<
>

Clemens with few peers in modern age

Is Roger Clemens the best pitcher ever?

Who can say? Unless we make a massive timeline adjustment, there's simply no way for the likes of Roger Clemens to compete with the likes of Cy Young (511 wins) and Walter Johnson (417). So let's restrict our focus to the period following World War II, because it's convenient and also because shortly after the war ended, the competition began to get quite a bit tougher.

There are, in my opinion, five pitchers with a claim on the title, "Best Pitcher Since World War II": Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux. Let's review the basic qualifications of each pitcher. ...

W-L Innings ERA ERA+
Spahn 363-245 5,244 3.09 118
Gibson 251-174 3,884 2.91 127
Seaver 311-205 4,783 2.86 127
Clemens 299-153 4,132 3.15 142
Maddux 276-157 3,814 2.87 146

"ERA+" is a method that's supposed to put a pitcher's ERA into something of a neutral context. Spahn's 118 ERA+ means his career ERA was 18 percent better than league average, after adjusting for the ballparks in which he pitched.

With that in mind, I think we have to summarily eliminate Bob Gibson, as great he was, from this competition. Gibson's ERA is roughly equivalent to Seaver's ... but in 900 fewer innings. That leaves us with four candidates.

W-L Innings ERA ERA+
Spahn 363-245 5,244 3.09 118
Seaver 311-205 4,783 2.86 127
Clemens 299-153 4,132 3.15 142
Maddux 276-157 3,814 2.87 146

I've arranged the pitchers in chronological order, but it's probably not coincidental that one can detect other orders here, too. They're also listed in decreasing order of wins and innings, and in increasing order of ERA+.

Which makes ranking them pretty tough. You want innings, and wins? That's Warren Spahn. You want a phenomenal ERA, relative to the league? That's Clemens or Maddux. You want an impressive mixture of durability and quality? That's Tom Seaver.

How do we choose?

Well, let's start with Maddux. It seems to me that if Maddux and Clemens sport ERAs that are essentially equivalent (they do), and if Clemens has an edge of more than 300 innings (he does), then it's pretty hard to make the argument that Maddux is better than Clemens. Especially if you agree that (as Bill James has suggested) Maddux has benefitted from better fielders than has Clemens.

That leaves three candidates.

W-L Innings ERA ERA+
Spahn 363-245 5,244 3.09 118
Seaver 311-205 4,783 2.86 127
Clemens 299-153 4,132 3.15 142

These are, at least in this writer's opinion, the three greatest pitchers since World War II.

Which was the greatest?

Before we go any further, we've got to acknowledge the "timeline problem."

It's a generally accepted notion that as systems mature, it becomes more and more difficult to stand out. This, of course, is how Stephen Jay Gould explained the demise of the .400 hitter. But in an era in which Randy Johnson can annually post an ERA well below 3.00 and Barry Bonds can hit 73 home runs one season and bat .370 the next, is it really safe to assume that it's more difficult to dominate in 2003 than it was in 1953 or 1973?

Well, maybe. But maybe not. It's possible that after years and years and years of the game getting harder and harder and harder to dominate, that process has stopped, or even reversed itself. How could this happen? Well, it could happen if a significant percentage of the greatest athletes in this country were, as children, playing soccer and basketball instead of baseball. Which is, of course, precisely what's happening. Which is to say, we should be treading lightly in this area.

Now, Warren Spahn. Beginning in 1947, Spahn started at least 32 games and pitched at least 245 innings in every season for 17 straight seasons. Beginning in 1957, Spahn ran off a streak of six straight seasons in which he led the National League in complete games ... and in the last of those six seasons, he was 42 years old.

But then, Clemens hasn't exactly been a piker when it comes to durability. Spahn pitched for 20 seasons in the major leagues (not including a 16-innings cup of coffee in his first shot). Clemens is currently pitching in his 20th season. Granted, Clemens has been on the disabled list seven times, most notably in 1985 when two DL stints cost him half the season. But Spahn's significant edge in innings is due as much to changing conditions as to the two pitchers' durability. Still, just as we can assume that if Spahn pitched in the 1990s, as part of a five-man rotation, he wouldn't have started or completed as many games, we also can't assume that if Clemens had pitched in the 1950s, he'd have thrived in the four-man rotation.

So yes, Spahn gets points for starting (and completing) so many games, and pitching so many innings. But enough points to outweigh Clemens' ability to simply dominate the competition? While one might argue that both Spahn and Clemens were the best in their respective leagues in six or seven seasons, when Clemens was the best he was almost always obviously the best. The same can't be said for Spahn, who was always excellent but rarely scary.

I believe that Spahn, great as he was, just doesn't quite measure up to Clemens.

That leaves two candidates.

W-L Innings ERA ERA+
Seaver 311-205 4,783 2.86 127
Clemens 299-153 4,132 3.15 142

Fitting, isn't it? On the mound, Clemens bears a resemblance to Seaver, and the two were briefly teammates with the Red Sox in 1986.

Comparing them, Seaver falls between Spahn and Clemens; Seaver pitched more innings than Clemens but not as many as Spahn, and Seaver was more dominant than Spahn but not quite as dominant as Clemens.

If he does indeed retire after this season, Clemens is going to finish with almost exactly as many wins as Seaver ... but many fewer losses. However, this says a lot more about the teams Seaver and Clemens pitched for than about Seaver and Clemens. As Bill James points out in his most recent book, "Seaver pitched for eight losing teams, several of them really terrible, and four others had losing records except when Seaver was on the mound." Meanwhile, Clemens has pitched for eight teams that reached the postseason, five teams with losing records, and zero really terrible teams.

Which is to say, the fact that Seaver lost more than 200 games, and Clemens won't, shouldn't be held against Seaver.

In the end, it comes down to this: What's more important, Seaver's slight edge in innings or Clemens' slight edge in quality?

But wait, maybe that's not the end. Maybe we're missing something. It's fair, isn't it, to consider postseason performance when making such a tough choice?

Unfortunately, there's not much difference between Seaver and Clemens here, either. In eight postseason games, Seaver went 3-3 with a 2.77 ERA. In 22 postseason games, Clemens is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA. Yes, Seaver's got the more impressive ERA, but Clemens has pitched a lot more postseason games and has been brilliant -- 3-0, 1.56 -- in the World Series. So we'll call that one a push, and we're right back where we started.

I believe that Roger Clemens might be the best pitcher since World War II.

But I'm not sure. I'm not at all sure. With Clemens still going out there every fifth day and throwing thunderbolts, we simply don't have enough perspective on his career to precisely measure his place among the greats. We know that he wasn't as good as Walter Johnson, and we know that he was better than Bob Gibson. But do we really know, in May 2003, that Clemens was better than Seaver?

No, I don't think we do. We need a few years to put Clemens into perspective. And until we've got that perspective, I have to consider Roger Clemens only the second greatest pitcher since World War II. I might change my mind in a few years, but right now Tom Seaver still takes the imaginary trophy.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.