My lunch hour today belongs to the memory not of Pedro Martinez, recently signed by the Phillies, but to the force that was known simply as “Pedro” (whispered to the tone of Dan Patrick’s “in fuego”). I will go to my grave arguing that Pedro’s 2000 season was the single greatest pitching performance in the history of baseball. Further, for a short span from 1997 to 2003, Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher ever.
I’m sure that in the coming weeks, Pedro will get batted around a bit. He won’t have the old swagger that dared to bean the Babe (or at least his ghost) right on the ***. Even the humility displayed by Pedro Martinez in his welcome to Philly press conference, humbly asserting that he might be able to add a little bit to a great team, betrays the cocksure assurance of the “Pedro” I so loved. But baseball needs to celebrate that Pedro more. He is everything Sandy Koufax was and more, except his injuries allowed him to keep playing past his greatness. Koufax’s “we’ll never know” is Pedro’s comeback from the Dominican Leagues.
Something needs to be understood here: Pedro is likely the last champion of the Boston Red Sox. By this, I mean the last champion before they were champions. See, the Red Sox fan base endured 87 years of losing–but we had our champions. Our victories were the boasts of individuals greats: Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived. Carl Yastrzemski, the last reigning triple crown winner. Carlton Fisk, he who pushed the ball. Roger Clemens, the MVP Rocket. And then there was… Pedro.
To try and highlight Pedro’s greatness, I’d like to compare his numbers in some under-appreciated statistical categories. I’d like to compare him to the all-time greats, but the numbers I want to focus on have only been tracked since 1988. Those numbers are:
- Strike Percentage (Str%): strikes / total pitches
- Strikes Looking (L/Str): all strikes looking / all strikes
- Strikes Swinging (S/Str): all strikes swinging / all strikes
- Contact Percentage (Con): (foul + inplay strikes) / (foul + inplay + swinging strikes)
- First Pitch Strike Percentage (1st%): exactly what you think it is
Now here’s a breakdown of his generations HoF class alongside Pedro’s numbers:
- Clemens: S% 62%, S/Stk:17%, only three times did he cross 20% (in fairness, MLB started keeping track of this statistic in 1988, after his two greatest years). Career L/Str: 26%. con 74%, FPs%: 59%.
- Maddux: S%, 66%, S/Str: 13%, Looking: 27%. Con 81%, FPS%: 64%. How good? only once below 60%, in 1996 not kidding–71% for an entire season.
- Glavine: S% 61%, S/Str: 13%, S/LK: 26%, Con 82%, 1t% 54%
- Johnson: Total S%: 64%, S/Str: 21%, L/Str: 27%, Con 72%, 1st% 57%
- Pedro: Str%, 65%, 61%, Swinging S% 21%, Looking 27%. Con: 71%. In 99, the 2nd greatest season in the history of pitching, Pedro’s contact percentage was a ridiculous 63%.
At first Pedro seems pretty average. But then you realize that, unlike the other’s who have clear strengths but also stand-out weaknesses, Pedro has dominant numbers in every category. His contact percentage is lower than either Johnson or Clemens. His total S% and 1st% is second to only Maddux, yet his S/Str is 8% higher and matches Randy Johnson. And, let’s not forget, that I am using his career numbers here. Unlike the workhorses I am comparing him to, Pedro really lasted those brief 7 seasons (1997 to 2003). During that span, his ERA was 2.20 (in the hight of the steroids era). He struck out 1761 while only walking 315, a 5.5 K/BB, which would decimate Tommy Bond’s all-time 4.4 (Pedro’s total career K/BB is 4.3, 3rd all-time behind only Bond and Schilling). He hit 70 batters because they dared to look him in the eye (at least, that’s my version). He wasn’t Pedro Martinez–he was simply Pedro.
Neutralizing his statistics, as the statistician magician advised in a post, reveals how dominant Pedro’s numbers are when viewed across baseball history. For instance, if you examine the all-time career leaders for ERA+, Pedro ranks 2nd all-time behind only Mariano Rivera. His 2000 campaign becomes the best season all-time save only Tim Keefe’s 1880 campaign (Keefe posted an 0.86 ERA in 12 starts… yet went 6-6). In 2000, unarguably the most amazing performance in the history of hurling round objects, Pedro’s record was an underwhelming 18-7 (his raw ERA was 1.74 and his WHIP an all-time modern record .737). His losses that season: CG 0-1, 2-3, 1-2, 0-3, 5-6, CG 1-2, 3-5, 1-2. Assuming the Red Sox scored 4 runs in all his starts, his record that season would have been 24-2 in 29 starts. His neutralized ERA that season equates to a 1.49; if you calibrate the numbers to 1968, then he pitched the equivalent of a 1.04 season.
But Pedro’s greatness for me isn’t merely a matter of numbers. Pedro’s pitches were the definition of nasty. He threw a two-seam fastball that moved more than any pitch I think I have ever seen. From the same arm slot, he threw the most wicked circle change baseball has known. Pedro was the Barry Sanders of baseball–he quite simply made other professional athletes look foolish. That, for me, has always been the “eyeball” check of true greatness. It is unfortunate that MLB does not provide us access to their video archives. I would love to post some footage of his vintage wiffle balls.
1999 was the season I referred to in my Cleveland post–the year that a fatigued Pedro came out of the bullpen for the deciding game of the 1999 ALDS to crush the Tribe’s final run at a title. He pitched six innings in relief that game and didn’t allow a single hit. It was the most glorious sports performance I had ever seen (and remember watching–I was only ten when the Celtics won their last title). My adolesence was spent watching people lose. I always rooted for the loser. Now, as an adult, I teach and practice deconstruction and sophistic rhetoric–disciplines dedicated to the marginalized, silenced, disenfranchised, or ignored. Go figure.
This entire trip down memory lane is an attempt, likely futile, in the coming weeks to remember that, as we watch the struggles of Mr. Martinez, we do not forget the unquestionable greatness that was, simply,
There’s two things inspiring this post: a comment over at Painting the Black on Edgar Martinez’s chances at the HoF, and Rob’s note that the A’s are struggling offensively this year. To mash them together: I’m suspicious regarding the greatness of any Colorado Rockie hitter.
Rob highlighted how the A’s offense has been less than stellar this year, noting how pitcher Dallas Braden has a sub .500 record despite pitching quite well. I commented that the A’s actually made a bid at winning the division this year, acquiring Matt Holliday and rolling the dice on Giambi. Whatever you might say of the latter, the former was considered one of the better hitters available last season. But a cursory look behind his numbers suggests that the buyer should have been a bit more “bewared.”
Let’s look at what the A’s saw: a 28 year old hitter in the prime of his career who had amassed three straight .900+ OPS seasons while growing increasingly patient every year. Truly, Holliday’s brief career numbers are impressive: .314-.384.-.538, with 136 HRs (a 28 HR/162 avg), 75 stolen bases, and 205 doubles.
However, I am surprised that a sabermetric-oriented general manager such as Beane didn’t hesitate after looking at Holliday’s home/away splits.
- Home: .348-.417-.624, 115 2B, 88 HR, 933 TB
- Away: .280-.351-.449, 90 2B, 48 HR, 659 TB
There are times when, planning a post, I expect the numbers to show me something before I actually look at them. This was one of those times (“I bet Holliday’s home splits are much better than his road ones”). I just rarely expect the numbers to be this definitive. Again, I am surprised that Beane would pay 10 million a season for an .800 OPS player.
The situation is the same with Todd Helton, who at age 35 has played his entire career at Coors Field (and given his contract, is likely to finish there). Historically, Helton’s shadow is fairly large; he is 3rd among active leaders in BA and OPS (37th and 10th all-time respectively). But his splits are just as dramatic as Holliday:
- Home: .360-.458.-647, 196 HR, 2035 TB
- Away:.295-.394-.493, 124 HR, 1536 TB
Its one thing to say “Coors inflates numbers,” its another thing to see the difference between a 1.106 and a .888 OPS.
For those unfamiliar with Neutralized stats, this is a good introduction. Neutralized stats attempt to adjust park, league, and era factors. Neutralized, Holliday and Helton’s career lines look like this:
- Holliday: .302-.372-.515, 128 HR, 467 RBI
- Helton: .303-.401.-527, 283 HR, 949 RBI
My suspicion here is that, after looking at their home/road splits, the neutralization process is a bit too conservative when it comes to a fringe case like Coors Field. Holliday’s career outside of Coors will support or betray this hypothesis. But the numbers suggest that the buyer should certainly beware.
Combined, Helton and Holliday provided the Rockies one of the best 3-4 punches of the decade. Viewed in isolation, their numbers are staggering. But are either Hall worthy? Holliday got out of Coors at age 28, so his stay there will likely not factor into any Hall of Fame decision. But Helton will have played his prime there. His neutralized .928 career OPS puts him in good company, but not necessarily HoF company. His OPS+, an adjusted measurement, ranks him 67th all-time, around players such as Kevin Mitchell, Jack Clark, Pedro Guerrero and Edgar Martinez, and also players such as Duke Snider, Reggie Jackson, Mike Piazza, Harmon Killebrew, and Larry Walker. Wait, Larry Walker? Isn’t that another Rockie?