Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pedro Martinez Was a Joy to Watch

Arrogance is one of the tools used by great starting pitchers. Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens had it. Greg Maddux had it. Cliff Lee is right there on the arrogance meter. Bob Gibson had it. Pedro Martinez certainly did as well. Arrogance here is defined by knowing that the pitcher held all the advantage in his match up with a batter. To use an old cliche, it is the gunslinger's mentality that he'll always be quicker on the draw then his opponent. To put it another way, great pitchers have supreme confidence.

The Fan and his wife got married in June of 2000 and thankfully, she was more than happy to allow this Fan to watch baseball on television. Pedro was pitching for the Red Sox in those early years during perhaps the highest drama of the Red Sox - Yankees rivalry. She is much less analytical in her approach to watching a game. There were only heroes and those other guys. When Pedro was pitching, she hated his guts because of his demeanor on the mound. To be sure, she wasn't alone. But to this day, she still remembers a game when Pedro wasn't pitching and his teammates had tied him to a pole in the dugout and she laughed hysterically at his big smile and sense of fun in that moment. She couldn't quite understand the dichotomy of those two settings.

But that was Pedro. When he was on the mound, he was all about making you look as silly as possible. He didn't just get the batter out. He demoralized and sapped the humanity right out of his victims.

It's a real shame that we only have our wonderful tools of valuing pitches with all the Pitch/FX data we now have but the data only goes back to 2007. That means that we only have three years of data for Pedro Martinez when he had obviously lost his velocity. But even what we have for those three years, after Pedro was no longer the dominant force he had been from 1997 to 2002, the numbers give us a glimpse of the kind of pitcher Pedro was in his prime.

The great Tao of Steib, a Blue Jays writer (@TaoofSteib) mentioned on Twitter this morning that the thing he remembered was the movement on Pedro's pitches. It was a spot on comment. From what little data we have from 2007 to 2009, Pedro's pitches still danced a lot. This Pedro was a shadow of what he once was, and still his change up had 8.9 inches of negative horizontal movement. This writer looked at the two best change ups of 2011 and they were thrown by Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, two pitchers in the prime of their careers. And while the change up is a devastating pitch because of its deception, the other factor is movement. Felix Hernandez got the same 8.9 inches (in his prime) as Pedro did as a broken down pitcher. Hamels has less movement. Can you imagine what Pedro could do when he was at the peak of his career?

And what a peak it was. Pedro was certainly very good as a youngster for the Montreal Expos from 1993 to 1996. But starting in 1997, Pedro Martinez found his highest art and dominated the sport until 2002. Pedro was still very good from 2003 to 2006, but those years were somewhat less than his peak. This Fan made the comment on Twitter last night that in fifty years of watching baseball, Pedro Martinez between 1997 and 2002 was the best pitcher this Fan had ever seen. The comment was immediately challenged. Others were just as good, they said. In fact, Randy Johnson had a higher WAR during that time period. Others chimed in for Greg Maddux and Bob Gibson. There is no one who will argue that those are all Hall of Fame pitchers who were devastating in their prime. Roger Clemens was offered. But this Fan would still go with Pedro.

The first year of Pedro's peak (1997), he pitched for the Montreal Expos. But the rest of those years were against the American League with the DH in the peak of offensive seasons in Major League Baseball. From 1998 to 2000, the American League teams averaged more than five runs a game, the first time that had happened since the 1930s. It was an era of unprecedented offense. And yet, Pedro Martinez made it look easy during that time. Pedro was so good in 1999 and 2000 that he should have won two MVP Awards to go along with his Cy Young Awards. His ERA in those two seasons of 2.07 and 1.74 were so good in relation to the runs scored in the league that his ERA+ was 243 and 291.

Pedro stopped walking people in 1999. His strikeout to walk ratio in 1999 and 2000 were 8.46 and 8.88! And those numbers back up what these eyes saw. For one season (1986), Roger Clemens could hit the glove on every pitch. The thing that was so amazing about his twenty-strikeout performance that year (this Fan watched that game) is that every pitch hit the target the catcher put up. That was the single greatest game of pitching this Fan has ever seen. And Clemens was that way the whole season. But that was one season. Pedro did that for years. He always seemed to hit the catcher's mitt just where it was set. To do that with the amount of movement he had on his pitches was amazing.

And in those years, he was throwing his fastball upwards of 95 to 98 MPH. You take that kind of velocity along with pinpoint control and you have a pitcher who is nearly impossible to beat. Maddux had the movement and the control, but not the velocity. Randy Johnson had movement and velocity, but not the command. Bob Gibson had maybe the best year in modern history in 1968, but that was the only season he scored over 200 in ERA+. Pedro did it five times.

Other Yankee fans want to deconstruct the greatness of Pedro Martinez. They say things like he only averaged 15 wins a season over his eighteen year career. Nonsense. For this observer, Pedro was the best. He was on the wrong team, but he was a true joy to watch. He was the Vincent Van Gogh of pitchers. He is a first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher.

Thanks for the memories, Pedro.

No comments: