It is a challenging exercise to earnestly look back in time. Even with the extended free time currently foisted upon us, a thoughtful examination of the past can still prove daunting. The present is certainly a roadblock given the fear of COVID-19 and all it has produced: financial instability, a deep concern for the well-being of our friends, family, and society at-large, and a yearning for life to feel complete again.
Still, it’s a wonderful exercise to earnestly look back in time. For baseball lovers, this feels especially true.
The beauty of revisiting baseball history persists beyond the obvious. Championships are wonderful memories, pained seasons are a reminder to celebrate in full the good times, and the greatest players in an organization rekindle unbridled joy. Yet to fully examine baseball’s past is to embrace the role players, those ancillary members of the roster that helped shape a moment, a playoff push, a season, and perhaps even an era.
Matt Clement was one of those ancillary players for the early 2000’s Cubs.
A Difficult Trade, Revisited
Clement made his way to Chicago in 2002, as part of the package in what many consider a regrettable trade. While there were a lot of players swapped in the deal, Clement and Antonio Alfonseca were shipped to the Cubs for a four-player package that included a prospect named Dontrelle Willis.
To give proper context, Alfonseca had a 45 save season in 2000, and though that number dwindled to 28 in 2001 the Cubs expected his presence to stabilize the bullpen. (He didn’t.) Clement had yet to fully realize his potential, and while 27 at the time of the trade, he belied his control problems by starting at least 31 games the previous three seasons before his arrival to Wrigley.
Willis, of course, became a star with the Marlins, helping them earn a surprise Wild Card berth in ’03 while winning Rookie of the Year honors. He went on to have his best year in 2005, finishing second in Cy Young voting with an impressive 22-10 record, 2.63 ERA, seven complete games, and a sterling 154 ERA+ in a whopping 236.1 innings pitched.
‘D-Train’ was charismatic and youthful, an absolute joy to watch pitch. He was must-watch TV, and that instant stardom — coupled with the Cubs defeat to the Marlins in the 2003 NLCS — created consternation over the trade. Indeed, it felt as though the Cubs gave up the superstar of the future for an ineffective veteran reliever and a starting pitcher that lacked the ceiling of the young stud. The fan outrage was understandable, even if short-sighted. We’ll get to that in a bit.
Sadly, Willis’ fall was as abrupt as his rise was sudden. Likely due to overuse, an ineffective 2007 season precipitated the injuries that derailed his career. He was traded to Detroit before the ’08 season, and never again pitched more than 75.2 innings. His last season was in 2011 with the Reds.
And this brings us back to Matt Clement.
Making a Home in Chicago
In 2002, while Willis was still plying his trade in the minors, Clement put together a nifty season for the Cubs. Despite an ugly year for the Wrigley faithful, in which the team finished in fifth place with a 67-95 record, Clement nestled into his new home with aplomb. In 205 innings he posted a sturdy 3.56 ERA (3.34 FIP), upping his strikeout percentage nearly eight points to 25.1 while lowering his walk rate almost two points, down to a more respectable 9.9 percent. For context, the league average ERA in 2002 was 4.28.
It felt as if Clement had arrived, and through 2004 he was everything the Cubs hoped for when they traded for him.
Armed with a sinker that sat in the low 90’s, he induced ground balls at an inspiring clip, complementing his main offering with a devastating slider. Never amassing obscene strikeout totals, the 50-plus percent groundball rate in Chicago supplemented his durability, averaging 195.2 innings a season as a Cub.
Standout Kerry Wood showed full health in 2002, and that promise produced a high quality 2003 season. Mark Prior went from impressive rookie in ’02 to a should-be Cy Young campaign in ’03 — probably the best season from a Cub pitcher over the last 20 years, not counting Jake Arrieta in ’15. Rounding out the rotation (let’s forget the ugly ’03 effort by Shawn Estes) was a young, volatile, talented pitcher named Carlos Zambrano.
Every starter not named Estes started over 30 games in 2003, each eclipsing 200 innings along the way. While Prior, Wood, and Zambrano each pitched like a true ace, Clement held his own, compiling a 4.11 ERA (4.14 FIP) that was still markedly better than league average (4.40). Clement provided the Cubs with a durable, effective fourth starter throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
What Fans Forget about the ’03 Postseason
Cub fans still lament the ’03 NLCS, even with a championship in-hand 15 years later. That lament is fueled further (both then and now) by the rise of Willis. The Rookie of the Year was so beloved, his pitching so enjoyable to watch that he was ubiquitous — a reality that cemented the frustration some Cubs fans maintained about Clement.
Certainly, it is fair to feel regret that the front office traded Willis away. What is forgotten, however, is that in the fall of 2003 Clement out-pitched Willis in game four of the NLCS.
With Chicago already up in the series 2-1, the offense exploded for four runs on Willis in the top of the first inning. Clement never looked back.
Pitching 7.2 terrific innings, he yielded three earned runs, scattering just five hits. The effort gave the Cubs an easy 8-3 victory, and while everyone remembers what happened those last two games in Wrigley, Clement’s forgotten performance was the moment that should have propelled the Cubs to the World Series.
A Quiet Goodbye
Clement was even better for the Cubs in 2004, submitting a 3.68 ERA and 3.0 fWAR in 181 innings. Somehow, his record stood at a puzzling 9-13, however, and even though the Cubs finished 89-73 they ended the season an ugly 3-7. The 10 game free fall squandered a Wild Card berth that seemed all but certain.
The bitter end to 2004 was especially brutal for a team that replaced Shawn Estes with the return of Greg Maddux, who gave the Cubs over 200 innings and an ERA+ of 110 that season. While Wood and Prior failed to provide the same output they did the season before, it’s a shame that rotation never saw the playoffs.
Clement lasted just three full seasons in Chicago, departing via free agency after 2004. His overall numbers suggest he was exactly what the Cubs needed in what should have been glorious years. He was durable, ate up innings, and gave the Cubs a better than average performance at the back end of the rotation.
Perhaps there wasn’t anything special or flashy about Clement. And you know what? That’s okay. He gave Cubs fans an honest effort, stabilizing a formidable rotation, even if but briefly in time.
Clement was a Cub during some pained years. That much is undeniable. He was also a part of the fabric that gave fans hope, however fleeting, in both 2003 and 2004. That hope, now long dissipated, should still inspire appreciation for the durable hurler 16 years later.
Matt Clement may not be a household name, but his time as a Cub should not be forgotten.