When Pedro Martinez was the best of all time

I’ve been trying to keep track of anniversaries lately. I’m actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Just ask one of my friends who’s received a birthday card in the actual mail at some point in the last year. The baseball stuff, though … there are just so many of them!

Well, here’s a good one I missed. A month or so ago, Bill James presented a method for analyzing what he calls Pitcher Wave Patterns. I’m not going to dig into the methodology here; if you care about such things, you’re undoubtedly happy to spend $3 a month for a subscription and read the whole thing for yourself.

Anyway, about the anniversary:

Pedro Martinez on June 6, 2000, was the highest-rated pitcher of all time, reaching a peak score of 756.53.    At that time Pedro in his last 31 starts had pitched 237 innings, giving up 136 hits, striking out 335 batters, walking 35, and posting an Earned Run Average of 1.48.

Only four pitchers in the data reached a level of 700—Pedro, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson.   Gibson reached the 700 level only once, for one start.

Randy Johnson, the #2 pitcher for peak performance score, reached his peak less than a month before Pedro did (May 16, 2000)—so Randy Johnson, when he was at his very best, was NOT the best pitcher in baseball (although he had many, many moments when he WAS the best pitcher in baseball.)  The top 10 are Pedro, Randy, Clemens, Gibson, Frank Tanana, Dwight Gooden, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, and Tom Seaver.

Bill says he’s “glad Tanana pops up on that list,” and so am I. In one of my books, I made the case that Tanana, and not Nolan Ryan, was (as of 2002) the greatest pitcher in Angels history. From 1975 through ’77, anyway, probably Tom Seaver was the only pitcher in the majors better than Tanana.

Anyway, about Pedro Martínez. I think Bill misspoke; I think he actually meant the 8th of June in 2000. That evening at Fenway Park, Pedro made his 11th start of the season, against the Indians. In eight innings, he gave up one walk and one hit – Russell Branyan’s automatic double in the fifth – while striking out 10 and throwing 101 pitches.  Entering this game, he’d given up 10 runs in 10 starts; he didn’t allow any runs at all this time, his ERA dropping to 0.95.

I was there, that night.

I was there for all 13 of Pedro’s Fenway Park starts that season, plus a few more in various other places (including, most memorably, this one). In my personal experience, Randy Johnson is the only other pitcher who’s inspired the sort of anticipation with every start that Pedro did. But of course it was different with Pedro, because the Kingdome simply couldn’t touch Fenway Park. When Pedro pitched at home in 2000, that urban bandbox was filled to the gills, always, with fans desperately craving every single pitch.

I went back to see what I wrote about that game in the book I wrote about that season. Turns out it wasn’t much, but there’s this: At the time, the second-lowest ERA among qualifying American League starting pitchers was 3.07. We had some inkling at the time, and it’s still mentioned occasionally, but it’s worth mentioning again that Pedro Martínez’s numbers, as impressive as they seem today, superficially, were truly astounding in that hitter’s era. Today, Clayton Kershaw’s the Gold Standard. Well, take Kershaw and make him about 25 percent better, and now you’ve got Pedro Martínez from 1997 through 2003.

I’ve been thinking even more than usual about Pedro, because this spring we got his memoir: Pedro.

Two of my favorite as-told-to memoirs are Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck) and Nice Guys Finish Last (Leo Durocher). Both books were ghosted by Ed Linn, and both books give you – or gave me, anyway – the impression that you’re not only getting a sense of the subject’s personality, but also his voice. As if Durocher or Veeck was just sitting on the barstool right there, telling you these stories himself.

But while Pedro, does seem to give us a good sense of Pedro’s personality, I’m not always so sure about his voice. As someone pointed out in an Amazon review, this bit doesn’t quite seem like something that Pedro Martínez, or almost any other ballplayer, would actually say: “I gathered as many smooth and flat stones as I could hold in one hand. The sea was still, and I skipped rock after rock across the glass surface, following the spiraling arc of the rippling tendrils until the stone skidded to a stop and slid slowly underwater.”

There’s nothing wrong with this passage, except an attentive reader is likely to be pulled from the narrative and reminded that Pedro had a lot of help with this one. And the less we’re plucked from the narrative, the better.

There’s another, more obvious and obtrusive example of this. Throughout the book, significant figures from Pedro’s life and career are quoted, their words dropped right in the middle of his remembrances. But it’s obvious that he’s not remembering these quotes; rather, these people were interviewed for the book by the ghostwriter. In some books like this, such passages are set off in italics. Which seems a little more honest, in a way. If perhaps even more jarring. Basically, there’s not an elegant way to do this. Once you’ve committed to the first-person account, you’re probably best-served by leaving the interviews and the post-facto quotes to the straight biography that someone’s bound to write someday.

Oddly, one of the strengths of the book is its erudition, as Silverman’s obviously a fine, sometimes lyrical writer. While the “writerly” nature is occasionally jarring, it’s also generally pleasurable and I actually had a difficult time putting this book down. I wouldn’t say it quite reads like a novel; for one thing, we know almost exactly where the story is going. But despite my reservations about the narrative flow, it does carry you along. Or did me, anyway.

So, the voice. Maybe not so much. Ultimately, I think what’s most important in these books is getting a sense of the person, and – with the full knowledge that I don’t know Pedro at all, personally, so this is just an educated guess – I suspect that future readers will get a pretty good read on Pedro Martínez’s personality and what drove him to become the best pitcher on Earth for a few years.

And while this probably isn’t fair, I will report that the two qualities that stood out the most for me – I mean, aside from pure determination, which should be left unsaid, it’s so obvious – were meanness and petulance.

Pedro mentions a few times when he just flat-out cried. There’s nothing unattractive about this. But he also seems to have quit, or threatened to quit, for every team he ever played for. Or almost every team. He certainly was upset enough to consider quitting the Dodgers, the Expos, and the Red Sox.

Which isn’t so attractive.

But does make for a pretty entertaining memoir. To this day, Pedro doesn’t seem to have many regrets about these incidents; still believes the Dodgers and the Expos and the Red Sox treated him poorly. Maybe they did! But while he admits being emotional and acknowledges the possibility that he might have overreacted, he generally tends toward self-justification. And things could get ugly. Here’s what happened when, after an argument over $10,000, the Dodgers sent Pedro to the minors to begin the 1993 season:

… I could cry when I got mad, and these were tears of rage.

I wanted to kill someone.

“Where’s Fred Claire?”

All I could think about was Fred, and I focused on his eyes, his ice-blue eyes that I could never forget. I can understand now why people snap and kill their bosses – the frustration mounts and then you lose all control. That’s what was happening to me. I had done my job and done it well. Success was supposed to follow. I was supposed to get a chance to be with the big-league team. I earned that chance, and I was standing on the sidewalk, watching the bus that was supposed to take me on the start to my big-league career drive off to Miami without me.

After which, Pedro got Claire on the phone to ask for his release – yeah, there was a great chance of that happening – and started making flight plans to head home to the Dominican Republic. Later, overhearing a coach’s remark, he flipped over a table in the Dodgertown dining room. Ultimately, Pedro’s brother Ramon convinced him to stay, and he pitched one game in Triple-A before heading back to the majors forever.

In related news, there’s also Pedro’s general persecution complex:

A new strike zone was supposed to make it easier for the pitcher to get the high strike but did nothing about the inner half of the plate, the area that I needed to command in order to succeed. “They’ve done so many things to me,” I said. “One thing they’ve never done is appreciate what I do for baseball, what I do off the field. They don’t recognize the things I have had to overcome, to come from the Dominican to become a star in the game. They don’t recognize any of that, but now the bad things they want to point out.”

It wasn’t just the feeling that I was being targeted and unappreciated. At that point it hit me again that I had run into baseball’s brick wall. What exactly had I done that was wrong? I believe that baseball saw me as a threat, a foreign threat… Still not even 30 years old, I was well on my way to a fourth Cy Young in 2001, if I hadn’t got hurt, and the following year I came very close to winning what could have been my fifth Cy Young. That would have put me in Clemens and Maddux territory, a place where I didn’t believe baseball wanted me. At that time I didn’t belong to America. I believe they thought I represented a real threat of becoming a historic figure in America’s game and I wasn’t American.

Uh, last time I checked Pedro Martínez was in the Hall of Fame and Roger Clemens wasn’t even close. Look, I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties faced by Spanish-speaking, foreign-born players. I’m sure they’re considerable. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who suffers the sort of persecution complex that Pedro Martínez seemed to.

Which isn’t to suggest it doesn’t make for good reading; it does, and I’m glad all this is in the book, because it obviously gives us a better idea of what made him tick.

Like the meanness. Here’s just one of many examples, about Mike Piazza in 1998:

When I had gone over the Mets lineup before the game, I did not have to put too much thought into how I would pitch to Mike, I just needed to make sure it was not too obvious. I got my chance right away, in the first inning. Bernard Gilkey had doubled with one out, and I reached a full count with Mike. I didn’t want Mike to hurt us with his bat, so I decided he belonged on first base and I would try to get a double-play grounder from the next batter, John Olerud. I hated walking batters and was not going to waste one on Piazza. There just had to be a better way to get that little shit to first base. Hmmm. Eureka! I uncorked a fastball that hit his left hand. Knocked him out of that game, and the next couple of games too, but he was fine, no broken bones.

Now, I don’t believe that Pedro ever tried to actually kill anyone, and he doesn’t seem to have been trying to hurt anyone, really. But he could easily have damaged or destroyed someone’s career with all those purpose pitches, and I find his justifications – and there are many of them – terribly hollow.

Statistically speaking, Pedro Martínez probably could have been almost exactly as brilliant if he’d never thrown a single purpose pitch. But of course that’s begging the question. Babe Ruth would theoretically have been a great baseball player – greater, even! – if he hadn’t eaten so many hot dogs and expended so much energy in brothels.

But that’s who Babe Ruth was. And this is who Pedro Martínez was. Without all his petulance and rage and occasional violence, would he have been the best pitcher of his time, and perhaps of all time, at least for a few years? That’s impossible to know. But reading his book is probably the best place to start.