Friday December 5th, 2014

Inning for inning and inch for inch, Pedro Martinez has a case as the best pitcher in baseball history. Though he totaled "only" 219 wins over the course of his 18-year career, Martinez reached levels of dominance that few pitchers ever did. His two best seasons, 1999 and 2000, came at the height of the highest-scoring era in the majors since the mid-1930s and in one of the majors' least pitcher-friendly ballparks.

An electrifying presence on the mound, Martinez dominated hitters, and his numbers dominated leaderboards. He led his league in ERA, strikeout rate and hit rate five times apiece. That dominance didn't go unrecognized: Martinez won three Cy Young awards, while placing second two other times and among the top four seven of the 11 times he pitched enough innings to qualify for an ERA title.

Martinez did all of this despite his diminutive physical stature (officially listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but likely smaller) — he was a power pitcher who wasn't built like one. The key to his success was the pairing of his mid-90s fastball with a changeup that some consider the best ever — both thrown with the same arm action, leaving the batter guessing. To that devastating one-two punch, he added a nasty slider, a variety of arm angles, pinpoint control and a cocky-but-cerebral approach, all of which enabled him to strike out batters with more frequency than any pitcher this side of fellow 2015 ballot newcomer Randy Johnson.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Schedule for write-ups

Because his shoulder couldn't withstand the stress of throwing 200 innings per year into his mid-30s, Martinez retired before he could put up Johnson-level career numbers. Thus, he becomes an important test case for the voters. Since tabbing Ferguson Jenkins in 1991, the BBWAA has elected just eight starting pitchers to the Hall of Fame. Seven of them — Tom Seaver (elected in 1992), Steve Carlton ('94), Phil Niekro ('97), Don Sutton ('98), Nolan Ryan ('99), Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (both 2014) — were locks by dint of their membership in the 300-win club. The eighth, Bert Blyleven — who had 287 wins and the fifth-highest strikeout total in history — required 14 years on the ballot as well as a groundbreaking, grassroots effort on the part of bloggers and sabermetricians to get his due.

Martinez is going to change that. Look past the wins, and the evidence that he belongs in the Hall of Fame is overwhelming, so the chances are good that he'll join the Big Unit on the dais in Cooperstown next summer. In doing so, he may help to reshape the electorate's view of what constitutes a Hall-worthy career for a contemporary starting pitcher, opening the door for other pitchers who fell short of the magic 300.

pitcher career peak jaws w l era era+
Pedro Martinez 84.0 58.2 71.1 219 100 2.93 154
Avg. HOF SP 73.4 50.2 61.8        

Born in Manoguayabo, a poverty-ridden suburb of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Martinez was the fifth of six children and the third of four boys who all played baseball. Their father, Paolino, had been a respected pitcher in his own right, a 1950s teammate of Felipe and Matty Alou who was said to be good enough to make the majors himself, though he was too poor to leave the country for a tryout with the Giants. Like many Dominicans, the Martinez boys improvised when it came to baseball equipment, using tree branches and broom handles to bat around the heads of their sisters' dolls.

The oldest son, Ramon, signed with the Dodgers in 1984 at the age of 16 and reached the majors in 1988. By 1990, he was the Dodgers' top starter, a 20-game winner who placed second in that year's NL Cy Young voting. Pedro signed with Los Angeles at age 16 in 1988, though at just 5-8 and 120 pounds, he stood some eight inches shorter than his lanky brother. Nelson, the brother between those two in age, was supposed to try out for the Pirates but was derailed by a knee injury, while Jesus, the youngest, signed with the Dodgers in 1992 and eventually spent 10 years knocking around the minors; L.A. recalled him in September 1996, though he never got into a game.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Curt Schilling

Following two seasons in the Dominican Summer League, Pedro Martinez came stateside in 1990, and after whiffing 82 batters in 77 innings at age 18 for the team's Great Falls affiliate, he was named the No. 3 prospect in the Pioneer League by Baseball America. Despite his size, he could pump fastballs into the mid-90s, and he had begun mastering a changeup learned from Great Falls pitching coach Guy Conti. Martinez dominated High A and Double A stops in 1991, finishing the year by holding his own with the Dodgers' Triple A Albuquerque affiliate. For the season, he posted a 2.28 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts per nine, good enough for BA to place him 10th on their Top 100 Prospects list and for The Sporting News to name him their Minor League Player of the Year — not bad for a player who didn't turn 20 until after the season ended.

Martinez spent most of 1992 at Albuquerque, missing a midseason promotion opportunity due to shoulder soreness but making his major league debut on Sept. 24, with two scoreless innings of relief against the Reds. Six days later, he threw six strong innings against Cincinnati in his first major league start, whiffing seven in a losing cause.

After undergoing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder over the winter (he had dislocated it while swinging a bat late in the year), Martinez pitched well the following spring, but was sent back to Triple A nonetheless. Bitterly disappointed, he considered quitting, though a pep talk from his big brother settled him down. Three innings into his Opening Day start for Albuquerque, he was pulled because a Dodgers reliever had suffered an injury, opening up a roster spot on the parent club.

Though he began in a mopup role, by mid-May he gained enough of manager Tommy Lasorda's trust to graduate to setup duty, where he sparkled. In 63 relief appearances and two mid-September starts, he posted a 2.61 ERA in 107 innings, striking out 10.0 batters per nine, the league's highest rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings. The Dodgers improved from 63 wins in 1992 to 81 in '93, though the 35 homers from NL Rookie of the Year Mike Piazza played a larger part in that turnaround than Martinez did.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Mike Mussina

Even with Piazza, the Dodgers had the league's worst offense, but with Ramon, Pedro Astacio​, Tom Candiotti, Kevin Gross and Orel Hershiser their rotation was set, leaving the younger Martinez with no clear path to a starting job. Additionally, they lost second baseman Jody Reed — the anchor of an otherwise wretched defense — to the Rockies via free agency, leaving a hole in the infield. When general manager Fred Claire couldn't find an acceptable substitute on the open market, he traded Pedro to the Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields, who was viewed as an All-Star in the making heading into his age-25 season. The deal had the blessings of both team physician Dr. Frank Jobe, who felt that the fragility of Martinez's left shoulder (which he had repaired) offered troubling clues regarding the stability of his right one, and Lasorda, who felt that the undersized hurler would never have the stamina to be a starter.

Given Lasorda's track record for wearing his aces down, it's reasonable to wonder what would have happened to Martinez had he stayed in Los Angeles. Over a decade-and-a-half span starting in the early 1980s, the skipper wore his aces — first Fernando Valenzuela, then Hershiser and Ramon Martinez — down to the nub with high pitch counts and heavy annual workloads. All three wound up on the operating table, needing Jobe to work his magic, and thereafter, they did more surviving than thriving at the major league level. Had Pedro not been traded, he may well have met the same fate sooner rather than later.

As it was, DeShields and the Dodgers soon declined into mediocrity, and Martinez quickly flourished with the rapidly improving Expos, turning the trade into one of the era’s most lopsided. In his second start for his new team — and just the fifth of his major league career — he retired the first 22 Reds he faced before hitting Reggie Sanders with a pitch. Upset at being brushed back earlier, Sanders charged the mound, as if Martinez hit him intentionally to sabotage his own perfect game! Both benches emptied and the slugger was ejected, and though Martinez maintained his composure, he lost the no-hitter via a leadoff single to start the ninth.

On June 9, Martinez three-hit the Mets for his first shutout. Through his first 24 appearances (one in relief), he posted a 3.42 ERA (122 ERA+) with 142 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings, helping the Expos to the best record in baseball (74-40) when the players' strike hit in early August. Alas, the strike not only wiped out the team's shot at postseason glory, but also forced general manager Kevin Malone to dismantle the roster, trading several key players and allowing Larry Walker to depart as a free agent.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Randy Johnson

Martinez didn't go anywhere, thankfully. Instead, he kept humming along at a similar clip, posting a 3.61 ERA (120 ERA+) in 63 starts while striking out 8.7 per nine in 1995 and '96, making his first All-Star team in the latter year, and delivering a combined 8.6 WAR. Unafraid to pitch inside — and gaining something of a reputation as a headhunter, instilling a bit of fear in batters despite his stature — he earned the nickname "Señor Plunk" from the local media, and hit 11 batters apiece in 1994 and '95. For all of the concerns about his durability, he didn't miss a start. From '94 to '96, he ranked among the top 25 pitchers in starts and innings, and fifth in strikeouts, behind only Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Chuck Finley and Roger Clemens.

On June 3, 1995, facing the Padres in San Diego, Martinez once again flirted with history. He threw nine perfect innings, retiring 27 hitters on 93 pitches and striking out nine — but his teammates failed to score, collecting just three hits themselves. Martinez took the mound for the 10th inning but yielded a leadoff double to Bip Roberts. After he departed, the Expos wound up winning, but he was never officially credited with a perfect game.

Martinez broke out in a big way in 1997, his age-25 season, completing a league-high 13 starts. delivering a league-best 1.90 ERA (219 ERA+) and striking out 305 in 241 1/3 innings en route to 9.0 WAR, also a league best. He whiffed 10 or more batters in 18 starts and became the first pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1972 to post an ERA below 2.00 with more than 300 strikeouts. He earned All-Star honors for the second straight year and won his first Cy Young award. Key to the breakout, according to Montreal manager Felipe Alou, was that Martinez had a greater measure of self-control, as he told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber: "Pedro has more command of Pedro this year… When things go wrong now, he doesn't look up at the roof for answers. He's got the answers in Pedro — in his arm, in his legs, in his head, in his experience."

Repeating an all-too-familiar pattern, the Expos couldn't afford to sign Martinez long term. Meanwhile, the general manager who had swiped him from the Dodgers, Dan Duquette, was now in that capacity in Boston with egg on his face. Just a year earlier, he had let Clemens depart for the Blue Jays as a free agent, famously dismissing the 34-year-old as being in "the twilight of his career," only to watch the rejuvenated Rocket win the AL Cy Young in 1997. One day shy of exactly four years since his previous heist, Duquette traded prospect Carl Pavano and a player to be named later (who became Tony Armas Jr.) to Montreal in exchange for Martinez, and soon signed him to a six-year, $75 million extension that set a record for average annual value.

Martinez couldn't match his Cy Young season, but in his first year with the Red Sox, he posted a 2.89 ERA and struck out 251 (second in the league) en route to 7.2 WAR (third) and a runner-up finish to Clemens in the Cy Young voting. The Sox improved from 78 wins to 92 and a wild card berth. Though Martinez was solid in his lone outing against the Indians in the Division Series, the Sox were eliminated in four games.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Roger Clemens

That was just a prelude to the majors' most dominant two-year stretch in more than a quarter-century. In 1999, Martinez was the unanimous winner of the AL Cy Young award as well as the pitchers' Triple Crown, going 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and a career-high 313 strikeouts (13.2 per nine) in 213 1/3 innings en route to 9.7 WAR. All of those numbers led the league save for the innings total, which was held back by a 15-day stint on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation. He reached double digits in strikeouts 19 times, including a 17-K performance in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 10 in which he allowed only one hit, a Chili Davis solo homer. He was also runner-up to Ivan Rodriguez in one of the most controversial MVP votes of the era, but that's a story for another day.

Boston won 94 games and another wild card berth, but its Division Series hopes looked grim when Martinez exited the opener after four scoreless innings due to back spasms. He re-appeared in the fourth inning of an 8-8 slugfest in Game 5 and threw six hitless innings in relief as the Sox rallied to take the series. Five days later, he upstaged Clemens and the Yankees, striking out 12 and allowing just two hits over seven innings in what would be Boston's only victory in the five-game ALCS.

In a March 27, 2000 profile for Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci illuminated one of the physical keys to Martinez’s prowess:

Martinez points to the tips of the index and middle fingers of his right hand. Each one is calloused, even here in January, three months removed from his last pitch of '99. But the calluses are not where you expect them to be, on the lower part of the fingertip, the contact points of a pitcher's grip. No, the slivers of hardened skin are at the very top of the fingers, almost beneath the edge of the fingernails. But...how could this be? "The longer the ball stays on your fingers, the more spin you get," Martinez says. Spin is the DNA of a fastball, its very code of life. Martinez's heater is a 97-mph double helix of hell for a hitter.

His fingers curve backward so easily that the baseball stays on his fingers longer than on most pitchers'. The last part of his fingers to touch the ball is not the part you would use to dribble a basketball, but the part you would use to push a doorbell.

Relative to the league, Martinez was even better in 2000 than the year before, delivering a 1.74 ERA in a league where 4.91 was average; the resultant 291 ERA+ stands as the best in the majors since 1893, when the 60-foot-6 distance from the rubber to home plate was established. Martinez's total of 217 innings was again held back by a DL stint, this time for an oblique strain, but nonetheless, his 11.7 WAR stands as the fourth-best of the post-1960 Expansion Era, and his two-year total of 21.4 WAR is bested only by Wilbur Wood (22.4 WAR, 1971-72) and Bob Gibson (21.6 WAR, 1968-69), both of whom blew past 300 innings in each of those seasons. The 1999-2000 seasons were also notable because older brother Ramon had joined the Red Sox as a free agent, though age and injuries limited him to 31 starts and a 5.70 ERA across the two seasons.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Lee Smith

To that point in his career, the younger Martinez had avoided major arm woes, but in 2001, his luck ran out. As strong as ever during the season's first two months, he carried a 2.01 ERA and 13.4 K/9 into mid-June, but shoulder woes — initially diagnosed as tendinitis, later revealed as a minor rotator cuff tear — forced him to skip a turn, then knocked him out of action for two months, and he made just three starts after returning, the last on Sept. 7. A victim of the Curse of the Bambino? Even with tongue firmly in cheek, one couldn't help but note that Martinez's woes began in the wake of his telling reporters after blanking the Yankees for eight innings on May 30, "I’m starting to hate talking about the Yankees... I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass, pardon me the word.”

Martinez was able to rehab without surgery and rebound as well. He didn't reach 200 innings in 2002 or '03 either, thanks to hip inflammation and a strained latissimus dorsi, but he led the AL in ERA and strikeout rate in both seasons, and in total strikeouts in the former. His numbers (2.26 ERA and 10.8 K/9 in '02, 2.22 and 9.9 in '03) were below those of that previous two-year peak, but they were still better than nearly every pitcher on the planet. He tallied 14.5 WAR in the process, and finished second and third in the two Cy Young votings.

After missing the playoffs despite winning 93 games in 2002, the Red Sox reclaimed the wild card with 95 wins the following year. Martinez was solid in two Division Series starts against the Athletics, but he was roughed up by the Yankees in a contentious ALCS. Matched against Clemens in Game 3, he intentionally threw behind Karim Garcia's head in the top of the fourth inning, with the home plate umpire ruling that Garcia had been hit in the back. Tensions escalated, and after Clemens threw a high pitch to Manny Ramirez in the bottom of that frame, both benches emptied. Viewers were treated to the surreal and bizarre sight of New York's 72-year-old bench coach, Don Zimmer, lunging at and being thrown to the ground by Martinez, who was not ejected.

Martinez wound up on the short end of the decision nonetheless, having yielded four runs in seven innings. He returned to start the epic Game 7 in Yankee Stadium, and while he carried a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning — thanks in part to Clemens' early meltdown, which might have been worse if not for Mike Mussina’s clutch relief appearance — manager Grady Little's slow hook allowed Martinez to fritter away the lead amid a three-run rally. The Yankees wound up winning the pennant on an 11th-inning home run by Aaron Boone, yet another 2015 Hall of Fame candidate.

Though healthy enough to throw 217 innings in 2004 — a year in which he was being paid $17.5 million, a record for pitchers, via an option the Sox had picked up the previous spring — Martinez's effectiveness took a dip. His 3.90 ERA was a career high, though his 124 ERA+ was in line with his pre-breakout years in Montreal. After being roughed up for 13 runs in 12 1/3 innings by his ongoing nemesis in back-to-back September starts, he famously conceded to reporters, "What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy. I wish they would disappear… I'd like to face any other team right now.''

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Bagwell

Bronx cheers and "Who's your daddy?" chants echoed throughout Yankee Stadium during his six-inning, three run performance in ALCS Game 2, and he wobbled through a Game 5 start, allowing four runs and five walks in six innings, but Martinez had the last laugh. The Red Sox famously became the first team to come all the way back from a 3-games-to-0 deficit and win the series. Martinez even surfaced to throw an inning of garbage-time relief in Game 7. He then delivered seven shutout innings in World Series Game 3 against the Cardinals, and one night later, behind a brilliant start by Derek Lowe, the Sox finally won their first championship in 86 years.

While Boston bid to retain Martinez via free agency, the 33-year-old righty surprised the baseball world by signing a four-year, $54 million deal with the Mets — the same dollar amount the Red Sox had reportedly offered, albeit contingent on having his 2008 option picked up rather than guaranteed, as New York was willing to do. Martinez spun a strong inaugural season in Queens, throwing 217 innings with a 2.82 ERA and a league-best 4.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio (his fourth time leading the league in that category). He ranked third in the league with 7.0 WAR (his eighth top-five finish) and earned All-Star honors for the seventh time.

The Mets won just 83 games that year, but they would come within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2006. Martinez was strong enough through his first 15 starts (3.01 ERA, 10.0 K/9) to make another All-Star team, but he left his June 28 start after three ugly innings and was placed on the disabled list due to inflammation in his right hip. He made just seven more starts that year, serving separate DL stints for the hip, a right calf strain and a complete tear of his rotator cuff, the last of which sent him to the operating table of Dr. David Altchek while his teammates battled through the postseason. Had he been available and anywhere close to his usual effectiveness, the Mets might have made the Fall Classic. Instead, they lost a seven-game NLCS to the Cardinals.

Likewise, New York might have made the playoffs in each of the next two seasons instead of suffering agonizing near-misses had Martinez been available and effective. But he was limited to just five September starts following his long rehab in 2007, and only 20 starts in 2008 (with an ugly 5.61 ERA to boot) due to a two-month DL stint for a hamstring strain, with further injuries — as well as the death of his father from brain cancer — not helping. Highlights in those two years were rare, but his 2007 debut did feature his 3,000th strikeout, a whiff of the Reds' Aaron Harang that made him the 15th pitcher to reach that plateau.

Over the final three years of his pact with the Mets, Martinez managed just 34 starts with a 4.74 ERA and 1.2 WAR, but he still had clubs interested in his services. He held off on signing with a team even after throwing six scoreless innings for the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. But on July 15, the 37-year-old righty signed a prorated $2 million deal with the Phillies, and after pitching his way into some semblance of shape, he returned to the majors on Aug. 12, with a five-inning effort against the Cubs.

Martinez made nine starts totaling just 44 2/3 innings for the NL East-winning club, posting a 3.63 ERA. He even summoned a bit of the old magic with seven innings of two-hit shutout ball against the Dodgers in NLCS Game 2 in Los Angeles, though the Phillies lost, 1-0. Continuing the full-circle theme, he started twice against the Yankees in the World Series, both times in the Bronx. Valiant in defeat in Game 2, he was pummeled in the Game 6 clincher. That was his final game in the majors, though he didn't officially retire until December 2011.

MLB
JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Craig Biggio

Since Martinez last qualified for an ERA title during his age-33 season of 2005 and left the majors at age 37, most of his counting stats don't measure up to the elite pitchers who were his peers during his heyday. Even so, those numbers are quite impressive, and they point toward his getting a plaque in Cooperstown. Martinez is one of only nine pitchers to win at least three Cy Young awards, tied with Clayton Kershaw, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver for fifth in that category. Among those with at least three, Clemens and the still-active Kershaw are the only others outside the Hall. Martinez's total of five league ERA titles is tied with Walter Johnson, Koufax and Christy Mathewson — a century of pitching royalty — for third all-time, with only Lefty Grove (nine) and Clemens (six) doing so more often. His 3,154 strikeouts ranks 13th all-time, and while that owes plenty to pitching in an era when whiffs were almost continually on the rise, he's the only one of 16 pitchers to reach that plateau having thrown fewer than 3,000 innings, with 433 2/3 fewer than the next man, Schilling.

Indeed, it's the rate stats that clarify Martinez's place in history. Among pitchers with at least 2,500 innings (here I'm deviating from my usual 3,000-inning cutoff to make the point), his strikeout rate is second only to the Big Unit, whether expressed per-nine-innings (10.0 to Johnson's 10.6) or a per-plate-appearance (27.7 percent to Johnson's 28.6 percent). Using that same cutoff, his 154 ERA+ ranks first — his numbers would have looked great in just about any era, but they look especially so in the highest-scoring era since the 1930s — as does his total of five seasons with an ERA+ of at least 200 (read: an ERA less than half the league average).

That level of excellence pushes Martinez high in the WAR-based rankings despite his innings total, well above the average Hall of Fame starter on all three fronts. His 84.0 career WAR ranks 22nd all-time, 13th among post-World War II pitchers, all of whom needed at least 1,000 more innings to reach such heights. His 58.2 peak WAR is 21st all-time, fifth among postwar pitchers behind only Clemens (66.3), Johnson (62.0), Gibson (61.6) and Seaver (59.5). His 71.1 JAWS is 21st, almost 10 full points above the standard for enshrined starters.

As if one needed more proof, there’s this: On a per-inning basis, no pitcher delivered more value. Prorated to a 200-inning basis, Martinez's 5.9 WAR is the best of any pitcher in history, topping Clemens (5.7) and Walter Johnson (5.6), with Grove (5.3) and Johan Santana (5.1) rounding out the top five.

Some might quibble with Martinez’s election given his relatively low wins total, but even that figure of 219 tops 15 enshrined starters, including Koufax (165) and Don Drysdale (209), the only two whose careers crossed into the Expansion Era. It would take a truly myopic voter not to see past that number to the Cy Young awards, the extreme rate stats or the advanced metrics that all testify to Martinez's elite status. Fortunately, enough voters are likely to grasp the bigger picture and elect him, even on a ballot crowded with other worthy candidates.

Once they do, we can hope that — as with the Cy Young awards of Zack Greinke in 2009 and Felix Hernandez in '10 — the writers can move past using win totals as the primary yardstick for Hall of Fame starters and see the stuff that really matters, recognizing outstanding hurlers such as Mussina, Schilling and Smoltz who fell short on W's but who excelled at run prevention. Not that Martinez's credentials need further burnishing, but being the pitcher who helped fix the Hall of Fame? That would be a hell of a legacy.

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