East Coast Bias: Roger Clemens vs. Nolan Ryan

One of the dwindling reasons I still go to the “we’re not the big media we promise” site that is Fark.com is because about six or eight months ago they put up a sports tab. Fortunately, there’s a core of like 20 or 25 sports posters (amongst the thousands and thousands of registered users over there who all think they’re anti-establishment and unique…. just like everyone else that posts there) capable of reasonable conversation. One of these happened last Tuesday when Roger Clemens revealed an “injury” after getting shellacked by the Mariners. Within five posts someone brought up that the last team Nolan Ryan ever faced was the Seattle Mariners before retiring due to an injury. This then morphed the whole conversation into a Nolan Ryan vs. Roger Clemens thread. Every sports fan has had one of these bar discussions; one of those things where no one is really wrong, but each guy wants to make his point louder than the other guy.

So, a point-by-point comparison.

Strikeouts: Roger Clemens: 4668 (and presumably counting) strikeouts (K) in 4910 2/3 Innings pitched (IP) for a K/9 ratio of 8.5. Nolan Ryan: 5714 K in 5386 IP for a K/9 ratio of 9.5. This is one of those insane statistics like the batting streak. Clemens (and Randy Johnson) have had long, solid, strikeout-a-lot-of-guys careers and they’re both still 1100 behind Ryan. For the record, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez beat both of these guys with K/9 ratio over 10. There is no question here. The king of strikeouts is king.

Point: Ryan

Walks: Clemens: 1577. Ryan: 2795. For every 2 guys Ryan struck out, he walked one (roughly). For every three guys Clemens struck out, he walked one. Ryan did play his career before Questec and when different leagues actually had different umpires; but he was still striking guys out during all those times. When Nolan was off, he was WAY off.

Point: Clemens

ERA: Clemens’s career ERA is 3.13. Ryan’s is 3.19. These guys played in different eras and most of the time in different leagues and different parks. If only there was some statistic to adjust for all of those differences….

ERA+: Oh wait. This statistic takes ERA and adjusts it against the average ERA at the time and for park factor. Ryan’s career 3.19 ERA is good for a 112 ERA+. Clemens’s 3.13 ERA is good for a 143 ERA+. Ryan compiled a 3.19 playing most of his career in time when there was less scoring. Clemens compiled his 3.13 in a time (mostly) when everyone was hitting balls out of the park.

Point: Clemens

Wins/Losses (W-pct): I am loathe to include wins on any discussion about a pitcher’s worth, I will include them here. If some of my non-sports people read this, here is why wins is a stupid statistic. To qualify for a win, a pitcher must either 1) start the game and last 5 innings, then leave with a lead which is not relinquished for the remainder of the game or 2) enter a game behind and be the pitcher of record when the go-ahead run is scored. This means a starting pitcher can give up 8 runs in 2 innings, but as long as his team scores 10 while he’s still in, he qualifies for a win. Conversely, he can also give up 1 run over 9 innings, but if his team does not score any runs, he does not qualify for a win and, in fact, gets a loss. Remember the column I wrote a while back about over-valued statistics in baseball? This tops the list.

There are two things that make these hard (and, frankly, stupid) to compare. Ryan pitched most of his career in the 70s and 80s… hence he was much more likely to finish games and get losses that would have gone to a reliever in the modern day. Clemens, on the other hand, pitched in the 80s and 90s. There’s really no way to tell how many of Clemens’s appearances would have ended in losses instead of No Decisions had he completed 222 games instead of 118. That’s significant.

Point: No

Cy Youngs: The Cy Young award is given each year to the best pitcher in each league. Roger Clemens has won this award seven times. He finished second in 1990, a season where he compiled a line of: 21-6, 1.93 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 209 Ks in 228 IP to Bob Welch (27-6, 2.95 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 127K in 238 IP). As the voters’ blinding love of the Win usually wins out, he lost the award despite absurdly better, you know, pitching stats. Again in 2005, Clemens compiled 13-8, 1.87ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 185K in 211 IP and finished third in the Cy Young Voting behind the winner Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.83ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 213K, 242IP) and Dontrelle Willis (22-10, 2.63ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 170K, 236IP). This shows us three things: 1) Gary Sheffield is right and Major League Baseball hates the black man, 2) baseball people give out pitching awards based on the pitcher having Albert Pujols on his team and 3) Clemens, in a 24-year career, has been the best pitcher in the American League nine times and has been recognized for seven of them because his offense performed well enough to get him wins. He was so good, in fact, he won the MVP and the Cy Young in the same year. Ryan never won either.

2 Points: Clemens

No Hitters: Ryan has seven no-hitters and 61 career shut-outs. Clemens has 0 no-hitters and 46 shut-outs. I love no-hitters as much as the next guy: they’re fun, exciting, dramatic… they’re everything that makes for good sports. But, in the grand scheme of things Nolan Ryan won seven games with probably a lot of really good defense behind him. They’re fun, but they’re also a really stupid measuring stick to measure greatness. In fact, the guy who threw two consecutive no-hitters, Johnny Vander Meer, is so great I had to Google “consecutive no-hitters” to remember his name.

However, Met fan so grain of salt and all.

Half point: Ryan

Championships: Ryan won one title as a relief pitcher on the 1969 New York Mets… he got a 2-inning mop-up appearance in Game 3’s 5-0 Mets’ win. Clemens was brought in as a mercenary on a Yankee team that won two titles before he got there and certainly would have won in 1999 without him. In 1999, Clemens was the 4-starter on a playoff rotation that included Orlando Hernandez (12-6, 2.55 ERA post-season record), David Cone (12-3, 3.80), and Andy Pettitte (18-6, 4.08). He was the cranberry sauce in the Thanksgiving line-up… nice to have, probably won’t miss it if it’s not there. He was, however lights out against the Mets in 2000. Nolan Ryan gains points for being a Met while Roger Clemens loses points for beating the Mets.

Point: Push

Miscellaneous: For whatever reason, pitchers are immune to all the steroid controversey. I feel it necessary to point out that in 1996 (at 33), Clemens had more than 2000 innings on his odometer and showed signs of breaking down. He went 10-13 with a 3.63 ERA in 242 innings. After that season, he went to Toronto and “got in shape” and proceeded to have two Cy Young seasons in a row… then continue to strike out 200 batters a season for another 10 years… then threw two MORE Cy Young seasons at 41 and 42. Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that he did anything other than eat right and get in shape (nor do I really care), but I do know if he was approaching Ryan’s strike-out total or Cy Young’s win total there would be a lot more questions into this. Pitchers are fortunate that the two big pitching numbers (511 and the aforementioned 5714) are so far out of reach that they never really have to worry about it.

Ryan, on the other hand, is famous for beating up Robin Ventura when the 20-year-his-junior, uppity young punk charged the mound.

Point: Ryan

Cal Ripkin Jr. proved, if anything, that it’s better to be holysh*t good at one statistic than to be kind of good at a lot of them. This seems to be the case with Ryan. While I think that Ryan was probably the tougher guy, probably a better team-mate, less likely to develop phantom injuries after bad starts, and ranks very low on probably consumption of… erm…. supplements, it’s really hard to argue that he compiled a better career than Clemens. While I do think the people who put Clemens on the “OMG TOP FIVE EVAR!!1!” are out of their mind, comparing him to Ryan it’s really hard to argue for Ryan. People often use Ryan’s team as a crutch when describing why he didn’t have more wins, but Clemens played on some dogs, too and it didn’t stop him from winning 7 Cy Young’s.

The Verdict: Roger Clemens

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