Friday, January 11, 2008
by Jonathan Mayo
Good morning everyone! I hope you have been going to Twinkie Town to check out the Twins community prospect rankings. Please do so. If you want an expert on the Minor Leagues, one great source is MiLB.com, and one of their best writers is none other than Jonathan Mayo. He is a senior writer for MLB.com who covers the minor leagues and the draft. Back in March of 2006, he did a Q&A for this site, so if you want a little more background on him, please check that out.
He is back today, but for another reason. Jonathan Mayo has written a book called Facing Clemens: Hitters on Hitting Against Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher. He talked to several current and former big league players from Cal Ripken to Ken Griffey, Jr, to former Twins OF Torii Hunter, to find out what it is like to step into the batter's box against The Rocket, Roger Clemens. I have read a good portion of the book and it really is very good. You will be impressed with the people that he talked to. I was impressed with just how much information there is in the book. Julio Franco was in the lineup when Roger Clemens made his debut. Dave Magadan discusses facing Clemens in the 1983 College World Series. There is really a lot of history, and very interesting history throughout its pages. And just to really make the book something even more impressive, Roger Clemens himself wrote the Foreword.
I think that this book is something that you will really enjoy reading. Facing Clemens will be released on March 1. And just so you know, the book was completed before the Mitchell Report was released. To learn more about Mayo and the book, Facing Clemens, please visit jonathanmayo.net. You can also pre-order (for a great price) here.
Today, I have the great opportunity to share with you a Q&A with the author, Jonathan Mayo. I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to ask questions or comment below in the Comments section. Jonathan is quite busy but he will hopefully be able to check in from time to time. So, let's get to the questions and Mr. Mayo's answers.
SethSpeaks: What was your motivation for writing this book, Facing Clemens?
Jonathan Mayo: It started with simply wanting to challenge myself professionally by writing a book, something I long dreamt of doing but hadn’t had the courage to pull the trigger. Then this project came my way and it seemed to be a perfect fit. The publisher, Lyons Press, had done two similar books with boxing and wanted to branch it off baseball. Roger Clemens seemed to be the perfect subject to talk to hitters about because of his longevity and his dominance as possibly the greatest right-hander of all time. The end result was a pretty robust work with some good insights from hitters about what it was like to try and hit the Rocket.
SethSpeaks: It will become available in March, but when did the entire process start for you? What were some of the first steps?
Jonathan Mayo: It probably started about a year and a half ago. The first step was to identify who I thought would be interesting topics for each chapter. I have to give a shout out to the folks at retrosheet.org. That was an invaluable source, being able to basically look at every hitter who’s ever stepped in against Clemens. From a statistical standpoint, I was able to pick out some interesting story lines, from the guy who faced him the most, to who’s had the most success or failure. Then I had to find out if they’d be willing to talk to me about the subject. It kind of steamrolled from there.
SethSpeaks: You really got a great group of current and former players to help talk about what it was like to stand in the batter's box against Clemens. How did you come up with the list of players and then what was the process for securing time to interview them?
Jonathan Mayo: Much of it, as I said above, was simple statistical analysis. I also looked at certain events, like All-Star Games, postseason and individual Clemens feats. That’s how I ended with a number of World Series opponents as chapters as well as someone from his first 20-strikeout game against the Mariners. I decided early on I wanted two chapters to be a little unusual – one with Minor Leaguer Johnny Drennen, who homered off of Clemens in the first start of his Minor League tour while with the Astros in 2006, the other with the eldest Clemens son, Koby, who’s now a third baseman in the Astros system. Securing the interviews was sometimes easier said than done, but I used a combination of agents and team PR folks. All were extremely helpful. I was able to do many of the interviews over the phone during the offseason and then got several of the active players when they came through Pittsburgh during the season.
SethSpeaks: There’s quite a bit of history in the book. For instance, you talked to Dave Magadan about hitting against Clemens in college, you mention that Calvin Schiraldi, not Clemens, was probably Texas's top pitcher that year. Was that a part of what you wanted to do in the book too?
Jonathan Mayo: Absolutely. While I didn’t know exactly what I’d find when I started, any time you decide to take on a project like this, you hope you find things that you didn’t know before, or that weren’t widely well-known. That keeps it interesting for you and hope that gets relayed well to the readers. Clemens’ career lasted for such a long period of time that I knew there would be nuggets to uncover. Schiraldi did have a better year in that 1983 College World Series-winning season. Another tidbit I liked was that Clemens wasn’t even supposed to pitch the night he struck out 20 Mariners in 1986. His turn was supposed to have been the previous game, but rain washed that one out and pushed him back to allow him to make that historic start.
SethSpeaks: I don't know if you have a Hall of Fame vote, but your book also points out what I believe is a great three-pronged method to determining a Hall of Famer. First, traditional stats. Next, the more advanced statistical metrics. And finally, there are the thoughts and opinions on him from the players who played against him.
Jonathan Mayo: I do not have a Hall of Fame vote. Obviously, with all the news swirling around these days, talk of the Hall of Fame and Roger Clemens is interesting, to say the least. But by using those three criteria alone, there’s no question, is there? Even if you just used one of them, he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer. But take all three into consideration – again, pre Mitchell Report as it pertains to the respect he got from players – and he was as close to a unanimous pick as you could get.
SethSpeaks: How much would you say "intimidation" was part of Clemens' repertoire?
Jonathan Mayo: A pretty big part, I’d say, especially against young hitters. That’s relayed some in the book. So many hitters who faced Clemens when they were just starting their career talk about the “Clemens aura.” Some admitted they were a bit awed when they stepped in the box. There’s definitely a feeling of “Man, that’s Roger Clemens out there,” as Torii Hunter described. There’s no doubt that Clemens used that to his advantage throughout his career and I bet he’d tell you that there were days that he didn’t have his best stuff or his A game, but being able to use that mound presence and intimidation helped him win more than a few of those.
SethSpeaks: You have an entire chapter dedicated to Torii Hunter who went a nice 0-25 against Clemens in his career. How did you secure the interview with Hunter?
Jonathan Mayo: I’m sure your readers know Torii well – all I had to do was ask him. There aren’t too many players in Major League Baseball I would even ask to be a subject in a book when the entire topic would be about him never getting a hit off of a guy. Not only was he gracious enough to let me interview him once, but when I had to go back to him to polish the chapter and ask him a few more questions, he was great about that as well. He’s long been one of my favorites in baseball. My experience with him on this only cemented that.
SethSpeaks: Hunter certainly had plenty to say about not getting a hit off of Clemens. I remember on the Twins blogs at the time this summer, there was a lot of discussion whether Hunter was talking too much about his struggles. Was he over thinking it rather than just hitting, or was it good that he was talking about it. Baseball is such a mental game. Did you get a sense for where Hunter was mentally against Clemens?
Jonathan Mayo: I really think that after the first couple of times he faced him and got past the Clemens aura thing, that it didn’t completely occur to Hunter where he was statistically against Clemens. Obviously, he knew he hadn’t fared well against the Rocket, but Hunter’s not the kind of player who remembers every pitch of every at-bat. That’s not a judgment – some players have memories like that and some don’t. Anyway, he didn’t even know how long his hitless streak was until Pedro Gomez of ESPN told him when the Twins were in Houston and he was about to face Clemens again for the first time in a few years. I think Hunter – and he as much as admits this in the book – is at his best when he doesn’t think too much and lets his natural ability take over. In terms of this chapter, I was asking him to reflect on his time against Clemens, so obviously there’s going to be some introspection involved. But I don’t think it ever got to a point where Hunter had convinced himself he couldn’t hit Clemens.
SethSpeaks: Torii Hunter sure takes every opportunity to bash former Twins manager Tom Kelly, doesn't he?
Jonathan Mayo: Yeah, there’s no love lost there, it seems. I guess it should be water under the bridge (or whatever the proper metaphor should be), but clearly Hunter feels like having TK as his manager early on was not good for him personally.
SethSpeaks: Hunter mentioned that he wasn't going to get his first hit off of Clemens with a bunt because he had too much pride for that. He said he wanted that first hit to be a home run. And he definitely swung for that. Tells us a lot about Hunter the team player and team leader, doesn't it?
Jonathan Mayo: I would agree with that. I did kind of set him up for that question by asking if he would ever think about bunting in that situation. But absolutely, if he was going to break that schneid, he was going to do it by swinging hard. He wasn’t going to get cheated. It might have eaten away at some players, but I really don’t think it bothered him all that much that he never got a hit off this pitcher. He is, after all, Roger Clemens.
SethSpeaks: What was the biggest thing that you learned from writing this book?
Jonathan Mayo: Aside from getting a lot more detail about how Clemens adapted over time to what his body allowed him to do – something I could see but didn’t understand nearly as well as I do now after seeing it through the eyes of the hitters who tried to adjust with him – I think I learned more about his human side than anything. Everyone has heard about Clemens the competitor. The reputation is well-earned and there are parts of the book that aptly describe the edge he always tried to maintain against opponents, even at All-Star Games when others might let their guard down. But I also learned about the surprising friendships he had, even with opponents (don’t worry, he was all business between the lines), and I learned a lot about him through the chapter I did with his son, Koby.
SethSpeaks: What is the best part about writing this book?
Jonathan Mayo: Well, it hasn’t come back from the printer yet, but just seeing the finished product. I’d never written anything close to this long before and just seeing that I could do it was amazing. The minute I finished it, I knew it wouldn’t be the last book I’d write. Also, I think I’d list getting to know the greatest pitcher of our generation, oddly without talking to him, better than most would be able to…and then sharing that with whoever reads the book.
SethSpeaks: What were the biggest obstacles or difficulties in writing the book?
Jonathan Mayo: Time. I still have the full-time gig at MLB.com, as well as two small kids at home. Balancing all of that was a challenge. I did a lot of late-night writing. Chasing down the subjects for each of the chapters wasn’t always the easiest task, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
SethSpeaks: You were able to get Roger Clemens himself to write the Foreword of the book. How did that come about?
Jonathan Mayo: I was in regular contact with his agent, Randy Hendricks. My first objective was to get them to allow me to interview Koby for the final chapter. But I had hopes of getting Roger involved in some way and in discussing the book with them and reviewing the chapters, the Clemens camp agreed to contribute in that fashion. Needless to say, I was thrilled when he agreed to do it and I think it puts a nice bow on the book, with some wonderful insights from him about what his journey in facing these hitters has been like throughout his career.
SethSpeaks: Since you're the minor league guru at mlb.com (and milb.com), I have to ask one question about the Twins prospects. Did any of the Twins prospects from the Arizona Fall League stand out in your mind?
Jonathan Mayo: You know, Nick Blackburn is never going to wow anyone, but boy was he impressive all AFL season. I saw him pitch in that championship game and he just flat out knows how to pitch. He’s going to be a solid big leaguer, an inning-eater who won’t be afraid to take the ball in a big game. He’s the one who jumps out off the top of my head.
SethSpeaks: Is there a prospect out there today that you feel fits the "Clemens mold?"
Jonathan Mayo: It’s always tough to put a label on someone like that. There aren’t too many pitchers who have the combination of stuff and ability to pitch, not to mention the competitive nature. Phil Hughes might be close in terms of good stuff and command. Sticking with the Yankees, assuming he stays on top of his conditioning – and I think he will – Joba Chamberlain might be able to wear that heavy comparison. And, just to flip things around a little, keep an eye on Clayton Kershaw from the Dodgers. He’s a lefty, but he’s got unreal stuff and a pretty good idea of what to do with it, especially for a guy so young.
SethSpeaks: Having now talked to several former big leaguers who hit against Clemens and written this book, would you want to step into the batter's box for one at bat against The Rocket?
Jonathan Mayo: While the result would be comical at best and hazardous at worst, I think I’d pass at that opportunity. That’s no place for a guy who had to hang ‘em up as a good-field, no-hit first baseman on my JV high school team.
So there you have it. Thank you very much to Jonathan Mayo for taking the time to answer question on his upcoming book Facing Clemens. I hope that you will head over to jonathanmayo.net and learn more. Hopefully a few of you will note the very good price and pick up a copy. Again, if you have any questions or comments for Jonathan Mayo, please write them below, or you can e-mail me and I will attempt to get you an answer or share a comment.