This weekend, the Boston Red Sox are in town to face off against the Phillies as Interleague Play gets underway. Between them, the Sox and Phils have four World Series appearances and nine playoff appearances between them since 2003. The Red Sox and Phillies also have something else in common: they have both enjoyed the services of one Pedro Martinez.
Someone asked me recently about the most dominant pitcher of my lifetime. I hemmed and hawed for a while, talking about single-season dominance vs. career longevity, wins vs. ERA, strikeouts vs. hits allowed. I hit upon the perennial Cy Young Award winners of my lifetime – Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux – and touched for a moment on John Smoltz and Curt Schilling.
Finally, aware that I was stammering, I got quiet. There is only one answer to that question.
The most dominating pitcher of my lifetime was Pedro Martinez.
There are lots of stats to harp on when it comes to Pedro Martinez – the ERA titles, the strikeouts, the wins – but I like to make the Pedro point this way:
It is not a sensational statement to say that, since the invention of the designated hitter in 1973, pitchers have succeeded more easily in the National League than in the American League. The 2010 exposition of this phenomenon is Roy Halladay, who has been lights out – to an even greater degree than usual – in his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
We don’t need Roy Halladay to prove this point, though – almost without exception, pitchers who have pitched in both the National League and the American League since 1973 have fared significantly better in the National League.
There are a handful of notable exceptions to this rule, and none greater than Pedro Martinez.
Pedro Martinez is the Notable Exception. Career National League ERA: 3.32. Career American League ERA: 2.52.
At the worst part of the Expansion Era, and in the worst part of the Steroid Era, Pedro Martinez left the pitcher-friendly National League and went to hitter-friendly Fenway Park, in the hitter-friendly American League, and just dominated. Pedro essentially said to the American League, “What, you have nine hitters instead of eight? That’s fine – just one more legitimate batter for me to dominate.”
After posting a ridiculous 1.90 ERA for the Expos in 1997, Pedro went to the American League, and it took him three full seasons to best that mark in 2000 with a 1.74 ERA. In seven seasons in Boston, Pedro pitched six seasons as if he didn’t even notice a different in leagues.
No amount of hyperbole does justice to what Pedro did in those years in Boston better than the following statistic: in his first six seasons in Boston, Pedro led the major leagues in ERA four times, and in all four of those seasons, the runner up was pitching against National League hitters – Randy Johnson in 1999 (2.07 vs. 2.49), Kevin Brown in 2000 (1.74 vs. 2.58), Randy Johnson in 2002 (2.26 vs. 2.32), and Jason Schmidt in 2003 (2.22 vs. 2.34).
In case you need more, how about this: in 2001, he made only 18 starts due to injury, but his 2.39 ERA would have led the majors ahead of Johnson’s 2.49 and Schilling’s 2.98, and he was the only American Leaguer with at least 18 starts with an ERA under 3.00; the AL leader in 2001 was Freddy Garcia with a 3.05.
In 2000, his 1.74 was the only ERA in the major leagues better than 2.00, the only ERA in the major leagues below 2.50, and the only American League pitcher in the top ten in the major leagues. He was also almost two runs better than the next ranking American League pitcher, Roger Clemens, whose ERA was 3.70, and he was one of five American League pitchers with an ERA under 4.00.
In 2003, when Pedro led the majors with a 2.22 ERA, he was one of three American Leaguers to finish in top ten in the major leagues, the only American Leaguer better than 2.50, and one of three American Leaguers better than 3.00.
If we are going to be intellectually honest, then we have to point out the following fact: in 2002, when Pedro’s 2.26 ERA led the major leagues (vs. Johnson’s 2.32), two other Red Sox also finished among the top six major leaguers – Derek Lowe with a 2.58, and Tim Wakefield with a 2.81. This tells us that pitching in the American League and Fenway Park was not uniquely difficult in 2002. That this fact would be a blemish on Pedro’s record only demonstrates the enormity of what Pedro Martinez was accomplishing in his time with the Red Sox.
Pedro didn’t just dominate baseball in a “relative-to-his-league” sense in those years. Consider the following historical figures he put up in those seasons: his strikeout-to-walk ratio in 1999 was the ninth best of all time, and his ratio from 2000 is the sixth best of all time. His 313 strikeouts in 1999 are tied for 44th best all time. His hits allowed per nine innings in 2000 is the fourth best of all time, behind Luis Tiant in 1968 (notorious pitcher season), and two Nolan Ryan seasons.
His strikeouts per nine innings in 1999 are the second best of all time behind Randy Johnson; his total in 2000 is ninth best. His WHIP in 2000 was the best of all time, ahead of three guys from the 19th Century, five guys from the deadball era, and Greg Maddux facing National League hitters in 1995. And his ERA in 2000 was the tenth best since 1920, but get this: only four of the remaining top nine came since 1973, and all by National League pitchers.
Simply put, no pitcher has ever been as dominant over a six year period as Pedro Martinez was with the Boston Red Sox from 1998 to 2003, ever.
I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again.