Monday, October 31, 2005

Roger Clemens, playoff enigma

My fascination with Roger Clemens' postseason performances started years ago. Watching him be outdueled in the playoffs by Dave Stewart at age 10, I couldn't understand how every Red Sox fan I knew proclaimed Clemens as the best in the American League. During the 2001 playoffs, Fox put a graphic up stating Clemens to be the "greatest competitor of all time" (whatever that meant). By then, I had grown accustomed to him being the 3rd or 4th man in the Yankees' playoff rotation. My father, my friends, even web folks like the Baseball Crank have commented on the same old Clemens after game 1 of the World Series. In this postseason, we have seen both Roger the dominating pitcher (NLDS game 5 relief appearance) and Roger the choke artist (NLDS game 2 or World Series game 1). Is Roger Clemens a playoff choke artist or simply treated unfairly because of his personality and gaudy regular season numbers? Is he a pitcher who gets too pumped for big games and cannot handle his own emotions or is he just a victim of facing the best since he is in the playoffs?

What I did was take every single performance and compile several stats earned runs, hits, walks, Ks, innings pitched, and what game it was. The earned runs, hits, walks, and Ks are obvious because it is easy to compare his perfomance in the regular season to playoffs with WHIP, K/9IP, and ERA for perfomance measures. I chose to look at innings pitched because I think a pitcher's ability to pitch deep into playoff games can mean the difference between a team's victory and defeat (as an Orioles fan, I understand this greatly because of Armando Benitez).

Clemens' postseason & regular season starts.... (Format is as follows IP/start, ERA, K/9IP, WHIP)

Regular Season Career
7.01, 3.12, 8.61, 1.173
Postseason Career
5.86, 3.72, 7.82, 1.22

There is not a lot of difference there. I think the biggest concerns I would have would be with the innings pitched and the ERA. My personal biggest concern would be with the innings pitched. Sure there are instances in the world series or his NL experience where pinch hitting would cause him to leave early, but to lose a whole inning is a burden on the bullpen. This was not a problem when he had the NY Yankees' dream team bullpen to lean back on, but it can be a problem for other teams.

Now why would people think that Clemens is a choke artist or gets too pumped up? It cannot just be in postseason play, it has to be deeper. Could it be in his numbers in bigger postseason games? Those are usually the most watched, and in the case of game 7s, reputations are made. I looked at Clemens' numbers for Game 1s, Game 7s and Game 5s in ALDS/NLDS play. His Quality Starts % was 37.5% for Game 1s and 40% for game 7s/DS Game 5s. The numbers show a poor picture..... (Format is as follows IP/start, ERA, K/9IP, WHIP)

Game 1s
5.63, 5.00, 6.6, 1.6

Game 7s & DS Game 5s
5.33, 4.05, 7.09, 1.2

Obviously, the higher profile playoff games or pressure starts have some mental impact on his performance. Clemens' ERA is almost 2 full runs higher than his career average, which is not what you would expect from your "ace". Regarding Game 7s/DS 5s, to lose 1 2/3 IP off of your average start when you are an "ace" creates a problem for your bullpen, places pressure on the rest of your team, and can leave lasting impressions in the minds of fans. I think these starts are why so many people feel that Clemens is an iffy or poor playoff pitcher.

It has been said that Clemens is an emotional pitcher, sometimes too emotional. Think back to two instances of early game theatrics: the 1990 ALCS ejection after 1 1/3 innings (while wearing black eye guard) and the 2000 World Series bat tossing. The ejection happened in a game where the Red Sox faced elimination, a must win situation, and the bat tossing was a game 2 with a 1-0 series lead to fall back on. I am surprised that he did not go nuts and give up 3 HRs in the bat tossing game, but that was a game 2: less lead...Clemens mowed the Mets down. I think that Joe Torre knew this and used Clemens effectively through the years by having him start game 2s and 3s. That is a luxury you can afford when you have El Duque, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells in the rotation. In fact, Clemens Quality Starts % is 65% in lower pressure playoff games (non-game 1s, 7s or deciding 5s). When his team is up in a series, he has 50% Quality Starts and his numbers are very similar to the non-game 1s, 7s or deciding 5s (probably due to overlap). Here are his stats for lower stress starts.... (Format is as follows IP/start, ERA, K/9IP, WHIP)

non-game 1s and non-game 7s or ALDS/NLDS game 5s
6.08, 3.18, 8.43, 1.09
when team leads series
6.00, 3.25, 8.38, 1.10

While his IP/start are lower than his career average, his Ks/9IP, ERA, and WHIP are all extremely close (the WHIP is slightly better). In Clemens' defense, I dug deeper into numbers where his team was down in the series and found he had 80% Quality Starts in those games. In the 4 Quality Starts, these were the starters he faced (Jeff Suppan, Brian Anderson, Storm Davis & a 41 year old Don Sutton). This is not a Who's Who of Best Pitchers in Baseball. It's almost like looking across the field he pumps himself up too much to try to matcht he other pitcher on the MLB's biggest stage.

Another thing that is odd with Clemens is that he does not strike fear into the opposing team. Why would he be the number 3 starter for the Astors this postseason when he is the "best right hander of the modern era"? Before the Clemens NLDS game 5 of this year, did anyone really fear him strutting out of the bullpen coming in to vanquish an opponent like Randy Johnson? I was looking forward to his entrance, as I thought he would implode. Just look at how some other "aces" compare between post and regular season; you might see why Clemens is so vexing..... (Format is as follows IP/start, ERA, K/9IP, WHIP)

Curt Schilling (improves significantly)
Postseason 7.28, 2.06, 8.56, .924
Reg. Season 7.63, 3.40, 8.77, 1.126

Randy Johnson (improvement)
Postseason 7.71, 3.08, 10.33, 1.06
Reg. Season 7.01, 3.11, 10.95, 1.16

Pedro Martinez (muddled, blame Grady)
Postseason 7.21, 3.40, 9.08, 1.122
Reg. Season 7.14, 2.72, 10.25, 1.021

Mystery Starter (improvement) *****
Postseason 6.64, 3.16, 9.77, 1.05
Reg. Season 6.80, 3.64, 7.17, 1.18

The stats may vary more with these pitchers because of the smaller sample size. These starters all gave what the teams expected. They have standards as aces and provided as expected. I think Pedro's playoff ERA is a case of Yankee-itis. I think Clemens overall playoff record paints a picture of a decent pitcher who just happened to be touched up a bit more by playoff caliber teams. I think the biggest reason behind the stigma of him being a choke artist or not coming up big in playoff games is because he performs much worse in high profile playoff games (game 1s, 7s or deciding 5s). I think his game 1 problems are really what drive this feeling the most because game 1 is where a tone is set for a whole series.

People who criticize his performance in playoff games often overlook his best postseason series: the 2001 world series. With the Yankees down 0-2, Clemens went 7 innings allowing 1 ER on 3 Hits while striking out 9. He followed that game with his best game 7 start against Curt Schilling. Clemens went 6 1/3 IP, gave up 1 ER and struck out 10. Clemens is a decent postseason pitcher, but not nearly as great as his regular season legacy. Because of his regular season dominance and "ace" standards, I tend to lean towards Clemens being a postseason choker rather than an unfairly treated ace.

*****The mystery pitcher has had a solid career in the MLB. He has bailed out Roger Clemens on occasion. He will most likely not go to the Hall of Fame, despite amassing over 220 wins in the "Juice Era" of the MLB. In one playoff series, he started two games and performed at a near perfect level. He got two no decisions despite throwing a combined 15 innings, allowing 1 ER, striking out 25, walking 4, and allowing 4 hits. I spoke with him once shortly before a start that had been rain delayed at Fenway. Optimistic "College Era Me" said "Whatever you do [this offseason], just don't go to the Yankees". He went. You know his name by now, Mike Mussina.*****


What about ARod? said...

I think it is interesting that Mussina has that good of numbers in the postseason, of course Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS doesn't hurt and he pitched very well twice in the 2001 World Series, but coming from a family of lifelong Yankees fans - a lot of them figured we would lose for sure in ALDS Game 5 with Moose on the hill cause allegedly he is a postseason choker.
Why does he get blamed for choking, when in reality he has pitched excellent? Granted he didn't pitch great numbers-wise against the Angels, but he sure as heck wasn't giving up shots either. I would say a poor Yankees defense screwed him more than himself in that game. Think the Giambi shot put home.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Mussina does not have a rep for choking. NYers might feel that way because he has lost some playoff games in pinstripes. What they fail to recognize is that he pitched in Baltimore and was a stud. Yankees' fans tend to only think about Yankees' experiences.

This postseason was odd because he had elbow problems going in. Still, he had a really good game one, 5 2/3 IP, 0 er, 5 H, 4 K, 0 BB. Game 5 was not good and further complicated by Giambi and Sheffield/Crosby's fielding problems. How neither mistake was called an error I will never know.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis! I'm a big Clemens fan, but he doesn't know how to control his emotions in the biggest games.

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