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November 4, 2009

Player Profile

Pedro Martinez

by Marc Normandin

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It is a credit to the quality of the respective careers of Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte that tonight's World Series matchup, in a time well past each pitcher's prime, still elicits such excitement and potential. Pettitte has been a great pitcher through much of his career, but his numbers look like those of an amateur next to Pedro, who has been one of the best pitchers to take the mound in baseball's modern era. Much of Pedro's dominance is in the past though, and the two hurlers stand on more equal footing these days-though as Pedro's Game Two start showed us, he's still got a trick or two up his sleeve, even against one of the most talented offenses in the league.

Pedro Jaime Martinez, the younger brother of Ramon Martinez, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 1988. The skinny Dominican right-hander was assigned to Rookie-level Great Falls for the 1990 season (once he had turned 18 years old), and he would toss 77 innings with a 3.62 ERA as a starter for the club. The Dodgers liked what they saw from him, and promoted him to High-A for the 1991 season. This was just the first of a rapid series of promotions for Martinez in '91, as he pitched a significant number of innings at three levels, moving up to throw at both Double- and Triple-A. For High-A Bakersfield, Pedro threw 61 1/3 innings with 83 strikeouts and a 2.05 ERA. In Double-A, his ERA was better still, dropping to 1.76, but his strikeouts also fell, to 8.7 K/9. Still, we're talking about a 19-year-old in his second professional season facing hitters that are much older than he is, so it's a forced complaint. Pedro continued showing off his stuff with the move to Triple-A Albuquerque, where his ERA rose to 3.66 and his whiffs fell to 8.0 per nine, but again, he was 19 years old.

Pedro spent most of 1992 in Albuquerque again, throwing 125 innings, this time with 124 strikeouts. His control wasn't the best, as he walked 4.1 per nine, but considering his age, the progress was something to be excited about. He made a start and a relief appearance for the Dodgers in September of that year, throwing eight innings with eight punchouts, and that was enough to effectively end his minor league career. Pedro would throw just three more innings in the minors, his last until 2007, as he was on track to become a Dodgers set-up man in 1993. You could say Pedro excelled at the role: 107 innings, 119 strikeouts and, despite 4.8 walks per nine, he kept the ball in the park and was basically unhittable, allowing just 6.4 hits per nine. For a better point of reference, although he walked nearly five hitters per nine innings, he managed a WHIP of 1.24.

It was obvious the Dodgers had something special on their hands, but there were worries. Current-day Pedro stands 5'11" and weighs in upwards of 180-190 pounds, depending on the reports you read. So, he's not a big guy, but conditioning throughout the years has made him a much larger pitcher than he was back at this time at the beginning of his career. Back then, when he was still in the minors, he weighed closer to 150 pounds, and that slight frame scared the Dodgers' front office-how would Pedro ever throw 200 innings consistently with such a small build and frame? Would he be better off staying in relief? The Dodgers would end up trading Pedro after this brilliant rookie year for Delino DeShields, who himself had a pretty good 1993 as well out in Montreal. At the time, many thought the trade looked like a steal for the Dodgers, as Pedro's frame was a point of contention, but the Expos were willing and able to take on this risk.

See, the Expos couldn't operate like other clubs due to budget constraints, so they had to look for players that the rest of the league didn't want, or players that the other teams in the league did not understand. Pedro was one of these pitchers. Then-general manager Dan Duquette knew that Pedro could be one of two things, either a standout reliever (as he had been for the Dodgers), or a great starting pitcher-and either way, someone the Expos could control at a low cost for years to come, given his age and experience. It was worth dealing DeShields, who would have left town eventually anyways due to the nature of the Expos' dealings with productive (and expensive) players, especially since the Expos were in need of better starting pitching-this same offseason saw them trade struggling slugger Andres Galaragga for Ken Hill as well. It's the kind of deal that perfectly frames both the Expos and Duquette, though he was no longer the club's GM by the time the 1994 season rolled around.

Given a chance as a starter, Pedro came into his own in Montreal. He started 23 games in the strike-shortened '94 season, racking up 142 strikeouts in 142 innings, as well as a reputation as a headhunter. While not necessarily true-do you really think Pedro meant to plunk Reggie Sanders during a bid for a perfect game?-he did thrive on the inside corner, which is one of the reasons he was able to survive during the rise of offense across both leagues while many of his contemporaries posted ERAs that resembled airport food prices. The 1995 season would see Pedro succeed once more, as he nearly hit 200 innings despite another shortened year, this time striking out 174 while keeping his walks down for the second year in a row. Not only was he hard to hit, but he was learning how to control his pitches too-case in point, Pedro threw nine perfect innings against the San Diego Padres on June 3, but gave up a hit in the 10th, giving him two almost-perfect games before he had even turned 24.

In 1996, there were some improvements to his strikeout rate and was his first season with over 200 innings, but it was 1997 that would make Pedro a true star. Beating out Greg Maddux for the Cy Young award was no small feat at this time, but it's hard to argue with this: 241 1/3 innings pitched, an ERA of 1.90, and 305 strikeouts against 62 walks. Pedro had pitched himself out of the team's price range prior to this, but a Cy Young award and those numbers sealed the deal. Waiting and watching though, was Dan Duquette, who traded for Pedro a second time-Duke essentially traded for 22-year-old Pedro and 26-year-old Pedro, giving up just DeShields, Carl Pavano, and Tony Armas Jr. in the process. If MORP had a head, it would 'asplode trying to process that.

Pedro's run with Boston is full of memories for me, as I grew up watching him as he pitched for the Red Sox. He stabilized a rotation that one year prior featured Tim Wakefield and Tom Gordon as its premiere options. The Sox would win the AL Wild Card that year, powered by Pedro, who went 19-7 with 233 2/3 innings pitched and an ERA of 2.89. In retrospect, that was one of his more boring seasons with the club. Anyone old enough to be cognizant of 1999's events knows Pedro was unbelievable that year. He struck out 100 more hitters than he had innings pitched (313 to 213 1/3). His ERA was 2.07 despite pitching at Fenway Park in half of his starts in a year where the league average line was .271/.340/.432. His ERA+ was 243, the fifth-best rate since World War II, and once again putting him in the company of Greg Maddux's best work. The start that sticks out was on September 11th against the New York Yankees, as he struck out 17 hitters and allowed one hit-a Chili Davis home run-en route to facing just 28 hitters over nine innings. To put things into perspective, David Cone, two months removed from twirling a perfect game, said it was the best start he had ever seen. Pedro would take home his second Cy Young for his efforts, and was hosed out of an MVP Award as well when a few writers left him off of their ballots entirely.

This was also the season where he struck out five of the first six hitters he faced in the All-Star Game at Fenway, and came back in Game Five to face the Indians in relief in the American League Division Series after leaving his first start with an injury. The Red Sox, who had been down 0-2 in the series, won on the strength of Pedro's six innings in relief, as he allowed three walks but no runs and no hits. To bring this back around to tonight's game, Pedro did that without his best stuff-he wasn't consistently throwing high heat, which is what he was known for at the time, but instead pitched masterfully using his changeup and breaking pitches.

His 2000 season was even better, which was hard to believe until you see the numbers: 217 innings, 284 strikeouts, a WHIP of 0.74, and an ERA of 1.74. His ERA+ was 291, the highest ever for a modern pitcher and second all-time. He picked up his third and most likely final Cy Young Award in that season, but that wasn't the end of Pedro as a dominant pitcher.

Injuries started to take their toll in 2001, with Pedro tossing just 116 innings, although he did strike out 163 hitters while posting an ERA of 2.39, so the injuries were just keeping him off of the mound rather than inhibiting his performance. The Sox started to treat Pedro more carefully from this point forward-he just missed 200 innings in both 2002 and 2003-and of course there is the infamous game note for then-manager Grady Little about removing Pedro before he imploded against the Yankees in the ALCS, advice he did not heed an eventually was dismissed for. The 2004 season was his last year with the club, but it was the most important in Red Sox history, as they took him a World Series, in no small part thanks to Martinez' contributions. He threw 217 innings, his most since 2000, and continued to strike out hitters and keep walks and hits in check, though homers, for the first time in a long while, looked like a potential issue.

The Red Sox would let Pedro walk after the season, fearing his arm would not hold through the kind of contract he was asking for. The Mets' Omar Minaya was willing to pay though, and he signed Pedro to a four-year, $53 million deal that included a no-trade clause. Things started out looking bad for the Sox front office-they failed to do anything worthwhile in the playoffs in 2005, and Pedro posted an ERA of 2.82 for the Mets over another 217 innings-but this fell apart, with injuries taking their toll until Pedro, for the first time in his career, pitched ineffectively on a consistent basis.

Pedro spent time rehabbing injuries in the minors while also spending a lot of time on the major league roster, but he was never the same as in 2005 during the rest of his time with the Mets. Things were so bad in 2008 that the Mets, rather than continue to push Martinez to sign an incentive-laden deal throughout the early season when he couldn't find work, went with Oliver Perez on a contract that resembles Pedro's old one. It's hard to blame them for the decision in many ways-and the Red Sox too, for that matter, as there are those who wonder why the Sox didn't sign him instead of John Smoltz-because Pedro was susceptible to homers and had posted his highest walk rate since he was a reliever for the Dodgers, 16 years before. On the other hand, the alternative was Oliver Perez, so it was something of a lose/lose scenario for New York.

Philadelphia on the other hand, needed to take a chance on a starter in order to strengthen their hold on the division. If Pedro was able to retain some of his former self for two months, then the Phillies would have a needed reinforcement; their subsequent deal for Cliff Lee meant that they might have a genuinely impressive rotation all of a sudden. I'll admit right now that I felt it was a risky move-Pedro's homer rates and lack of control were issues that could destroy him in Citizen's Bank Park-but he survived over the course of nine starts, with an ERA of 3.63.

Going forward, it may be tough to expect Pedro to repeat that, for all of the same reasons spoken of a few months back. The homers are still flying, with 1.4 per nine this year, and his 1.6 BB/9 seems unrealistic, even for Pedro. To sustain that, he needs to stay in the strike zone, and legendary changeup or not, the end result will be more homers. If you're looking for some proof, his tRA, which adjusts for batted-ball data, suggests Pedro's Run Average should have been nearing 6.00 rather than 3.63 (he didn't allow any unearned runs, hence the mirror image).

That's a concern for 2010, however; the focus right now isn't even on 2009, but is just on November 4, 2009, Game Six of the World Series, where the Phillies are down three games to two and need a win to survive. You know the classic bar argument, about which pitcher you would love to use in a do-or-die elimination game, if you had the choice of anyone in history? Pick any year from Pedro's peak, and you would be confident about your chances in the hypothetical game, even if your opponent were to pick a Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, or Tom Seaver season. The Phillies don't have vintage Pedro on their roster-no one has for a few years-but they do have a pitcher who has transformed himself as his stuff has changed, one that can still get hitters out with regularity as he showed us in game two, as long as his stuff is on. They will have to hope that's enough if they want this series to go seven games, giving them a chance to repeat as World Champions-either way, tonight is the most important start of Pedro's career, and that's saying something given his long and storied history.

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