Future history: The unique arbitration case of Roger Clemens

As pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training in 25 days and the Carlos Delgado free agent chase draws to a close, the last remaining loose threads of the off-season are the arbitration cases scheduled for the next few weeks. While these are usually mundane hearings that determine how much of a raise a player will get, this year, Roger Clemens’ record-setting filing brings a new level scrutiny to the salary arbitration process.

As my fellow columnist Susan Kelly noted yesterday, Roger Clemens’ request for $22 million is an arbitration record, toppling the previous high-water mark of Derek Jeter’s $18.5 million request in 2001. The Astros offered Clemens a reasonable offer of $13.5 million. The difference between the two figures — a cool $8.5 million — is also an arbitration record.

My first reaction to this news was to categorize this as a Classic Roger Clemens Event. Somewhere along the lines of slacking off during his last year in Boston and confusing a baseball bat with who knows what during the 2000 World Series, this is Roger Clemens at his finest. A year after pitching for the Astros at a hometown discount of $5 million, Clemens has clearly decided that his seventh Cy Young Award might be worth more than what Esteban Loaiza made last year while compiling one awful season.

It seems that in Clemens’ mind, the $5 million was a mistake. He got the Astros one game away from the World Series, and he won that Cy Young Award. For that, he figures he should have gotten that $13.5 million. So why not correct it next year? By making $22 million in 2005 and $5 million in 2004, he gets the equivalence of $13.5 million per year for two years. So much for that hometown discount. Mr. Nice-Guy Clemens only lasted for so long.

My second thought was a meditation on the nature of arbitration. In the case of Clemens, a 42-year-old clearly at the very end of his career, how would an arbiter decide this case? Does Clemens’ case get judged based on what he’s likely to do during 2005 or does he get paid based on what he has already accomplished? Clearly, the two outcomes could be vastly different.

First, based on what he has accomplished in 21 seasons at the Major League level, Clemens probably deserves to become the highest paid pitcher in the history of the game. (And at the mid-point of the two offers — $17.5 million — Clemens would be just that, breaking the $17.5 million record held by Pedro Martinez.) The Rocket has won the Cy Young Award in one-third of the seasons in which he has pitched. That’s simply incredible. He’s won 328 games, tied for 10th all-time, and he has over 4000 strike outs. Simply put, if any pitcher in the game ever deserved $22 for what he has accomplished, Roger Clemens is it.

There is, however, the other side of the equation. Should Clemens get paid based on what he will probably do next season? If so, the numbers look a bit different. Using Baseball-Reference’s Similarity Scores that they provide on every player page, I examined those few pitchers whose careers were similar to Clemens through age 41. The results were quite mixed. First up was Tom Seaver with a similarity score of 865. However, age 41 was Seaver’s last year pitching. Steve Carlton, Warren Spahn, and Don Sutton were the three other pitchers with scores over 800. Of the three, only Spahn improved from age 41 to age 42. At 42, Warren Spahn tied his career-high in wins with 23 and threw 22 complete games. But he struck out only 102 batters. He was a must different pitcher than Clemens is, and it’s tough to draw any conclusions from that comparison.

Looking at Carlton and Sutton, two pitchers who were power pitchers in the vein of the Rocket, a clearer picture begins to emerge. By 42, Carlton had already seen a significant decline in his effectiveness. While his ERA at age 41 was nearly 2 runs above his career average, his ERA at age 42 was even worse at 5.74. He won only 6 games compared to 14 losses and struck out just 91 in 150 innings. Considering that he’s third on the all-time strike out list, those are shocking numbers. Sutton, seventh on the strike out list, saw a similar decline. His ERA rose by a whole run in between ages 41 and 42. He struck out just 99 and gave up more hits than innings pitched for just the second time in his career. Those years past 40 have not been kind to the game’s best power pitchers.

So what does this say about Roger Clemens’ current situation? Based on how other power pitchers have fared at the age of 42, Clemens may actually deserve just $5 million for his 2005 season. It does not seem unreasonable to believe that the Rocket’s ERA will jump up from 2.98, a six-year low. He probably won’t strike out 218 batters either. Nor will he win 18 games when his offense is missing Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran, and probably Lance Berkman for a few months. Plus, it’s his second season in the NL. He may have enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts last year, but it just gets tougher the second time, even more so at age 42.

Yet, there is another argument: Roger Clemens is not like other pitchers. Sutton, Seaver, and Carlton had already seen significantly performance declines by the time they all hit 40. Clemens has yet to suffer the same fate. Maybe he is a bionic man. Maybe he could turn in another Cy Young performance and turn 42 at the same time. History is not on his side, but then again, Roger Clemens stands alone in baseball history.

In the end, I think the point is moot. Over the next few days, we’ll find out if Clemens is set on returning to Minute Maid Park next season. If he decides that retirement is not for him, it’s pretty unlikely that his case would end up in arbitration. It’s much more likely that Houston and the Rocket would settle for amount that would guarantee Clemens more money than any pitcher in history. But in the very rare event that the case actually went to the arbitration, I would hate to be the arbiter having to decide between Clemens’ remarkable career accomplishments and the precarious perch of 42-year-old pitchers in the Major Leagues. How do you decide between baseball history and Clemens’ Hall of Fame qualifications or baseball future and the likelihood of an off year for a man at the end of his career?

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