From 1998-2004, Pedro Martinez’s seven seasons with the Red Sox, it was hard for me to see the man as anything but the consummate villain. For the bulk of those years, I was a 20-something scribe writing for a small newspaper in my upstate New York hometown. The disappointment of the 1980s and early 1990s was gone, and it was a great time to be a Yankee fan. Pedro was just an ideal antagonist during the Yankees’ dominance; from his memorable ESPN Sunday night baseball duel with Roger Clemens in late May of 2000 to the slap-slam of Don Zimmer in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS, I was dumbstruck by the wiry right-hander with the electric array of pitches.
As I honed my appreciation for the rivalry, I came to love him. My mouth was agape when Pedro opened his; nearly everything he uttered during impromptu interviews and normally solemn press conferences was interest-piquing and revelatory. Now – it’s too easy to sit back and say how much I missed those days…the darting fastball and unhittable off-speed chaff, the perfectly activated Jheri curl and dazzling sound bites.
Earlier this month, the 39-year-old Dominican gave an interview in his home country that intimated he was on his way toward retirement, and that he’d virtually ruled out a return to the big leagues. Just weeks before that, he seemed to be leaning the other way, hoping for a stint with the Red Sox before he called it a career.
If he does stay retired, it almost feels like Pedro got cheated out of greater glory. In three World Series starts, Pedro was 1-2, with the two losses suffered at the hands of the Yankees during the 2009 Fall Classic – including the clinching Game 6. These were ecstatic moments for Yankee fans and a bitterly reflective time for the pitcher who the Yanks managed to solve about half of the time in the regular season (11-11 in his 32 career starts, the most against any team in baseball) and a lot more in the playoffs.
But despite the “Who’s Your Daddy” rhetoric and idiosyncratic rivalry, it’s not unreasonable to credit Pedro as possibly the greatest pitcher of all time. Without question, his two-season stretch during the exposition of the steroid controversy (1999-2000) was the best of any hurler in baseball history.
During that span, Pedro allowed 288 hits and 69 walks in 430 innings while recording 597 strikeouts, an 0.83 WHIP, and a 1.90 ERA. This despite pitching half the time in lefty-friendly Fenway Park, in a league with a designated hitter, during the highest offensive period in baseball history. In 2000, Pedro’s WHIP was a miniscule 0.74, breaking both the 87-year-old “modern” record set by Robin Williams look-a-like Walter Johnson (who played segregated baseball during the pre- and post-WWI era) as well as Guy Hecker’s mark of 0.77 in 1882 (a couple years before The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published).
In 2000, the American League slashed .167/.213/.259 against Pedro, all modern-era records. He became the only starting pitcher in history to have more than twice as many strikeouts in a season (284) as hits allowed (128), following up a 1999 campaign that saw him fan 313 batters in 213.1 innings – a 13.20 K/9.
He won three Cy Young awards in four seasons (1997, 1999-2000), and might have won six in a row if not for Roger Clemens’ resurgence 1998, a 2001 rotator cuff injury and the blasphemous snub in 2002, when this goofy bastard stole the hardware because he had three more wins despite inferior numbers in far more important categories like strikeouts, WHIP and ERA.
There have been a lot of awesome single seasons for pitchers over the years; Bob Gibson in 1968, Steve Carlton in 1972 and Dwight Gooden’s fantastic 1985 campaign all stick out as high-water marks among brilliant careers. Randy Johnson’s numbers during the steroid era were similarly impressive. If there’s anybody I’d consider over Pedro, it’d be the Big Unit with his nasty fastball-slider combo and impossible delivery.
But considering that Johnson hit his peak in the NL, and that Pedro’s best numbers were achieved in the Junior Circuit, it’s hard to say that Johnson was the more dominant pitcher during that time. As far as durability and longevity, Pedro is clearly not as significant as Nolan Ryan, Clemens and Johnson. Sandy Koufax ended his career with four of the best seasons in history, but it was a different time, and he flamed out so quickly it’s difficult to consider him as the best ever.
Pedro is more comparable to Koufax than Clemens and Johnson. But Pedro had superior pitching ability, command and control, as well as a more dazzling array of pitches, and far better K/9 rates than the Dodgers southpaw.
So, I leave you with a question, one which I’ve already answered for myself: Is Pedro Martinez the best pitcher of all time?
Antonio D’Arcangelis is a fantasy baseball and football writer from Upstate New York. He’s written for Fanhouse.com and Rotoexperts.com, among several other sites, with columns syndicated on SI.com and Yahoo.com. Antonio has 10 years experience as a fantasy writer and currently provides content for DraftBuddy.com, FFToday.com and FanDuel.com.