The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Roger Clemens has a reasonable claim as the greatest pitcher of all time. Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Grover Cleveland Alexander spent all or most of their careers in the dead-ball era, before the home run was a real threat, and pitched while the color line was still in effect, barring some of the game’s most talented players from participating. Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver pitched when scoring levels were much lower and pitchers held a greater advantage. Koufax and 2015 inductees Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez didn’t sustain their greatness for nearly as long. Greg Maddux didn’t dominate hitters to nearly the same extent.
Clemens, meanwhile, spent 24 years in the majors and racked up a record seven Cy Young awards, not to mention an MVP award. He won 354 games, led his leagues in the Triple Crown categories (wins, strikeouts, and ERA) a total of 16 times, and helped his teams to six pennants and a pair of world championships.
Alas, whatever claim “The Rocket” may have on such an exalted title is clouded by suspicions that he used performance-enhancing drugs. When those suspicions came to light in the Mitchell Report in 2007, Clemens took the otherwise unprecedented step of challenging the findings during a Congressional hearing, but nearly painted himself into a legal corner; he was subject to a high-profile trial for six counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to Congress. After a mistrial in 2011, he was acquitted on all counts the following year. But despite the verdicts, the specter of PEDs won’t leave Clemens’ case anytime soon, even given that in March 2015, he settled the defamation lawsuit filed by former personal trainer Brian McNamee for an unspecified amount.
Amid the ongoing Hall of Fame-related debates over hitters connected to PEDs — most prominently Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa — it’s worth remembering that the chemical arms race involved pitchers as well, leveling the playing field a lot more than some critics of the aforementioned sluggers would admit. The voters certainly haven’t forgotten that when it comes to Clemens, whose share of the vote has approximated that of Bonds. Clemens debuted with 37.6% of the vote in 2013 and only in 2016 began making significant headway, climbing to 45.2% thanks largely to the Hall’s purge of voters more than 10 years removed from covering the game. Like Bonds, he surged above 50% — a historically significant marker towards future election — in 2017, benefiting from voters rethinking their positions in the wake of the election of Bud Selig. The former commissioner’s roles in the late-1980s collusion scandal and in presiding over the proliferation of PEDs within the game dwarf the impact of individual PED users and call into question the so-called “character clause.”
Clemens’ march towards Cooperstown has stalled somewhat in the two years since, as he’s added just 5.4% to reach 59.5%. Whether or not the open letter from Hall of Fame Vice Chairman Joe Morgan pleading with voters not to honor players connected to steroids had an impact, the end result is time run off the clock. He still has a shot at reaching 75% before his eligibility runs out in 2022, but like Bonds, needs to regain momentum.
2020 BBWAA Candidate: Roger Clemens
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