The current crop of Hall of Fame inductees are the first that have any data that give us any hope of answering this question. The PITCHf/x era is said to have started in 2007, and that is indeed when the numbers linking individual pitches to their outcomes begin.
Unfortunately, it’s not very instructive to say that Martinez’s changeup had the 42nd-best swinging strike rate among the 78 pitchers who threw at least 300 changeups in 2008. Pedro was 36 years old that year, and though he pitched over 100 innings, by wins above replacement it was the worst effort of his career. Not a great time to test the legend.
Over at FanGraphs, though, we have Baseball Info Solutions data back to 2002. That year, Pedro won 20 games and had probably the third-best season of his career. He was 30, and it wasn’t his best year, and the numbers come to us from humans rather than computers, but it’s the best we can do with available statistics.
Here’s how Pedro’s change, curve, and fastball did that season by swinging strikes. Whiffs are not the only way to judge a pitch, but they are what we have on hand currently — and the pitcher never had an above-average overall grounder rate, so it’s not likely his individual pitches were elite by that measure either. By whiffs at least, he was comfortably above the league’s averages with those three pitches.
Pedro vs. MLB
We already have a problem with the legend, though. Pedro’s slider is not listed because Pedro’s slider was never a top pitch. In 2002, at least, his slider got whiffs 13.6% of the time. Though that was his best effort on the slider in the seven-year sample that we have for Martinez, it wasn’t as good as the league’s swinging strike rate on the slider that year (15.6%). The pitch looked good (if this is a slider), but it was never elite.
But if you listen to games as they were called at the time, the slider wasn’t ever really thought of as a go-to pitch of his. You can hear Tim McCarver describing the Dominican’s arsenal in 1999, and he points out that while "most great pitchers have two great pitches, Pedro has three."
The curveball, relative to the league rates, doesn’t seem elite at first. But Pedro threw a lot of curveballs. If you limit the leaderboard to only those who threw at least 450 curves, he was a top-five guy in 2002.
The legend is dead, but the kernel of truth that spawned it is not quite done. The curve was never the best pitch Martinez owned — that was the change — and yet it was a top-five curve in 2002.
What about the fastball? Once again, the whiff rate might not seem like great shakes. Madison Bumgarner owned the best four-seam whiff rate this year, at 13.7%. But today’s game has more strikeouts. Once again, Martinez was atop the leaderboards (minimum 1000 thrown).
So we have him in the top five with two pitches so far, and his best pitch remains. Maybe the big surprise, then, is that Martinez did not have the best whiff rate on the changeup among starters in 2002. That honor belonged to Chris Reitsma, who coaxed a swinging strike on 27% of the changeups he threw that year. Martinez also didn’t have the highest raw whiff count on the changeup that year — Mark Redman threw almost 200 more changeups and managed to get six more raw whiffs. But seen through a combination of changeups thrown and whiffs enticed, we can call Pedro’s change the best in baseball in 2002. It certainly looked the part.
Like many legends before it, the idea that Martinez had the best four pitches in baseball must be laid to bed. The fun part about this exercise, though, is that there is some truth to the whole thing. When judged by whiff rates against starters that threw those pitch types often, his pitches did well.
In 2002, Pedro had three top-five pitches. No pitcher could boast that same fact in 2014.
If you compare Bumgarner’s cutter to other cutters instead of comparing it to sliders — something we couldn’t do with the data from 2002 — then his cutter, curve and fastball counted as top 10 pitches last season. Johnny Cueto’s fastball, cutter and change were top 15 last season among starters. By swinging strike rates, Felix Hernandez has a sinker, a curve and a change in the top 15 (he also threw his changeup 1,120 times – the most in baseball, and basically twice as often as Pedro threw *his* changeup in 2002). But nobody had three top-five pitches like Pedro did.
There are many different ways that Martinez was great. This urban legend might not be true, but hidden within the myth was yet another way he was great.