Quantifying Greatness: The Unparalleled Pitching of Pedro Martinez, 1997-2003
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I am the first sports fan to admit that statistics spin tall tales as much as they inform.
While number-crunching has allowed us to distill fact from fiction when it comes to performance, stats have also cloaked deceptively bad players under the immunity blanket known as triple crown categories.
Stats are as damning to players as much as they immortalize (see Maris, Roger), and despite several encyclopedic volumes of evidence to the contrary, they are why Yuniesky Betancourt keeps finding work.
But the statistics of baseball have arrived at a crossroads, where the numbers underscore accomplishments that we can't even see; skills and feats wrapped up inside the very nature of the player.
OBP/OPS/WAR is the new BA/HR/RBI.
Looking back over my young adult life watching the Red Sox play, it's no great revelation that Pedro was an especially gifted pitcher. For the majority of the Dan Duquette years, he was really the only reason to go see the team on a soggy April day.
Digging deeper, past the awards and the win totals, we find a player who stood so completely above his peers as to transcend the superlatives used to describe him.
Many writers and baseball analysts aptly named him the best pitcher of his generation shortly after he left Boston.
As generous and hyperbolic as that label sounds, it still sells Pedro short and doesn't really grasp how good this guy was. It's nice to call him the Best, but I am compelled to defend his honor and try to articulate just how much better he was than everyone.
From his last year in Montreal in 1997, to Pedro's next-to-last with Boston in 2003, baseball fans were treated to the greatest show on rubber, with all apologies to NASCAR.
In that time, Pedro racked up 118 wins and over 1700 strikeouts. He won three Cy Young Awards, was robbed of another and dazzled NL hitters in the most unforgettable All-Star pitching performance ever.
Tsk-tsk, I had you going, didn't I?
This article isn't about wins, hardware or any other subjective achievements. As we saw in 2010, 13 game winners on horrible teams can win Cy Youngs over 21 game winners on postseason clubs.
This article is about the nitty-gritty, invisible, Bill James-ian metrics that take stock of true greatness.
The first obvious stat that makes you take a step back is Pedro's WHIP. For the statistically uninitiated, WHIP signifies Walks+Hits per Inning Pitched. Essentially, it examines the number of base runners the pitcher allows.
During his prime years from 1997-2003, Pedro allowed a microscopic WHIP of 0.94. A sub-1.00 WHIP means that the pitcher has, over the long haul, more innings without any runners than innings with runners.
This is usually reserved for the elite relievers, given how difficult it is to be so dominant as a starter over 200 innings per year.
Numbers written down have a certain blandness to them and don't evoke the awe that Martinez deserves, so let me put it another way. Here's a short list of active pitchers who have never had a sub-1.00 WHIP for even one whole season:
- C.C. Sabathia
- Roy Halladay
- Tim Lincecum
- Cliff Lee
- Jon Lester
- Chris Carpenter
- Andy Pettitte
- Felix Hernandez
- Tim Hudson
- Roy Oswalt
Do I have your attention now?
Again, Pedro managed to average a sub-1.00 WHIP and the closer-like stinginess that comes with it for seven seasons. Kudos to Johan Santana, who pulled off the feat twice during his years in Minnesota.
I'd be glad to hear from you about any other recent starters who managed it over a full season.
Another astounding component of Martinez's game was his ability to pitch with the finesse, as if he didn't also have the stuff to blow guys away. The combination left many batters with bats on their shoulders and zeros in the score books.
Over those seven years, Pedro boasted a K/9 ratio of 11.3. That is power.
Over the same stretch, he amassed an anemic walk rate of 2.0 BB/9. That is finesse.
In fact, it's better than Cliff Lee.
Take a look at this hitting line: .197/.252/.297
No, that's not Cesar Izturis' career stats. And it isn't the numbers of a decently hitting pitcher. That is the aggregate BA/OBP/SLG that opponents hit off Pedro from 1997-2003.
Yep, the amalgamated production of the average hitter against Pedro had the contact rate of Mark Reynolds, the patience of Jeff Franceour and all the power of Juan Pierre.
This imaginary player might make a team for the sheer entertainment value of his futility.
But now, I wish to speak of the Year 2000, a year which held promise for all of us at the dawning of a new millennium. In typical Dan Duquette fashion, the Sox starting strong and fizzled late.
But their mediocrity was not a product of the season of Pedro Martinez. Take a look:
1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, Opponents' BA/OBP/SLG: .167/.213/.259
If any among you think that this is not that greatest modern day pitching performance over a full year, let them speak now or forever hold their tongue. Pedro's ERA was less than half of what the next best AL pitcher (Roger Clemens, 3.70) accomplished.
The last point I want to make is to remember the era in which Pedro Martinez excelled. The late 90's and early 00's saw an emphasis on offensive-minded, "Billy Beane"-style of play.
Run scoring was at an all-time high since the days of Lou Gehrig and the steroid era was bearing the fruit of multiple 50 home run seasons. ERAs were bloated and the careers of many pitchers were cut short.
Through the offensive juggernaut days of 10 years ago, Pedro rose above and dominated baseball. He showed power, control and absolute mastery of the art of pitching.
He was the best of his generation, and we have seen none like him since, though I hope future generations of fans are so lucky.
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