Who’s the closest current pitcher to vintage Pedro?
Three historically great pitchers were inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame this past weekend, with John Smoltz and Randy Johnson representing two-thirds of the former titans to be inducted into Cooperstown. There was always something special about the final member of the trio, however. He had a season in 1999 that ranked among the greatest pitching seasons of all time, and he put together a string of seasons between 1997 – 2003 that are collectively among the most dominant ever when compared to league average. That pitcher, of course, was Pedro Martinez.
Though there might never be another pitcher with the unbelievable combination of fastball, curveball, and changeup that Pedro had, it is possible there are current pitchers with arsenals that are similar to him. Today, in honor of Martinez’ induction, let’s try to answer a possibly unanswerable question: who’s the closest current pitcher to vintage Pedro?
We’re going to focus only on Pedro’s 1999 season — when he was at the height of his powers — in comparison to 2015 starters. As a preface, here is the incredible stat line from that season:
Martinez had the 10th-best ERA+ of all time in 1999, setting career-highs in strikeouts, wins, and Fielding Independent Pitching. He also famously struck out five of six hitters in the first two innings of the 1999 All-Star Game, proving his complete dominance on the mound at the height of the PED era by fanning Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell. Some would argue 2000 was as great a season for Pedro as 1999, but we’d be splitting hairs by trying to decide between them: they both represent two of the greatest pitching seasons in history.
To begin with, let’s establish the pitches that Pedro had in his arsenal during that time. For ease, we’re going to leave his slider out of the picture, as it was Martinez’ most seldom-used offering, and it was often considered his weakest pitch. With his velocity taken anecdotally from articles and video footage from 1999 (including the All-Star Game), here’s a close approximation of his arsenal when at its best during that season. I’ve canvassed as many sources as possible to get average velocities, with the assumption that there could be some deviation:
- Fastball: average of 96 MPH (four-seam), thrown 58% of the time (overall)
- Circle Changeup: average of 85 MPH, thrown 19% of the time
- Curveball: average of 82 MPH, thrown 16% of the time
As stated before, we’re leaving the slider out, which accounts for the final 7% of his usual pitch mix. And, while the fastball information above includes a cutter, two-seam, and four-seam fastball, we’re only going to focus on the four-seam — his most often-used hard pitch. Frankly, it was an amazing combination of pitches considering the massive difference between his average fastball and changeup velocity. In a previous post on JABO, Eno Sarris went through each of Martinez’ pitches from 2002 to see how they fared in terms of swinging strike rate, a stat that provides a very good benchmark for how effective a pitch is.
In short, Eno found that each of Martinez’ pitches (except for the slider) were top five in the league in swinging strike rate. While that might put to bed the myth that each of his pitches was individually the best in the league during one of his prime years, his overall arsenal was almost certainly among the best, and that doesn’t even take into account some of the intangible ways Pedro was able to outsmart and dominate batters. We should keep that point in mind when looking at our comparisons.
Now, using the velocity numbers, we’re going to identify the pitchers from 2015 that possess the closest velocity match to Pedro’s arsenal. I’ve used the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards to pull every starting pitcher in the majors who have an arsenal that includes a four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball. After calculating how close each pitcher in 2015 is to each of Pedro’s offerings, I then calculated who was closest when taking their entire pitching repertoire into account. Although we don’t have measurements for the amount of movement Martinez’ pitches had on them, we can at least see who is closest in terms of velocity with this method.
The closest velocity match for all of Pedro Martinez’ pitches in 1999?
deGrom’s average fastball velocity this year is 95.7 MPH, he’s thrown his changeup at an average of 86 MPH, and his average curveball has clocked in at 82.8 MPH. In short, he almost perfectly lines up with Pedro’s velocity numbers, and he is by far the closest pitcher when taking into account all three pitches. Considering deGrom was one pitch short of an immaculate inning during this season’s All Star game, the result is an apt and interesting one.
Now that we know our comparison pitcher, let’s take a look at some video footage to see how each pitcher’s offering look side by side. First, we’ll start with the four-seam fastball, with Pedro from September of 1999 and deGrom from yesterday’s game against the Dodgers:
Here’s the changeup:
And finally, the curve:
We don’t have the data for the movement on Martinez’ pitches, but the four-seam fastballs and changeup look very similar to deGrom’s. His changeup has very similar movement to Pedro’s, which could be due to the similar circle change grip that both pitchers use. It’s the curve where the comparison deviates, with Pedro’s curve having much sharper bite than the Mets’ right-hander. That’s not too surprising, as deGrom uses his curve as a change of pace pitch, and only employs it about 9% of the time.
This study isn’t meant to anoint deGrom as the next incarnation of 1999 Pedro; it’s simply to state that by the velocity numbers we can see, deGrom is the closest out of 2015 starting pitchers with his current arsenal. There is more to pitching than velocity, of course, and Martinez’ acumen in terms of pitch sequencing and knowledge of hitters was one of the biggest reasons why he was so incredibly successful.
There is a reason Jacob deGrom has been one of the best pitchers in the majors this year, however: he possesses an arsenal that’s very similar to peak Pedro Martinez in terms of velocity. deGrom might not have the other intangible skills (yet) that the newest Hall of Fame member possessed at his peak, but I think we can all agree: 1999 Pedro velocity is a pretty great starting point.