job to do. I don't look at it as if they're out to get me. I look at it as if they're trying to be better than me that time at that plate. My goal is to try to be better than him."
Jonathan Mayo's book is not about scandals or witch hunts or illegal drugs in baseball. Rather it is solely, 100 percent, about pitching. It is a G-rated book, so to speak, about the strategy of pitching.
Therefore, because this book is written simply and clearly, it is recommended for baseball players, coaches, and fans at any level. Little league coaches, high school coaches, college coaches, yes, even major league managers, could suggest their players read Facing Clemens.
[Hansen Alexander is the author of 900 NIGHTS; the siege of American football in the age of concussions, criminal assaults, marijuana, illegal benefits, vast profits, and a scarcity of quarterbacks, an Amazon e-book exclusive.]