As Hall Induction Nears, Pedro Martinez Looks Back on Best Pitching Season Ever

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 23, 2015

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The little man on the mound stared big into home plate. His eyes narrowed into slits. His lips pursed into a frown. Hitter after hitter, 11,394 of them over 18 summers, saw this look, hated this look, quivered because of this look.

Because they knew what was coming next.

"The most impressive thing was how big he looked on the mound even though he was a little guy," former Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel says. "He had physically intimidating eyes."

Assassin's eyes are what they were. And never were they more cold-blooded than in 2000, when Pedro Jaime Martinez, all 5'11" and 170 pounds of him, was at his filthiest.

When Martinez is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, his plaque could simply contain his '00 numbers, and nobody would have any further questions. The defense would rest—which, not coincidentally, Boston's often did that summer as Martinez led the American League for a second consecutive season with 284 strikeouts (after 313 punchouts in 1999).

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Pedro's astounding 1.74 ERA in '00 remains the best single-season American League ERA since baseball lowered the mound in 1969. That summer, too, he set modern major league records for lowest opponents' batting average (.167), lowest opposing on-base percentage (.213) and lowest WHIP (0.74).

In an era stacked with designated hitters, laced with steroids and accented by small ballparks, Martinez's 2000 season ranks as one of the greatest ever for a pitcher.

"He wasn't touchable," Vizquel says.

"Best changeup I've ever seen," former New York Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill says. "And he had a great fastball, and a lot of people don't realize he had a great curveball."

The canvas was set for Martinez to paint his masterpiece a year earlier, in 1999, when two things happened: His brother, Ramon, signed with the Red Sox, and Jason Varitek became his full-time catcher.

Those two things became especially important because, as Martinez and co-author Michael Silverman write in the autobiography published this year titled Pedro, his relationship with then-Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan was "rancid."

Martinez's biggest grievance was with Kerrigan's pitch-calling in 1998 when Scott Hatteberg was behind the plate. As a highly successful veteran, Martinez thought it insulting that he was not given more leeway with what he wanted to throw.

JOHN FROSCHAUER/Associated Press

That changed with the ascension of Varitek, whom Martinez thought so highly of that he writes in the book that the catcher "deserves as much credit as I do," and with his brother joining him in Boston.

"Pedro had his own program," Ramon Martinez, now 47 and a special assignment pitching coach with the Baltimore Orioles, says. "Joe would just supervise. Kerrigan would be upset sometimes because Pedro wasn't in the [scouting] meetings. But when you're the ace of the team, and Pedro had the relationship he had with Jason…."

Pedro, in his second season in Boston in '99, went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA. He won the Cy Young Award and finished second in the AL MVP voting only because two voters left him completely off their ballots.

"Varitek was unbelievable," Ramon Martinez continues. "He was a guy who would do the scouting report, and him and Pedro, it was exactly the information Pedro needed. With Jason, they were on the same page, thinking the same way."

Pedro rocketed out of the gate in 2000, going 5-0 with a 1.27 ERA over five April starts. Opening Day in Seattle, he held the Mariners scoreless on two hits over seven innings, striking out 11. Five days later in Anaheim, he held the Angels to one run and five hits in 7.1 innings, fanning 12.

With Varitek behind the plate and Ramon beside him, Pedro had never felt more comfortable, as the '00 campaign essentially became an extension of his 1999 dominance, but even more thorough.

"Those two years, I was able to have Ramon as an extra pitching coach on the bench," Pedro, now 43, says. "And not only on the bench, but by my side all the time. And we were running partners. We were workout partners.

"Those are the two best years I've ever had because of Ramon. Ramon was there. Ramon was able to help me."

They were brothers in arms, literally.

Jim Rogash/Associated Press

Every bullpen session Pedro threw between starts, Ramon was there. If anything Pedro did looked even slightly different, Ramon was able to identify it for his brother. And vice versa; Pedro made sure to be at all of his brother's bullpen sessions.

"Ramon was the pitching coach that, as soon as he saw something different, he knew how to explain it to me," Pedro says. "And I had enough respect for Ramon even though I was the ace, I was able to listen to Ramon. Take advantage of his knowledge. Cheat off Ramon and what he felt."

Today, Ramon chuckles at this. He recalls his little brother needing neither much help nor advice.

Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

"He was so perfect," Ramon says. "He would know what he was doing. I'd watch and he only threw 15 or 20 pitches and that was it because everything he wanted to work on was there."

By his fifth start, in Cleveland on the last day of April, Martinez was establishing two things endemic to an ace: He stopped losing streaks in their tracks, and fierce intimidation was a part of his repertoire.

The Red Sox had lost consecutive one-run games to the Indians and were just 11-9 when Martinez took the ball on April 30. Clinging to a 2-0 lead in the seventh, he buzzed Einar Diaz after Diaz had cracked doubles in his first two at-bats. He moved Diaz off the plate with a first-pitch curveball, then sent a fastball whistling near Diaz's chin on the third pitch of the at-bat.

Words were exchanged. Indians starter Charles Nagy drilled the first Boston hitter of the eighth, second baseman Jose Offerman. And in the bottom of the eighth, Martinez plunked Cleveland second baseman Roberto Alomar in the rear end.

"I remember that," Vizquel says. "That's one of the things that's so great about Pedro: He didn't care who was in the box, and he showed it by hitting a Latino guy. Roberto and Pedro were supposed to be good buddies, but it was like, 'If you hit one of mine, I'll hit one of yours."

Exactly. And 15 years later, Vizquel's assessment matches what Martinez and Silverman write in Pedro: "I wanted to be sure that I responded like a professional. I surveyed the Indians' lineup coming up in the bottom of the eighth: Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, David Justice, Jim Thome and Travis Fryman.

CLEVELAND, UNITED STATES:  Cleveland Indians batter Roberto Alomar (R) is restrained by Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek after Alomar was hit by a Pedro Martinez pitch in the eighth inning 30 April 2000 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, OH. Martinez was e
DAVID MAXWELL/Getty Images

"Roberto and Manny were my friends, but I thought it would be too obvious if I skipped over those two to get to Justice or Thome or Fryman—people would think I was trying to hit the American guy and take it easy on the Latin guy. That would have been unprofessional. So I said to myself, You know what, they hit my second baseman, I'll hit their second baseman."

Martinez, who was suspended for five games after that by then-discipline czar Frank Robinson, closed out May with a 2-0 complete-game whitewashing of the Yankees to run his record to 8-2 and lower his ERA to 1.05. In his two losses during the month, the Red Sox scored a combined two runs. Tampa Bay and Steve Trachsel defeated the Red Sox 1-0 on May 6 despite Martinez throwing a complete game and striking out 17.

"Yeah, we really got him," Larry Rothschild, Tampa Bay's manager at the time and current Yankees pitching coach, deadpans.

Toronto edged Boston 3-2 on May 23 to serve up his second loss.

"He was a competitor," Rothschild says. "He didn't want hitters to get comfortable, and everybody knew it. That played into it as much as anything."

Despite surrendering only eight earned runs over four starts in June, Martinez went 1-1 and Boston lost three of the four starts. The Yankees got him in back-to-back starts on June 14 and 20, hanging 2-1 and 3-0 losses on the Red Sox (the first was a no-decision for Pedro, the second dropped his record to 9-3).

"I knew if he got through the first time around the lineup without showing his changeup, it was going to be a long night," says O'Neill, who batted .214/.254/.286 with one homer and four RBI in 59 career plate appearances against Martinez. "He was a competitor, and a lot of people don't realize the one year we beat them in the playoffs was because they had to waste him in the Cleveland game."

PHIL LONG/Associated Press

Indeed, a year earlier, the Indians extended the Red Sox to five games in the AL Division Series, and Pedro, nursing a lat strain, talked his way into Game 5 in relief in the fourth inning. He wound up getting the win in a 12-8 Boston slugfest, holding Cleveland hitless over six innings.

"The whole thing was, he was supposed to be hurt and we weren't going to face him," says Vizquel, who batted .250/.264/.269 in 53 career plate appearances against Martinez. "Then in the fourth or fifth inning something happened and Pedro started warming up. He pitched and shut us down.

"I don't think we were ready for Pedro to take the mound."

Few ever were. But because Martinez was needed in relief in Game 5, he couldn't start in the '99 ALCS until Game 3. He earned Boston's only win of the series before the Yankees blew them out in five games.

JEFF ZELEVANSKY/Associated Press

"I have a lot of respect for him the way he went about it," O'Neill says. "He was a team player and a great pitcher."

Martinez went 3-0 in four starts in July, running his record to 12-3 with a glittering 1.38 ERA. Facing the Mets, Expos, White Sox and Athletics, Martinez surrendered only four total earned runs in the four starts. He struck out 48 and walked only five, and Boston won all four of those starts.

Then he chain-sawed through August, pitching the Sox to five wins in his six starts, striking out 51 and walking only two. 

The lone loss came in an eight-inning complete game at Anaheim on Aug. 8, 2-1. In that game, Angels outfielder Tim Salmon led off the bottom of the second with a home run.

"The one thing that made Pedro so great was, he had three great pitches, he knew he had three great pitches, and he was like a kid with a toy," says Salmon, who faced Martinez at every level of the minor leagues as the two future All-Stars came up. "He wanted to use all of those pitches.

MICHAEL CAULFIELD/Associated Press

"He didn't want to just go up and dominate you with a fastball all night long. He was going to get you with a fastball in your first at-bat, and then he was going to get you with his curve in your second at-bat, and then he was going to show you he could get you with his changeup in your third at-bat.

"He was playing the game and utilizing all of these tools. He didn't want to just rely on one thing. That was the hardest thing about preparing for him. He had so many weapons to use, and at what point in the game was he going to bring them out and use them, because he was going to use them all."

When they were at the lower levels of the minors, Salmon recalls, Martinez had an electric fastball but his secondary pitches were still rudimentary. Then came his changeup. Finally, Martinez says, he was able to fine-tune his curveball in '99 so that it was at the elite level of his other two pitches.

That, and something he and Varitek discovered, made him nearly unhittable on most nights in 2000, and otherworldly on others. What they learned was that hitters were sitting on Martinez's fastball in the late innings. So they mixed things up, early, late and often, finally reaching the point, as Salmon describes, that the best strategy a hitter could employ against him was to simply expect the unexpected.

A kid with a toy.

"I think he really took a lot of pride in the fact that, yeah, I know I can strike you out with my fastball, but I'm going to strike you out tonight three different ways," says Salmon, who batted .304/.407/.478 with one homer and two RBI in 27 career plate appearances against Martinez. "I got a sense that that's what really drove him and got him motivated on the mound.

"Because almost every time I saw him, I could almost pattern him: OK, I just struck out on the high fastball, he's probably not going to throw that one again tonight so here comes a curveball or a sinker. That's what made him so amazing."

STEVE NESIUS/Associated Press

Dragging with him a longstanding and well-earned reputation as a headhunter, Martinez's mix of stuff, intimidation and competitiveness was of a dying breed that no longer exists.

He closed August with a one-hit, 13-strikeout, no-walk, complete-game gem in Tampa, an 8-0 Boston blowout in which all hell broke loose.

And, oh, by the way, in which he also took a no-hitter into the ninth inning.

On his fourth pitch of the game, Martinez drilled outfielder Gerald Williams in the left wrist with a fastball. Williams charged the mound, slugged Martinez in the face and things turned ugly. Eight Tampa Bay players and coaches were ejected. Martinez pitched on.

Headhunting?

CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

"Absolutely," Rothschild says. "There's no doubt he was. He hit Gerald Williams on purpose to start the game and there was no question about it.

"But look, I tip my hat to him because sometimes you need to claim your part of the plate. Headhunter might be a little strong, but he wasn't afraid to stake his claim on his territory."

In his book, Martinez writes, "I had never hit him before, we had absolutely no history with each other, and this was not an instance where I was hitting him on purpose."

O'Neill says Martinez came inside on him several times during their careers, "but he knew how to do it. He knew how to use it as a way to go outside. You knew before the at-bat was over you were going to see in and out. A lot of pitchers can't pitch that way."

Summoning every bit of fury he could after Williams socked him in the face, Martinez retired the next 24 Tampa Bay hitters in a row. Finally, leading off the bottom of the ninth, catcher John Flaherty lined a 2-2 pitch for a single for Tampa Bay's first and only hit of the game.

"A lot of hitters, I'd say, hate Pedro because he throws the fastball inside and is aggressive," Ramon Martinez says. "They're going to be upset.

"I remember when Gerald went after him. I don't know why, because Gerald Williams played winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He knew Pedro. I don't know why he got upset. Pedro was aggressive inside, and in the blink of an eye he went after him.

"I remember after that, Pedro took a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth. That was one of the games that was unbelievable. He had many games that were unbelievable."

This Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown is what all of those unbelievable games add up to. Talk to hitters of his era, and three names continually surface as the filthiest pitchers of all: Pedro, Randy Johnson (who also will be inducted Sunday) and Roger Clemens.

And Pedro, many will tell you, was the nastiest of all.

"You just don't expect a guy weighing 97 pounds to throw 95 miles an hour," Larry Walker, his former teammate in Montreal, once said. "He's just very aggressive. I never really watched Bob Gibson pitch, but I get the feeling he's like a Gibson. If he has to throw one under your chin, he'll do it."

The Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had skidded to a stop on Sept. 26 in Chicago's Comiskey Park, with five innings of workmanlike pitching: one hit and six strikeouts. Martinez's final numbers: 18-6, 1.74 ERA. At 85-77, the Red Sox finished second to the Yankees in the AL East. The Seattle Mariners earned the AL wild-card slot. Pedro and the Red Sox went home.

It would be four more seasons before Martinez helped end the Red Sox's 86-year World Series drought.

SUSAN RAGAN/Associated Press

"I blended really well with Boston right away," Martinez, who was acquired by Boston for pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. in November 1997, says. "I totally understood that it was unique. That it was tradition. That they knew their baseball. They were quick to boo you if you didn't do what you were supposed to do, but they're passionate.

"They're probably the most loyal fanbase that you can ever see. And one thing that you get asked every day, 'Is this going to be the year?' I remember getting that question every time I passed by someone: 'Is this going to be the year? Is this going to be the year that we do it, Pedro?'

"I'm like, 'Oh, we're going to try. We're going to try.'"

What Boston soon learned after Martinez decided to stick around when he signed a six-year, $75 million deal in December 1997 was what every one of those 11,000-plus hitters staring out at the fury in his eyes soon came to realize.

"You knew," Salmon says, "that he wanted to get you out probably more than you wanted to get a hit."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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