As a long-time Yankees fan, I cannot say that I ever liked Pedro Martinez. He was arrogant, combative, and he liked to throw at batters’ heads. Yet it would be impossible not to acknowledge just how good he was, particularly in his prime. He was truly great. Like Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson kind of great. Also like Koufax, most of his career totals won’t show up on top 10 lists. But his averages, ratings and ratios sure will. And his prime years were nothing short of astounding.
Pedro learned how to pitch in Montreal. Before he hit his stride in 1997, he had played in five big league seasons. He was with the Dodgers for two seasons, then came to Montreal. He was good – but not great – from ’92-’96. And then something clicked. After consecutive seasons with ERAs of 3.42, 3.51 and 3.70, in 1997 it dropped to 1.90, and rose above 2.39 only once over the following six seasons.
He would win the NL Cy Young Award that year (’97), and would go on to win two more in the AL with the Red Sox, also finishing second in the voting two other times. His K:BB ratio continued to improve (topping 30:1 an amazing three consecutive seasons), and he lead the AL in ERA four times.
Now let’s look at his prime. The years before and after what I am dubbing his “prime” are so good that they would be career years for most any other pitcher. However, from 1999-2003, Pedro was one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. In fact, his 1999 and 2000 seasons are arguably the best individual seasons ever.
In 1999, Pedro’s fWAR was 11.9, the second highest single-season total since 1920 (the live-ball era). His 37.5 K% and 33.1 K-BB% were the highest in the live-ball era. Neither Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson nor Roger Clemens could match it. His 42 ERA- was the 5th lowest in that time, behind only HOFers Greg Maddux, Bob Gibson and his own 2000 season. His ERA was 2.07 that year. The next lowest ERA in the AL was 3.44 (David Cone). That’s well over a run difference.
Keep in mind that these astronomical rates came in the AL during the heart of the steroid era (which explains why nobody else had an ERA below 3.44). A pitcher with 313 strikeouts, a 33.1% K-BB rate and a 2.07 ERA would likely get the Cy Young Award in most seasons; in that time and in that league, it stands out as especially great.
In 2000, one could argue that he was in some ways even better. As I mentioned above, his ERA- (35) was better than ’99. In fact, it is the lowest single season mark since 1920. His RA-WAR of 12.2 is 9th in that time, higher than any season by Tom Seaver or Greg Maddux, and a personal best (better than ’99). He again lead the league in strikeouts and WHIP, and the gap between his ERA and the next best was nearly two whole runs: 1.74 to 3.70 (Clemens). He was utterly in a league of his own.
Although injuries hampered him a bit from 2001-03 (he didn’t top 200 innings in any of those seasons), his ERA remained between 2.22 and 2.39. He compiled the second most fWAR of any pitcher over those three seasons (21.4), and was second only to Randy Johnson in K%. He lead all pitchers in ERA- (50).
Looking at Pedro’s career as a whole, it becomes even more obvious that he belongs in the Hall. His career 67 ERA- (i.e. adjusted ERA) is the second lowest of all-time (among Starting Pitchers with at least 1000 IP). Not just since 1920, but since 1883, when they first pushed the mound back to 60’6″. His 21.2 K-BB% is the highest ever. His 1.05 WHIP is 3rd best. His 27.7 K% is second all-time only to Randy Johnson’s. And again: these are rankings since 1883.
Luckily, baseball has always been able to see past career totals to recognize shorter-term greatness (Sandy Koufax again; Kirby Puckett… even Joe DiMaggio played in relatively few games). Pedro isn’t top ten in strikeouts or ERA. He doesn’t have the 300 Wins to please the old school voters. But the kind of dominance he displayed – plus the 3 Cy Young Awards – should make him an easy first-ballot Hall of Famer.