Pitcheres Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz were all traded early in their careers. On Tuesday, joined by second baseman Craig Biggio, they were elected to the Hall of Fame.
It was just 15 years ago, but the baseball environment of 2000 was so different from the game we have today that it might as well have been the Pleistocene Era. Never before or since has the landscape been so inhospitable to pitchers. The rate of home runs and slugging had never been higher. A record 47 players that year hit at least 30 home runs; just 11 did so last year.
You know the reasons: expansion, the DH, retro ballparks that reduced foul and outfield territory, harder bats and, well above all else, the explosion in the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Now think about what Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson did in that hostile environment. It wasn’t just that each of them won the Cy Young Award for the second straight year. It was the degree to which they dominated. In those two seasons, 1999-2000, Martinez was 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA, delivering the two best seasons ever as ranked by adjusted ERA. His combined ERA in those two years was more than half a run better than anybody else. Johnson ranked as the next best. All he did was go 36-16 with a 2.56 ERA and – get this – strike out 711 batters in two years. Frightening.
On Tuesday Martinez and Johnson were elected to the Hall of Fame -- along with John Smoltz, one of the most fearless pitchers ever, and Craig Biggio, a member of the 3,000 hit club, thus making it the biggest Cooperstown class in 60 years -- as the most unusual set of bookends you will find among first-ballot Hall of Famers. Here’s the long and the short of it: Today we celebrate not only two of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, but also two of the greatest outliers you will ever find in Cooperstown.
The 5-foot-11 Martinez was traded at 21 because he was too small. The 6-foot-10 Johnson was traded at 25 because he was too tall. To beat the odds through the worst pitching environment on record is a tribute to the enormous will of each man.
Martinez is the only righthanded pitcher born in the past 114 years to reach the Hall of Fame and stand less than six feet tall. The last such small righthander to do it was Ted Lyons, who was born three years before the Wright Brothers introduced powered flight to the world. Martinez struck out 3,154 batters – 908 more than any of the other five Hall of Fame righthanders under six feet.
“On the top of the mound,” Martinez told MLB Network, “I was higher than anybody.”
Johnson, by nearly half a foot, is the tallest pitcher ever to be a Hall of Famer. Until today only three men listed as tall as even 6-5 made it to Cooperstown: Fergie Jenkins, Don Drysdale and Eppa Rixey.
On the heels of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine last year, the Baseball Writers Association of America has now sent five starting pitchers to the Hall on the first ballot in just the past two years, an abrupt end to a record drought. From 1971 through 1985 almost 700 starting pitchers made their major league debut. None of them have reached the Hall of Fame. The 15 years in between the debuts of Bert Blyleven in 1970 and Greg Maddux in 1986 is overwhelmingly the longest drought in history without a Hall of Fame starter – three times longer than the second-longest drought (1931-35). Jack Morris was the best of that era, but the voters rejected him by history’s slimmest margins; his high of 67.7 percent is a record for a player who exhausted his eligibility on the writer’s ballot and remains outside the Hall.
But now, in just two years, we have seen five starting pitchers elected to the Hall who debuted between 1986 and '92 and two others, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, who deserve to join them in the coming years.
We like to think that first ballot Hall of Famers knock us out from the beginning with their obvious talent. People could see Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and the like from their first days on the job and dream of greatness. But on Tuesday the writers elected three first-ballot Hall of Famers who all were traded by their original organization before they established themselves in the big leagues.
The deal sending Martinez to the Expos in 1993 stands as the worst trade in Los Angeles Dodgers history, and it was only possible because of one of the worst financial decisions in Dodgers history. The team’s second baseman, Jody Reed, then 30 and primarily an eighth-place hitter with no power, turned down a three-year, $7.8 million offer to remain with the club. He wound up getting just $300,000 guaranteed from Milwaukee and earned just $2.875 million for the rest of his career.
Reed’s decision forced Dodgers general manager Fred Claire to look for a second baseman. He asked Montreal GM Dan Duquette about Expos second baseman Delino DeShields, a 24-year-old who averaged 47 steals over four years. Duquette wanted Martinez, who labored in baseball’s version of the salt mines – Tommy Lasorda’s bullpen – where at age 21 he struck out more than a batter per inning and held hitters to a .201 batting average and .283 slugging percentage, staggering numbers for his age that went largely unnoticed at the time.
Claire loved Martinez’s stuff, but there was an old-school scouting bias against righthanders under six feet tall. It was only the previous season that Martinez had dislocated his left shoulder swinging a bat. Dr. Frank Jobe, the team doctor and one of the most renowned sports orthopedists, repaired the shoulder in October of 1992.
Twelve months later, when Claire asked Jobe about Martinez, the doctor remembered how Martinez’s non-throwing shoulder had popped out. There was real concern about how the little guy would hold up. Claire also consulted with Lasorda and top advisor Ralph Avila about Martinez’s durability.
As Jobe later told Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times in 1999, “He had kind of a delicate stature to start with, and there were already questions [in the baseball department] about his stamina. It’s a judgment call, but you had to kind of wonder, ‘Golly, is this kid going to break down?’”
Claire gave credence to the doubts and on Nov. 19, 1993 he traded Martinez for DeShields, a deal at the time that was popular in Los Angeles.
Martinez was traded with 10 major league wins at age 21. Johnson was traded with even fewer wins (three) at an even older age (25). Height, too, was a problem for Johnson – he had too much of it to repeat his mechanics consistently. He resembled a broken-down grandfather clock -- he might look good a couple of times a day but his timing was awful. He could throw hard, but he walked seven batters per nine innings in Montreal's minor league system. He was so big that he drove a Volkswagen Beetle – from the back seat, after he removed the front seats.
In 1989 the Expos traded Johnson to the Mariners for Mark Langston, one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time. Johnson was little more than a curiosity – certainly not on anybody’s radar as future Hall of Famer.
“I didn’t have a blueprint to work with,” said Johnson about being a 6-foot-10 power pitcher.
Johnson still needed work with Seattle – much more work. At age 29 his lifetime record was just 49-48 with a 3.95 ERA and almost six walks for every nine innings. He began to turn his career around with two events in 1992: a mechanical fix from Nolan Ryan in August and the sudden death of his father on Christmas Day. Johnson went 254-118 thereafter. He pitched until he was 46, throwing 67,096 pitches without ever having a major arm injury.
Smoltz was traded in 1987 at age 20, just two seasons after he was drafted, when Detroit wanted pitcher Doyle Alexander from the Braves for the stretch run. Atlanta's general manager at the time? Bobby Cox. Now Cox, Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz are in the Hall of Fame, with teammate Chipper Jones likely to join them in three years.
What the vote Tuesday did was to confirm that the Cox and John Schuerholz, who succeeded Cox as Braves general manager when Cox returned to managing in 1990, put together the greatest rotation in baseball history: one with three first-ballot Hall of Famers on the same staff.
Tuesday was a great day for the Hall and, with a class four players deep, its voting procedures. It was a great day for the village of Cooperstown, which can look forward to a fascinating induction day on July 26. (The speech of Martinez -- who told MLB Network, "I did it clean. I didn't take the short way to get better." -- figures to be one of the greatest ever heard around the hills of upstate New York.) And it was a great day for pitching.