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Revisiting Matt Clement’s brush with ace status

Clement’s first few months in Boston really seemed like the start of something promising.

Boston Red Sox v Texas Rangers Photo by John Williamson /MLB via Getty Images

The 2005 Boston Red Sox had a difficult job. They had to follow up a 2004 team that ended an 86-year title drought and in unprecedented fashion. In many ways, the 2005 team was the embodiment of the final shot from The Graduate. They had gotten on the bus, but now they had to figure out what to do next.

That encore season was largely a success. The Red Sox won 95 games, made the playoffs and Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz both hit more than 40 home runs. Much of the roster from the previous season was left intact, but the Red Sox did have to make some changes to the starting rotation after Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe said goodbye following many great years with the team and with Curt Schilling either hurt or ineffective during the season. That’s how the Red Sox’s leaders in starts in 2005 ended up being Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, Matt Clement, David Wells and Wade Miller. It was an odd assortment to be sure and when the year wrapped up, Wakefield was the nominal ace of that group.

However, for a few glorious months, it was not Wakefield, nor three-time All Star Wells or Arroyo or Miller who donned the ace cap. Instead, it was Clement, a 30-year-old right-hander who had bounced between San Diego, Florida and Chicago before winding up with the Red Sox.

Of course, when the Red Sox signed Clement in December of 2004, he wasn’t just a journeyman starter looking for a place to ply his trade. Clement really came into his own during his three seasons with the Cubs between 2002 and 2004. In that time he produced an ERA+ of 112 and a FIP of 3.84 across 587 23 innings. Those numbers don’t rival a legend like Martinez, but they were more than solid enough to warrant a spot in any starting rotation. During his first few months in Boston, however, Clement looked like he had the potential to be much more than a solid starter. At times, he looked like a certified ace.

It didn’t start out that way, unfortunately, as Clement struggled in his first start with the Red Sox, allowing three runs (two earned) before being pulled in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees. He was a bit better in his next start against Toronto (six innings, three earned runs, six strikeouts), and from there he started to pick up some steam. He spun seven innings of one-run ball against Tampa Bay on April 16, then he posted eight shutout innings in Baltimore, drilling his ERA down to 2.13 on the season. He crashed back to earth the next time out, allowing seven runs in 4 2/3 innings to that same Baltimore team on April 26, but that was one of a handful of blips among a collection of solid to wildly impressive starts during the first few months of the season.

Across 11 combined starts in May and June, Clement allowed three earned runs or fewer nine times, including six games of two runs or fewer. He also lasted at least six innings in all but two of those starts and had six starts of at least seven innings, including his first and only complete game in a Red Sox uniform. For that gem, he allowed two earned runs on only four hits while striking out seven in a 5-2 win against Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Speaking of wins, that was part of what boosted Clement’s resume in those first few months. Although wins are a poor way to judge pitching performance, it was tough to be completely unimpressed that he won his first six decisions and had 10 wins by the All-Star break, especially since his career-high for a season was 14. Now I’m not here to tell you that wins matter for pitching evaluation, but that at least raised my eyebrows a bit.

Anyway, May and June were pretty strong months for Clement, especially May. He posted just a 2.43 ERA across 40 23 innings that month, reducing his season-long ERA to 3.06 by the time the month ended. He started to show signs of trouble in June, with a 3.94 ERA that month, but he was still sitting pretty with a 3.33 ERA entering July 1.

That’s when the real trouble began. Clement made his 17th start of the season July 1 against the Blue Jays. He gave up four runs in the top of the third but it was the sixth inning when the flood gates were thrown wide open. Clement loaded the bases with two outs and allowed a single to Russ Adams that plated a run. He was then pulled for Mike Myers who allowed a grand slam. Clement ended up with a line of 5 23 innings and eight earned runs allowed. Even if Myers allowed the grand slam, Clement had created the situation himself.

Clement bounced back after that, nearly pitching a complete game against the Texas Rangers in his next start while striking out nine and walking none, although he did let up four earned runs.

Then came the All Star break and two pieces of good news. The first was that Clement would be representing the American League as an All Star and the second was that he might get a little extra rest, which would hopefully allow him to get back to where he had been in May.

Unfortunately, after the break, Clement struggled to find consistency the rest of the season. He had a few more hot streaks, like when he posted a 3.60 ERA in August, but his ERA ballooned during dismal stretches in July (8.88) and September (6.00) and by the end of the year he had an ERA of 4.57 and an ERA+ of 99, putting him just a hair below average.

Part of what hampered Clement in the second half when he posted a 5.72 ERA was a lack of control. It was something that plagued Clement throughout his career. He led the National League in wild pitches three times, including an MLB-high 23 in 2000, which was the same season he led baseball in walks allowed (125). In his 14 starts in the second half of 2005, Clement walked 33 batters and struck out 49. He had walked 35 and struck out 97 in his 18 first half starts.

It wasn’t all Clement’s fault, of course, as a frightening incident in Tampa Bay at the end of July when he took a shot to the head certainly took a toll.

Clement would only pitch one more season in Boston after 2005 and that 2006 campaign was not the bounce back many hoped he would have. He had a 6.61 ERA in 12 starts and posted a career-low ERA+ of 72.

Even though Clement stumbled during his attempted climb up ace mountain, his run in those first few months of 2005 was one of my favorite parts of a season that was always going to be overshadowed by the year before. Plus, my guy rocked the high socks. You’ve got to respect that.