July 22, 2015

Pedro Martinez – The Most Dominant Pitcher Ever?

Hall of Fame Week continues with a look at one of the three pitchers being inducted in 2015: Pedro Martinez.

From 1997 to 2003, Pedro Martinez dominated the major leagues, putting up stats nearly unmatched by any other pitcher in history. At his peak in 1999 & 2000, the only other pitcher to even hold a candle to him was fellow 2015 inductee Randy Johnson. Was Pedro’s peak the most dominant performance in MLB history? Does any one else measure up? We’ll look and see.

Sox win!

The Magic that Was Pedro Martinez

In 1997, Pedro Martinez pitched his final season with the Montreal Expos (repose en paix). It was the first year that he had led the league in any category other than batters hit by pitch. He lead the league in ERA, posting a 1.90, WHIPWalks + Hits per Inning Pitched. I.e., baserunners allowed per inning. with a 0.932, hits/9 innings, and Ks/9 innings (striking out 11.4 batters per nine). In the off season he was traded to Boston for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr.

In Boston he would run off six more seasons that, when taken with his final year with the Expos, may be the most comprehensively dominant pitching performance in MLB history. Over that seven year stretch Pedro led all Major League starters in win percentage, ERA, ERA+Adjusted Earned Run Average – the ratio of the players ERA to league average ERA, adjusted for park effects., WHIP, K/BB ratio, FIPFielding Independent Pitching. A measure of the events “under the pitcher’s control” (HR, BB, Ks, HBP) that attempts to remove the influence of team defense – whether good or bad – on the pitcher’s stats. It is scaled like ERA, so a “good” ERA number is also a good FIP score. and WARWins Above Replacement. A comprehensive measure of a player’s contributions to team wins.. He was 2nd only to Randy Johnson in Ks, K%, and K/9.

Here is his full stat line:

pedro martinez seven year peak

It’s really an incredible run, especially since those raw numbers were coming at the height of the PED-era offensive climate. And, at the very height of the offensive explosion in 1999 and 2000, seasons in which MLB posted the 3rd and 2nd highest league ERAs ever (behind 1930 – who knew?), Pedro peaked. Over those two seasons, he delivered the following performance:

pedro martinez two year peak

Those stats are, frankly, other worldly. American League average era in 1999 was 4.87, and Pedro posted a 2.07. In 2000, it was 4.92, and Pedro posted a 1.74 ERA – a number that belongs in the 1960s “Era of the Pitcher”, not in a season in which 45 different MLB players hit 30+ home runs and 16 hit 40+ (just as a note, last season in 2014? Eleven and one). The next lowest ERA in the AL was Roger Clemens at 3.70 – more than twice as high.

Over those two seasons, Pedro posted a 1.90 ERA, next was Randy Johnson at 2.56. Only one other starter (Kevin Brown) was lower than 3.00 and only 12 others managed to post a sub-4.00 era. He was second to Johnson in total Ks, but lead MLB in essentially every other stat. His WHIP was almost 20% lower than the next best starter (Brown), he was first in K/9, and first in FIP (2nd place was Johnson, 0.86 – almost 50% worse – behind him). He was first in K/BB ratio by such a great margin that he was almost double the 2nd place starter (Johnson, again) and better than triple the #12 pitcher (Kevin Tapani).

He was first in WAR over those two years. In fact, Pedro’s 11.7 WAR in 1999 is the highest in baseball history. He averaged 10.6 WAR over those two seasons – only four other pitchers in the modern era hit that mark in a single season, much less averaged it over two.

As a note, one thing I absolutely love about Pedro’s stats during these years in particular: the ratio of walks to hit batters. He averaged 34 walks per year and 12 hit batters. There couldn’t have been a doubt in any hitter’s mind that if Pedro hit you, he meant to do it. On a related note, remember the game from that year where he hit Preston Wilson to lead off the game and Wilson started the slow walk to first before charging the mound? And then Pedro ran off the next 24 hitters and lost a no-hitter in the 9th? That was Pedro in 2000.

It is quite possible that no other pitcher has ever been so far ahead of his peers than Pedro was during the 1999 & 2000 seasons and possibly over the entire multi-season stretch. At the very least, there are very few challengers for the title. Not many pitchers were so clearly head and shoulders above their peers and dominated nearly every aspect of the game (and thus every statistical measure), like Pedro did – especially if we’re looking at the longer stretch. There area few candidates though, let’s take a look at them.

The Big Unit

Randy Johnson 04 Notice how we kept mentioning that Randy Johnson was #2 to Pedro in all of those seasons? Yeah, Johnson was incredibly dominant during those years as well, doing most of his damage in the NL while Pedro terrorized the AL. Thing is, despite his performance, he suffered from poor timing. It’s hard to be called the most dominant pitcher in the league when there’s another guy always a few steps ahead. Also, and more importantly, he just doesn’t have a two-year stretch anywhere close to Pedro’s and even his best multi-season stretch falls short.

If we give him the benefit of the doubt and start counting at his 1998 trade to the Houston Astros and end after his final season in Arizona in 2004, his multi-year stat line looks like this:


Even though that’s an incredible run, Johnson finishes behind Pedro in every single stat except for total strikeouts (and he was doing it in the National League, the easier league in which to pitch at the time). The Big Unit was great, and his career is certainly superior to Pedro’s when taken as a whole (22 seasons, pitching productively into his 40s), but he just wasn’t as dominant at his peak.

The Left Arm of God

Sandy KoufaxSandy Koufax’s name is often cited in discussions about a player’s peak years, in large part because his productive career was basically the six years at the end of his injury-shortened career. Koufax accumulated 8.2 WAR in his first six seasons and 46.3 over his final six – quite the split. His legend is further bolstered by his two best seasons being his last.

In 1965 and 1966, Koufax won his 2nd and 3rd Cy Young Awards and led the league in essentially every major stat. He then retired due to the chronic injuries to his pitching arm. Because of this, Koufax remains one of the great “what if?” questions in baseball history. Koufax’s breakout season in 1961 was not actually that impressive compared his final five seasons, so we’re going to exclude it in order to view Koufax in the best possible light.


One thing that should immediately stand out is the contrast between his raw numbers and his league-adjusted ERA+. While Koufax was indeed incredible, he was pitching in one of the lowest offense eras in MLB history. The 1960s were a golden age for pitchers, culminating in 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” (after which the mound was lowered 5 inches and the strike zone reduced) and the raw pitching stats from these seasons definitely look a bit better than they actually were.

For example, in 1966 when Koufax posted his league (and career) best 1.73 ERA, the NL average ERA was 3.61. As a reminder, when Pedro posted a 1.74 ERA in 2000, the AL average ERA was 4.92. That’s a very different offensive environment. That said, Koufax was indeed dominant, particularly during his final, best, two years.


Koufax basically led the league in every single category, racking up incredible strikeout totals (and destroying his arm in the process). His rate stats aren’t as good as Pedro’s though – his counting stats benefit from the incredible innings load he threw. 42 games pitched? 27 complete games? 329 innings? That’s three seasons for a starter now (I’m counting the season they’ll miss recovering from Tommy John surgery).

At the end of the day, it’s the league environment that pushes Pedro ahead of Koufax – their raw numbers are similar enough, but Pedro did it in a much more hostile environment, making him far more impressive by comparison.

The Big Train

Walter Johnson by Charles Conlon, 1910sMost discussions about the best pitchers of all-time eventually come around to Walter Johnson. The Big Train was a player out of time, a strike out pitcher when no one else was (he’s 9th all time on the strikeout list, the only player in the 3,000 K club who played prior to 1958) and he’s one of the two pitchers who has the best claim to rival Pedro Martinez in peak dominance.

Johnson’s career lasted 21 years, with his best seasons from 1912-1919. During those years Johnson lead the majors in most statistical categories. He had 25 wins more than the next best pitcher (HoFer Pete Alexander), 387 more strikeouts (again over Alexander), his era was 25% better than the next man (Smoky Joe Wood), and he lead in WHIP, FIP, and WAR (all over Alexander). He did slightly trail Smoky Joe Wood in K/9, his sole blemish. His stats for the eight-year stretch look like this:


When looking at such a different era, it’s sometimes difficult to make comparisons. Johnson’s “out of time” skill set makes it a bit easier though. Johnson crushed his league at the time, and he did it while averaging 32 complete games a season (it’s a simple fact, pitchers don’t get better as the game drags on). His strikeout numbers are behind Pedro’s, but as noted above, Johnson was by far the premier strikeout pitcher of his day. His era is also very low (as is his FIP), as befits the era, but he bears the comparison to league average much better than Koufax does.

Johnson also had a remarkable two-year peak as well, in 1912-1913 (he actually had two, his 1918-1919 seasons are better than most two-year stretches in history).


Like Koufax, some of Johnson’s raw numbers look as good or better than Pedro’s. In particular, his era of just 1.27 leaps off the page. However, the context remains key in making that comparison: In 1912 the American League average era was just 3.34, in 1913 it was 2.93. Johnson was indeed head and shoulders above his peers (as evidenced by his 248 ERA+), but Pedro stands just a bit taller, achieving his feats in a much different era.

The argument regarding era does cut both ways though. Who knows what Johnson’s stats would look like if he didn’t have to pitch so many innings and complete so many games. Without lineups getting a 3rd and 4th look at him, his numbers probably look better. Alternatively, it seems highly unlikely Pedro would have put up the number he did if he had pitched 66% more innings. It’s this argument that provides good reason to consider Johnson over Martinez. (The same argument could be made for Koufax, it just seems to carry less weight in his case since he wasn’t nearly as far ahead of the league as Johnson was).

Mad Dog

Cubs Maddux 2 Whereas Randy Johnson’s most dominant years were right along side Martinez, Greg Maddux pitched his best seasons just before Pedro hit his stride. From 1992 (his last season in Chicago) through 1998, Maddux was the best pitcher in the Majors. Like Martinez, he led MLB in essentially every major category, though unlike Pedro he did it without a power pitcher’s arsenal. Maddux topped 200 strikeouts only once in his career (204 in 1998) and his highest K/9 was 7.8. Nonetheless he owned opposing batters in the mid-1990s.

From 92-98, Maddux lead all of Major League Baseball in wins, ERA (2.15, 2nd place was 2.82), WHIP, K/BB ratio, FIP, and WAR (by a nice margin, 54.3 to 43.6 for Roger Clemens in 2nd place). Also, unlike Johnson, Maddux did have a super-dominant two year stretch to rival Martinez’s best. Here’s Maddux’s full stat line over his seven year peak.


Certainly close to Pedro’s, if just a bit behind. Here’s Maddux’s two year peak:


In a lot of ways, Maddux’s two year best is a match for Pedro’s. Some of his raw numbers are even better and his league-adjusted stats are just as good. Maddux trails in FIP, largely due to his lower strikeout numbers, and WAR (in part because fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. is calculated using FIP). Overall though, Maddux is a worthy challenger to Pedro.

In fact, an argument could be made that Maddux’s lower strikeout numbers should actually count in his favor. He dominated the league just as thoroughly, but he did it without being able to dial the radar gun into the mid-90s. Is making a mockery of other hitters with a steady stream of weakly hit grounders and called third strikes more impressive than overpowering opponents with all manner of nasty pitches? That’s up to you.

What I can say is that at the end of the day, the pitcher I would least like to see standing on the mound is probably the 1999-2000 version of Pedro Martinez, a pitcher who dominated every aspect of the game like no one else in history.

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