Roger This

It’s hard to claim with a straight face that the Roger Clemens signing hasn’t gotten enough media coverage. But in our little neck of the woods at The Hardball Times, it’s gone virtually un-commented upon. This, from a team of writers that declared last November Matsuzaka Month? Clearly we’re all rabid Red Sox fans, or perhaps just plain stupid.

As for the event itself, there isn’t much left to say: starting in a few weeks, Roger Clemens will take the mound every fifth day for the New York Yankees. It couldn’t come at a better time for the Bombers (well, other than right freaking now) with such luminaries as Darrell Rasner and Matt DeSalvo plugging the holes left by the ailing multimillionaires. For performing these duties, Clemens will make some obscene amount of money, and a couple more Sunday afternoon Yankees games will be moved to 8:05 Eastern Standard Time to accommodate ESPN.

You know all that. Let’s get down to business. It’s inaccurate to reduce all opinions on Rocket’s return to two schools of thought, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here goes.

The Savior

For the last three years, Clemens has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. While he only threw 113 innings last season, he didn’t miss a start and was nearly as good in September (2.33 ERA) as he was in July (2.00 ERA). He’s still striking out close to a batter an inning, and his walk rate is lower than it was a decade ago. Nobody expects him to manage another ERA+ in the 200 range against the AL East, but no other pitcher in the game (not named Johan, anyway) would have a bigger impact on a pennant race.

The Non-Story

Major league pitching environments don’t come much more different than the NL Central and the AL East. So, while Clemens’ track record in Houston has been amazing, it needs to be heavily discounted to tell us anything about what he’ll do in the Bronx. In Roger’s last two years in pinstripes, he was 30-15, but that disguised a barely above-average ERA and sagging innings totals. That doesn’t take away from Clemens’ claim to greatness, but it does mean the former ace may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Going (a Little) Deeper

The single statistic that says the most to me about Clemens’ chances this season is his innings total from 2006. While he only made 19 starts and remained effective for all of them, he averaged less than 6 innings per outing. From 1999-2005, he was quite consistent, hovering around 6.5. That’s partly a function of requiring more pitches to get the same number of outs: in that same stretch, he averaged a little more than 100 pitches per start, and was just a tick below that mark in 2007. It isn’t that the Astros were being cautious with Roger: Roger just had a hard time getting more than 18 outs.

Of course, a six-inning starter, even one a bit above league-average, is still a valuable commodity. Heck, there may be no more valuable commodity available to the Yankees this season, and Clemens didn’t cost them anything in trade. It’s important to keep that in mind if he doesn’t live up to expectations: the Yankees may be grossly overpaying by the standards of the offseason free-agent market, but they are getting something they desperately need, and if puts them over the postseason hump, it’s probably worth every dollar.

And certainly, Roger will perform better than those who would’ve pitched instead. Assuming that the entire Yankees starting staff will never be healthy at the same time, Clemens is taking away starts from the likes of Jeff Karstens, or perhaps someone like Jon Lieber whom the Yanks would’ve traded for if Rocket had gone elsewhere. But how much of an improvement is that?

The Unpredictability of It All

I wish I could open up an Excel spreadsheet and answer that question, but I’m convinced it can’t be done. Even establishing the range of possible outcomes is a daunting task: there may be no other player more difficult to predict in 2007 than Roger in pinstripes. Among the other issues I’ve mentioned so far, we can’t forget that Clemens is now 44, and while a handful of active players are proving you can continue to be effective well into your 40s, you’ve gotta hit the end of the line eventually.

The upside is clearly tremendous for New York. If we figure that 2006 was a little bit of a blip for Clemens (not the beginning of the end), it’s reasonable to count on him for about six innings per outing. If we further assume that moving from the NL Central to the AL East adds a run to his ERA, he’ll still be good for about 150 innings of 3.30 ball. That will put him in the running for the Cy Young Award, and it’ll restart the “Will He or Won’t He?!” process all over again next offseason.

More realistically, we’re talking about Brian Cashman bringing in the Ted Lilly-type he’s wishing he had signed in the offseason. Clemens brings with him plenty more cache but less of an innings guarantee. There was a reason he was still effective in September last year but he wasn’t in September of 2005: those innings totals. Replace the Pirates and the Brewers with the Red Sox and the Blue Jays and every inning is a little harder to get through. It’s a shame that the Astros didn’t sneak into the postseason last year: it would’ve given us an idea of how Clemens might hold up in September of the present campaign.

From the perspective of the forecaster, this is all quite unsatisfying. We simply don’t have the data points we need to predict the performance of someone so unique as the Rocket. But from the perspective of a fan, it couldn’t be any more interesting. There will be none of the typical “he’ll come back to earth eventually,” or “he’ll bounce back in his next few starts.” Just about anything could happen, and by the time we have a sense of which direction Clemens’ season will take, the Yankees probably will have either fallen out of the race or nearly cliched a playoff spot.

And by then, they can start worrying about how their most expensive pitcher will hold up. We can argue all day about how much Roger brings to the table for his new team, but one thing is certain: baseball is a heck of a lot more interesting with him in the fold.

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