Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Pedro Martinez
Has it really been nine years since Pedro Martinez last pitched in a Boston Red Sox uniform? Has it been fourteen years since he electrified the entire nation when Fenway Park hosted the 1999 All-Star Game? It seems like it can’t be that long ago, yet here we are with Pedro only a year away from being eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. In this month of July, as we shift our focus to baseball, Pedro is BST&N’s Vintage Athlete of the Month.
Martinez was born on October 25, 1971, which means that somewhere in his native Dominican Republic, he was celebrating his 15th birthday on the night a ground ball skipped through Bill Buckner’s legs in Shea Stadium. It’s surely ironic that this man would become instrumental in ending the Red Sox’ 86-year championship drought.
The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Pedro as an 18-year-old, and got a look at what he could do in 1993. Pedro threw over 100 innings mostly in relief and compiled a 2.61 ERA. The Dodgers still traded him to Montreal for second baseman Delino DeShields—who, in fairness to the Dodgers, was a pretty good second baseman and well-established. But it wouldn’t take long for seller’s remorse to kick in.
Over the next three seasons, Pedro established himself as a rising star as a starting pitcher. His ERAs were consistently in the 3s, and he had double-digit wins each year. Some bad luck cost him two notable achievements, one for the team and the other for himself.
Montreal had the best record in major league baseball at the point the 1994 work stoppage wiped out the rest of the season and playoffs. And in 1995, Martinez threw a perfect nine innings in a game that had to go the 10th at 0-0. He gave up a double in the tenth, and consequently could not be credited with a perfect game.
1997 was the breakout year. Pedro posted a 1.90 ERA, threw thirteen complete games, rolled up a 241 inning workload and won 17 games. He won the Cy Young Award, and with the Red Sox in the market for starting pitching, with the Roger Clemens Era having ended a year earlier, general manager Dan Duquette wanted Pedro.
The Expos had to get rid of Martinez before he started big money and left them with no return, so Boston traded away a package focused on top pitching prospect Carl Pavano. Here’s another irony, because Pavano would end up with the Marlins, have some success and sign a big-money deal with the Yankees. At which point, he turned into one of the most shiftless players to put on a major league uniform. Thus, Red Sox Nation owes thanks to Pavano for bringing us Pedro and for stiffing the Yankees.
Pedro’s entire tenure in Boston, through 2004, was incredibly productive, but the first three years were positively electric. He won sixty games over that timeframe and took home the Cy Young Award in both 1999 and 2000. He finished second in the ’99 MVP voting, and the one year he didn’t win the Cy was ’98—when he finished second.
I worked in the sports handicapping field recently and a veteran of the field told me that the gambling lines posted when Pedro took the mound at Fenway were like nothing they had seen before or since. Bettors who wanted the Red Sox usually had to lay something like $350 to turn a profit of $100, odds you never see associated with a single baseball game. That’s how much he dominated a game. Still others tell stories of the electric atmosphere that existed in the Fens when it was Pedro’s night to pitch, giving it a playoff feel in midsummer.
In 2001, the first warning signs of decline began to set in. It was not about performance, it was about durability. Pedro is a wiry 5’11 and goes 195 lbs, and his throwing motion was exceptionally violent. He was dominant when he was on the mound, but only made 18 starts—easily his career low until the shoulder finally gave out at the tail end of his career. But in those eighteens starts, he still put up a 2.39 ERA.
The Red Sox were careful with the franchise arm over the next two seasons and Pedro stayed mostly healthy and was mostly dominant. He won 20 games in 2002, with a 2.26 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young voting. He had a 2.22 ERA in 2003, though an inordinate amount of no-decisions kept him at 14-4. Boston had bullpen problems throughout ’03, and the combination of Pedro’s durability and the bullpen would create a disaster scenario when the season ended.
I think it’s safe to say most all readers know the gory details, but Pedro pitched a brilliant seven innings in Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, and had a 5-2 lead. He was at the point in his pitch counts where all the data said it was time to take him out. Manager Grady Little left him in and the Yankees rallied to tie the game. Whether Little should have come under the fire he did is debatable—it’s not like it was one year later when Keith Foulke would shore up the pen. There weren’t a lot of good options. But it speaks well to the baseball IQ of Boston fandom that everyone knew that Pedro had given everything he had to reach the point.
And speaking of one year later…yes, let’s speak of one year later. Pedro was no longer the ace, as Curt Schilling came to town and won 21 games. But Pedro won 16 of his own with a 3.90 ERA. He was outstanding in a Game 2 Division Series win over the Angels, and in a Game 3 World Series start at St. Louis, he was vintage Pedro. The Cardinals had an elite power-hitting lineup and hope of getting back into the Series, but with seven innings of one-run baseball, Pedro squelched that hope and set up the following night’s historic celebration.
Things came to an end in Boston that offseason. Realistically, it was time for the two sides to part ways. The Red Sox front office, understandably, did not want to commit on a long-term contract given the state of Pedro’s shoulder. He, just as understandably, felt he could get the job done and wanted long-term security. The New York Mets took the chance and gave him the fourth contract year that Boston wouldn’t. Pedro had a good year in 2005, but his shoulder gave out after that.
That’s what made 2009 such a pleasant surprise. The Philadelphia Phillies were kicking the tires of some veteran pitching choices for the stretch drive and decided to give Pedro a shot. He came up big, going 5-1 with a 3.63 ERA down the stretch and throwing seven shutout innings at the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The Phils won the pennant and Pedro was a big reason why. Even with his velocity gone, his command of multiple pitches, his control and his intelligence on the mound still made him a potent weapon. He was able to hang it up on a good note.
THE AWARDS NOT WON
A career with three Cy Young Awards requires no apologies, but you can make a very good case that Pedro’s trophy shelf is a little too empty. He was robbed of the 1999 AL MVP award, because two voters refused to list him on their ballots at all because he was a pitcher. He finished close enough that even being placed third or fourth by both would have gotten him the award.
You can also argue that he should have won the Cy Young Awards in 1998 and 2002. His numbers were basically with a wash with winners Roger Clemens in ’99 and Barry Zito in ’02. I won’t say he was robbed, but you have a case where the Cy Youngs that Pedro did win were no-doubt-about-it, and the two he didn’t were too close to call.
ELECTRIC IN OCTOBER
Pedro didn’t shy from the October stage and delivered the following big moments for the Red Sox…
*He controlled an outstanding Cleveland lineup in Game 1 of the 1998 Division Series. This win ended a 10-game Red Sox losing streak in the postseason that dated back to Pedro’s 15th birthday party.
*He dominated Clemens in an easy win over the Yankees in the 1999 ALCS. Pedro’s excellence at this stage of his career is such that the Yankees felt a special motivation to make sure they didn’t this series get to a seventh game. Even the best team in baseball, with homefield advantage, didn’t want any part of him in a one-game shot for the pennant.
*In 2003, he went head-to-head with Zito in the decisive game of the Division Series and won a 4-3 game. Pedro also had the lead over Zito in the eighth inning of Game 1, before the bullpen coughed it up—a circumstance that set up Little’s indecision in the subsequent Game 7 of the ALCS.
*Then there was his finest moment. The 1999 Division Series with Cleveland had come down to a deciding fifth game. It turned into an early slugfest and was 8-8 when the Indians came up in the bottom of the fourth. Pedro was considered unavailable, because there was already concern about his shoulder, and TV analysts were speculating that he shouldn’t pitch—that even a game this big wasn’t worth the Red Sox jeopardizing their future.
Instead, Pedro came out of the bullpen and threw six no-hit innings against one of the great offensive lineups of this era. The Red Sox won 12-8. It’s a performance that deserves its place in Red Sox lore right up with Schilling’s Game 6 of the ALCS in 2004. Pedro’s weakened shoulder didn’t give TV cameras the powerful visual of the bloody sock. It didn’t come against the Yankees, and it didn’t lead to a World Series title. But Pedro had put his career and health on the line that night in Cleveland as sure as Schilling did in the Bronx. Let’s honor them both.
DOMINATING AN UNCLEAN ERA
Let’s conclude by pointing this out—Pedro was not only one of the dominant pitchers of his era, he did it in an era that was defined by hitters’ on steroids. Yet his statistical performance needs no adjustment for this context. It doesn’t even require adjustment for pitching in Fenway Park. Think if Pedro would have pitched in a place like San Diego’s vast Petco Park without hitters juiced up. Maybe it’s just as well he pitched when he did—it kept everything fair.
That underscores the point of Pedro’s legacy that shines brighter with each passing year. There has been no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, that ever connected him to PED use, even if certain Boston media types like to cast aspersions on players from the Dominican. Pedro did it clean and he did it extraordinarily well. Officially, he’s the Vintage Athlete of the Month. In reality, he’s the best player to put on a Red Sox uniform since Ted Williams.