In Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, he wrote: “there is a good argument that Tom Seaver is the greatest pitcher of all time.” I always thought this was possibly the case given how long Seaver’s career was and how consistently dominant he was throughout it. Nevertheless, 5+ years ago, Roger Clemens completed a career which was even longer than Seaver’s and during which, perhaps, he was even more dominating.
Really, the only guys who measure up to Tom Terrific and the Rocket pitched in the forgotten and segregated past. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove anybody? With apologies to Greg Maddux, the answer has to be either the Mets all-time all-star or the guy with more Cy Young trophies than anybody else.
Seaver is always classy and Clemens sleazy. But with a record 7 Cy Young awards, 2 World Series rings, and many post-season appearances for Clemens versus 3 Cy Youngs and one ring for Seaver, I felt Clemens deserved the nod. Now, we know Clemens cheated so Seaver noses back ahead since as far as we know he was always clean.
But, looking solely at what they did on the field, who was better? Perhaps the two most important statistics give two different answers. The Wins Above Replacement stat, which ultimately relies upon data analysis and numbers crunching to come up with an over-arching number, lists Clemens as number 3 starting pitcher of all-time behind Cy Young and Walter Johnson. Seaver at 7 is the next modern-era player on the list following Grover Cleveland Alexander, Kid Nichols and Lefty Grove. So Clemens is better right?
Not so fast, since 1950, Tom Seaver holds the career record for Quality Start percentage. He’s the only pitcher over the past 60 years above 70%. 70.2% of the time Seaver took the mound he gave his team an excellent chance to win. Neither Clemens nor Maddux is in the top 10. Quality Start percentage is a telling stat but like all of them, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Seaver pitched the majority of his career for the Mets, who played in a great pitcher’s park. By contrast, Clemens who came up with the Red Sox and later pitched for the Yankees had to retire batters in relatively small yards with short porches. Moreover, Seaver’s career began at the tail-end of a pitcher’s era and he never had to contend with the juiced-up sluggers that the juiced-up Clemens faced. The other guys at the top of the Quality Start percentage chart, include at number 2! Mel Stottlemyre!! (really) and at 4 the undeniably great Bob Gibson. Each one’s career overlapped with Seaver’s.
Ultimately, the cheatin’ Texan had 480 Quality Starts – 26 more than the Connecticut Met. He doesn’t make the top ten in percentage only because he started so many more games than Seaver. Clemens won 349 games versus 311 for Seaver. Warren Spahn with 363 wins had more victories in the post-segregation era but he never was a blow-em away ace like Clemens or Seaver.
My heart isn’t in it but going solely by what he did with his arm and ignoring what he stuck in it, Clemens was the greatest starting pitcher of all time.