Rocket Ride (Slight Return)

Roger Clemens was on my mind last week. Thanks to a John Perroto piece at Baseball Prospectus, incorporating him into the week’s Hit List was an inevitability, but I managed to have some fun with it:

Despite the arrival of Hunter Pence, the Astros are decidedly earthbound after nine losses in 10 games, and at this rate, the only Rocket ride they can look forward to is on Kiss Alive II. Owner Drayton McLane, GM Tim Purpura, president of baseball operations Tal Smith, and manager Phil Garner confer, deciding that Garner’s mustache is trimmed to the optimal length to inspire Craig Biggio in his deathless march to 3,000.

And that’s without even considering the state of the Yankee rotation, which we’ll get to momentarily. Late in my Friday afternoon chat at BP, I made reference to a bit of sarcasm passing me by like a Clemens fastball, and then shortly afterwards, fielded a question about the Rocket:

The Animal (Boston): Speaking of Clemens… got a prediction?

Jay Jaffe: Yes. With the Red Sox lacking a defined need and the Astros going nowhere fast, I think this is the Yanks’ play if Clemens comes back, and my guess is that he heists them for something like a prorated salary of $30 million.

Sunday afternoon, during the seventh-inning stretch of the Yanks’ 5-0 win over the Mariners, the cameras cut to Clemens as he made a surprise announcement from owner George Steinbrenner’s private box: “Well, they came and got me out of Texas and I can tell you it’s a privilege to be back. I’ll be talking to y’all soon.” Terms were not immediately announced, but ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that Clemens’ salary will be a pro-rated $28 million — not a bad guess on my part, I must say — or about $4.5 million per month. Not a bad living for possibly the greatest pitcher of all time.

Clemens, amid his rather tiresome annual retirement ritual, had insisted over the past several months that he wouldn’t be making a decision between the aforementioned three teams until the end of May. But the combination of the Yankees’ decimated rotation, the other two teams’ delayed timeframe, Clemens’ accelerated workout schedule, and cold, hard cash made for an inevitable resolution. As Olney reports:

Clemens and [agent Randy] Hendricks made it clear to everyone, even into late April, that he wouldn’t make his decision until late May. But as Mike Mussina got hurt and then Carl Pavano, the Yankees felt they could and should become more aggressive. After landing in Texas, Cashman wanted to set up a meeting with Hendricks — only to learn, to his horror, that the agent was meeting with the Red Sox, which the agent confirmed to Cashman with a text message on May 1. Hours later, Phil Hughes hurt his hamstring. The Yankees’ need for pitching was acute.

Cashman and Hendricks e-mailed back and forth on Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking around the idea of meeting during the day Thursday in Houston, but there was a terrible storm in Arlington that forced the postponement of the game. The Yankees and Rangers were scheduled for a doubleheader Thursday, and Cashman felt that if he was away from the team during the game, then the media might get an inkling of how he was trying to make an aggressive move on Clemens. He had used the same approach in signing Johnny Damon: Make a very aggressive offer quickly and force a decision.

So Hendricks and Cashman spoke on Thursday night, and the financial parameters were laid out: Clemens would cost a prorated salary of $28 million. Hendricks got off the phone and called Clemens, and told him that the time was nearing for the pitcher to make a decision, and that if he was going to go to the Yankees, now was the time. “Let’s do it,” Clemens responded.

The past week-and-change has intensified the need for stability in the Yanks’ rotation. Last Saturday, Jeff Karstens was drilled by a line drive that fractured his fibula. On Tuesday, Philip Hughes broke hearts just as he was winning them over, popping his hamstring while chasing a no-hitter. On Friday, Kei Igawa, who had come out of the bullpen to fire six innings of shutout ball in relief of Karstens, pitched like the guy who got sent to the pen in the first place. And as the week wore on, doubts about Crippled Pitcher’s Carl Pavano’s return this season reached a deafening crescendo. Despite good work from Andy Pettitte and Darrell Rasner, a sizzling start from just-activated Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang chasing perfection, the Yanks’ rotation doesn’t appear to have the necessary depth to hold up its end of this $200 million deal, which is why a team with the highest-scoring offense in the majors is still clawing its way back to .500 while losing ground to their rivals. Here’s a thumbnail comparison of the Yankee and Red Sox rotations thus far:

       W-L  IP/GS  QS%  ERA   K/9  SNLVAR
BOS 17-9 6.25 60% 3.79 7.2 4.1
NYY 8-8 4.97 28% 5.25 5.3 1.2

The Yanks aren’t even averaging five innings per start, they’re getting a Quality Start less than half as often, allowing about 1.50 runs per game more; the three wins above replacement level difference (according to BP’s numbers) seems to be an underestimation given the superiority of the Yankee offense thus far, but the difference in bullpen performances has been even steeper, and there’s no question the latter fact is a product of the former. As the Yanks have spent the past decade reminding us, the soft underbelly of long relief can make for quite a feast.

There’s no question Clemens can still pitch. Granted, the NL has played as an inferior league during Clemens’ three years years in Houston, and that’s before considering the DH/non-DH factor, but a pitcher who put up these numbers from ages 41-43 can still get it done:

Year   W-L   IP    K/9   ERA  ERA+ 
2004 18-4 214.1 9.1 2.98 145 Cy Young #7
2005 13-8 211.1 7.9 1.87 221 Led NL in ERA
2006 7-6 113.1 8.1 2.30 197

Despite the drama of the announcement and the Yankees’ obvious need, as a fan I’ve got mixed emotions about Clemens’ return. I was no fan of Clemens when he came to New York — I screamed myself hoarse at some of his early starts — but I came around. I was in the House That Ruth Built watching him nail down the 1999 World Series clincher, an indelible moment in my time as a fan. I was also at his stellar Game Three performance in the 2001 Seres, where he held off the Diamondbacks in a tense game played under tense circumstances. For all of his checkered history in big games — a history I’ve explored several times — his best big-game performances have come as a Yankee: “In 17 pinstriped [postseason] starts, he had a 3.24 ERA and won two World Series rings; with the other two teams, his ERA is 4.19 with no championships,” I wrote in 2005. And I’ve held that when he retired for the first time, he owed the Yanks and their fans nothing except perhaps the return of that Humvee, which is just more Steinbrenner money anyway.

Having said that, I’ve watched Clemens reveal himself as even more of a mercenary since then; like Krusty the Klown, selling out is in his blood. Clemens is perhaps the ultimate mercenary in baseball history, one who’s not only able to call the shots on where he plays, but exactly when he gets to show up to work. Taking him at his word on any matter involving his retirement or his return is a foolish act, and his burly-redneck-football-adrenaline-junky-drama-queen persona is a bit tough to digest. And that’s before his pitching even comes into play. He’s still a going-on-45, six-inning pitcher coming to a tough division — not to mention the loftiest, championship-or-bust expectations to be found in team sports — and counting on him to dominate as he did even for stretches during this millennium is probably a pipe dream given the contrast to his cushy Houston environs.

Still, when the alternative is watching a parade of Your Name Heres limp from mound to DL to bullpen or Scranton and back again trying to fill out the Yankee rotation, Clemens is the preferable alternative. In for a penny, in for a pound, as my Anglophilic friends would say. His pricey presence allows the Yanks to continue with their attempt to have cake and eat it too, winning while rebuilding, buying time for a young arm like Hughes to develop. If nothing else, this Rocket ride is certain to be an interesting one.

• • •

A reminder to those of you who are XM subscribers: I’ll be doing my usual 2 PM Eastern slot with Chris Liss today on XM 144’s “Baseball Beat,” and I’m sure you-know-who will be at least one topic of conversation between two Yankee fans.

Also on the radio, on Wednesday at 4:10 PM Eastern I’ll be appearing on Toledo, Ohio’s 1470 AM (WLQR), doing a show called “Front Row” with host Norm Wamer. Wamer had me on last week, and I’m delighted to return. Catch it if you’re in the area.

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