May 2, 2006

Martinez, Not Clemens, MLB's Best Living Pitcher

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Yesterday, ESPN analysts voted Roger Clemens as the greatest living pitcher. That’s just not true.

Clemens may be the most consistent pitcher ever, but he’s not the greatest.

For that honor, I present to you the New York Mets’ 34-year-old pitcher, Pedro Martinez.

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once said. “I always said you need four things to be a great pitcher – location, movement, velocity, and deception. He’s got all those. Now, you add the intelligence he brings to the mound and we’re not talking about a mere mortal here.”

Just for the record, Jim Palmer played in the same era as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdel and Bob Gibson in their primes, as well as immortals like Tom Seaver. And he’s seen mostly every great pitcher since 1965.

At 5-11, Martinez is hardly imposing. But when he gets on the mound, he’s unshakable, arrogantly confident and in utter control of the game in a way that we may never have seen before.

“Sandy Koufax would just strike you out. But Pedro will embarrass you,” said ESPN analyst Dave Campbell.

What would make the ultimate pitcher? Someone who has unhittable pitches. Someone who was a pitching genius, dissecting and outsmarting every hitter. Someone who was an automatic win with every start. And of course, a pitcher who gets better when you need him to – like in the post season.

Martinez possess all of those things, more so than anyone I’ve seen, read about or heard of. And despite knocks on his longevity, he’s proving those criticisms to be inaccurate as he continues to dominate for the tenth consecutive season.

His stuff may be the best we’ve ever seen. In his prime he was armed with a 97 mph fastball, though it has tailed off now. However, he continues to possess almost unfathomable movement on all of his pitches, impeccable control, a variety of arm slots and a scarily deceptive motion that makes every pitch look the same out of his hand – even his 12-6 curveball. He can also move his fastball, curveball, changeup or slider in a variety of directions, giving him about a dozen pitches to throw. Most starters have four.

“I’m not afraid of hitting anyone,” Martinez said, “because I can put the ball where I want to.”

In a 2001 poll of scouts, GM’s, players and coaches on the game’s best pitches, Jayson Stark found that only one player got votes for three pitches – you know who. Martinez’s changeup also received votes for the best pitch in major league history in a separate poll.

Despite his somewhat declining stuff, Martinez can still get anyone out with his pitching smarts alone. If he feels like it, he’ll send a pitch past your head, or just plain hit you to send a message.

In terms of winning, Martinez may not have the most wins, but he’s still in a class by himself. Martinez passed 200 wins earlier this season, and his 70.6 winning percentage is the highest in major league history (since 1900) for anyone with 200 wins.

Finally, Pedro steps up in the clutch. No, he’s not perfect, but who is? How about the 1999 divisional playoffs when he had a strained back muscle and couldn’t start? He came in relief for six innings and threw 97 pitches, many of them slower than 85 mph, winning the game for the Red Sox. Or how about the 2004 World Series, when he pitched seven innings, allowing only three hits, two walks and no runs, while striking out six and retiring the final 14 batters he faced – all against the NL’s top offense. Oh yeah, he won the game, and eventually, the World Series.

Okay, so you say other pitchers have done some combination of these things too. But this is the point where I show you how far Pedro diverges from the cream of the crop, and if you haven’t realized already, you’ll see why I strongly believe he might be the greatest ever.

In 1997, Pedro won the NL Cy Young with the hapless Montreal Expos. His ridiculous 1.90 ERA and 13 complete games led the majors, and his 305 strikeouts was the second-best total. In 1998, he went 19-7 with a 2.89 ERA, his worst numbers by far during the five-year stretch from 1997 to 2001.

At the 1999 All Star Game in Boston, the fire-baller struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker (.363 average), Sammy Sosa (62 homers), Mark McGwire (70 homers) and Jeff Bagwell – all possible Hall of Famers – becoming the first pitcher to ever strike out the first four batters in the game. Suffice to say, he won the game’s MVP.

And that was just the prelude. In 1999, Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 K’s, and in 2000, the right-hander went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and led the majors with four shutouts. Besides the fact that these ERAs are ridiculously low, Martinez’s ERA+ for those two years (which is his ERA relative to the league average) are the eighth-best and best numbers in major league history (since 1900), respectively. The only seasons in the last thirty years anywhere near those numbers are from Greg Maddux. But Martinez never got an extra foot on his strike zone like Maddux, and Maddux faced pitchers, not DHs.

Pedro’s 8.45 and 8.75 strikeouts to walks ratio in 1999 and 2000, respectively, were also among the top-10 all-time for a single season. So were his 13.21 (second-highest) and 11.78 (ninth-highest) strikeouts per nine innings, respectively. And his .74 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP – essentially, runners allowed on base per inning) in 2000 was the lowest number ever.

Taken together, Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons are considered by some analysts to be the most dominating ever, period.

The rest of his seasons are almost as awe inspiring, but I’ll just give you some of his career statistics and you’ll get the idea.

Martinez has the lowest career ERA of any active pitcher – better than Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, better than all-time greats Koufax and Seaver – and his ERA is right there with Cy Young. He has led the majors in ERA five times in nine seasons, finishing out of the top-5 only once.

Pedro has the lowest career WHIP since 1920, and has won the single-season title six times in ten seasons. His 10.25 strikeouts per nine innings is the third-best average ever, he has stuck out 300 batters in a season twice and is 14th on the career strikeout list.

He finished in the top-5 in MVP voting twice, including one second-place finish due to two voters’ controversial abstentions, and has won three Cy Youngs, including one in each league. He has logged more than 200 innings pitched in seven seasons and has logged the 14th-most innings of any active pitcher.

Taken together, no pitcher has dominated in the last ten years the way Martinez has. So what do you think now?

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch has appeared every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Josh Perlin