'Peak Pedro' most dominant in '99? Try history

April 30th, 2020

We’ve been having fun looking back at starting pitchers over the past few weeks, at Warren Spahn in the 1950s and the way Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal dominated the '60s, followed by how Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton did it up big themselves in the '70s.

But in two seasons for the ages, 1999 and 2000, I believe Pedro Martinez was better than all of them.

Martinez never had a season in which he won as many games as Koufax did in 1966 -- his last year in the big leagues, when Sandy was 27-9. Martinez never had an ERA of 1.12, the way Gibson did in ‘68, nor did he have as many 20-win seasons as Spahn did (13) or have eight in a decade the way Palmer did. Martinez’s lifetime record was 219-100.

But for those two seasons, in an era where performance-enhancing drugs were raising doubts about offensive numbers, in a designated hitter league, in the meat-grinder of a division that the American League East was, pitching for the Red Sox in Fenway and Camden Yards and even feeling as if he could rub his back against the short right-field wall in the old Yankee Stadium, Petey was King of the World.

“He was small,” Paul O’Neill said to me this week. “But it didn’t stop him from being as intimidating as anybody I ever faced.

“He had an overpowering fastball. He had the best changeup. And both of those pitches made people forget sometimes how off the charts his breaking ball was. Sometimes he’d just come up for the first two or three innings just showing you his fastball. And, let me tell you, if he got through the order just featuring the fastball, you were in deep, deep trouble.”

He paused.

“Put it another way,” O’Neill, who was always one of the smartest hitters, said. “Against Pedro, you never felt as if you were ahead in the count. Never. Didn’t matter whether it was 2-0 or 3-1. You always felt as if he had the advantage. In those days, I truly felt that all three pitches, because of the way he could locate them, were the best in the game.”

O’Neill recalled Sept. 10, 1999, when Pedro struck out 17 Yankees without walking a batter. O’Neill said he turned to Tino Martinez in the middle innings of that game and said, “Hey, at least I fouled a couple off.”

Martinez was 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA in 1999. He struck out 313 batters over 213 1/3 innings and gave up 0.4 homers per nine innings with a WHIP of 0.923. And all of this in a DH league. Martinez did this in a world where Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in a National League season (1998), Barry Bonds hit 73 in one season (2001) and Sammy Sosa hit 60-plus homers three times in four years.

In 2000, Martinez won his second consecutive American League Cy Young Award, came in fifth in AL MVP Award voting and was arguably better than he was in 1999, when he finished second in the MVP voting. That is when he really did become "King of the World," even if all the other immortals we’ve been talking about had more wins in their best years.

Perhaps the greatest stat attached to Martinez’s career was his 1.74 ERA in 2000 when, despite ending up with a record of 18-6, I believe he was the most dazzling and dominant pitcher of the modern era of baseball. The next best ERA in the AL that season was Roger Clemens at 3.70 -- meaning Martinez was roughly two runs per nine innings better than his next closest competitor. It was one of many statistical reasons why he won another Cy Young Award unanimously.

In 2000, Martinez merely led the AL in the following categories: shutouts (four), strikeouts (284) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.8). It gets better. His WAR that season for everybody in the league (including position players, DHs and pitchers) was a fast 11.7. The next closest guy? Alex Rodriguez (10.4). Grading Martinez against the field in pitching was just one more way to see how truly dominant he was. To find the pitcher with the second-best WAR, you have to go to Brad Radke at 6.2.

My friends at the Elias Sports Bureau point out that Dwight Gooden in 1985 (12.2) and Steve Carlton in ’72 (12.1) are the only starters in 100 years with a better WAR in a season. Both Gooden and Carlton pitched in the National League. And when they did pitch, nobody had ever discussed PED's and what the world would look like by the time Martinez came along with all of his power, spin and magic.

“And there’s something else about Pedro that people don’t talk nearly enough about,” O’Neill said. “He was a thinker out there. It was just one more element to his genius. Usually when you have the kind of stuff he did, you didn’t have to think your way through the order or through a game. But he could, he did.

“I look back on him now, and what I saw and what it was like to face him, it was no accident that he got on the run he got on in those years. He was strong in every single stinking aspect of the game. Fastball at 98. Best changeup on the planet. Then he’d torture you with his breaking ball. On top of all that? I knew he was going to get me out one way at Fenway and another at the Stadium.”

Martinez was 5-foot-11, around 170 pounds and looked as skinny as a paper clip. But nobody ever pitched bigger than Petey in those years at the end of one baseball century and the beginning of another. King of the World.