Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best Pitching Season of the 1990s

Martinez delivers during his sensational All-Star Game performance
1999 Pedro Martinez (9.5 bWAR)

Martinez was already recognized as one of the best pitchers in the game at the end of the Twentieth Century, but it was his 1999 season that established his reputation as one of the best pitchers of all time. His success that year elevated him into the same stratosphere as Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson, not to mention outstanding contemporary hurlers like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux.

Fully acquainted with the Junior Circuit after switching leagues following his 1997 Cy Young season, the 27 year-old Martinez put together one of the finest seasons a pitcher ever had. He won the pitching Triple Crown by leading the league with 23 wins, 313 strikeouts and a 2.07 ERA, which was nearly a full run and a half better than runner-up David Cone's 3.44. Aside from the traditional stats, he topped all pitchers in just about every statistic imaginable, from WAR and Winning Percentage to WHIP and ERA+.

His greatness was on display for all to see in that year's Midsummer Classic at Fenway Park. Baseball celebrated its legends past and present, but Martinez stole the show with his electrifying performance. He began the game by striking out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, and Sammy Sosa, the first time any pitcher opened an All-Star Game by striking out the side. When he whiffed Mark McGwire to lead off the second, he became the first pitcher to strike out the first four batters of an All-Star Game. Matt Williams reached on an error by Roberto Alomar, but Pedro bounced back to punch out Jeff Bagwell while Ivan Rodriguez gunned down Williams on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out. Martinez earned All-Star Game MVP honors for his modern day re-enactment of Carl Hubbell's historic performance in the 1934 All-Star Game when Hubbell struck out five future Hall-of-Famers in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin.

(By the way, who in 1999 would have believed that of the five men Martinez struck out, Larkin would be the only one with a plaque hanging in Cooperstown more than a dozen years later?  That Larkin would be in and McGwire and Sosa, the sluggers who obliterated Roger Maris's single season home run record the previous summer, would be out? A lot has changed since then).

In a game that actually counted, he tossed a one-hitter at Yankee Stadium two months later on September 10th. After plunking Chuck Knoblauch to open the game, Martinez mowed down the Bronx Bombers and outdueled Andy Pettitte to lead Boston to a 3-1 victory over its arch-rivals. Long before Martinez tipped his cap to the Yankees and called them his Daddy, he punched out 17 of them and allowed just one hit, a solo home run to Chili Davis. He silenced a Yankees lineup that won 98 games and scored 900 runs that season with big bats such as Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams.

Martinez's dominance continued into the postseason. Despite facing two high-powered offenses in the Cleveland Indians and aforementioned Yankees, he was untouchable. Martinez answered the call, firing 17 shutout innings with 23 strikeouts and just five hits allowed. Nursing a strained back, he no-hit Cleveland for six innings in the final game of the ALDS, holding the line while Boston's bats built a four-run lead that propelled the Red Sox into the League Championship Series. Though the Sox lost in five to their nemeses, who were in the midst of winning four World Series in five years, Martinez quieted New York in his lone start of the series. He blanked the Yanks over seven innings, allowing just two hits (both singles) while the Bosox battered the Rocket/their former ace in a 13-1 rout.

Martinez collected his second Cy Young award (unanimously) but narrowly lost out to Ivan Rodriguez in the controversial MVP race. Despite receiving the most first place votes, Martinez was omitted from a pair of ballots because two writers--George King from New York and LaVelle Neal of Minnesota--did not deem pitchers to be worthy all-around players (even though King cast votes for two pitchers--David Wells and Rick Helling--the year before). Martinez may have also been hurt by teammate Nomar Garciaparra, who finished seventh after winning the batting title and posting a 1.022 OPS.

Voters traditionally have a hard time voting for starting pitchers, and there's a lot of bias against the men who take the ball every fifth day. For instance, no National League hurler has taken home the hardware since Bob Gibson 45 years ago. Not Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, nor Dwight Gooden. Not Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine nor Randy Johnson. It's always tricky comparing position players to pitchers, but bWAR says Martinez was worth 3.4 more wins than Rodriguez. The disparity in FanGraphs' measurement is even greater; 5.2 wins in Martinez's favor. The writers obviously blew it here and robbed Martinez of the trophy he so clearly deserved.

Some more points of interest from Martinez's masterful 1999:
  • Martinez was named AL pitcher of the month in April, May, June, and September, something nobody had ever accomplished before
  • Opponents batted just .205/.248/.288 against him
  • His average GameScore was a 69
  • Incredibly, he surrendered just nine home runs despite pitching half his games in Fenway Park. He have up just three long balls in his 14 road starts and never allowed multiple bombs in any game he pitched that year
  • Including the postseason, the Boston Red Sox went 29-5 (.853) when Martinez toed the rubber and 69-69 (an even .500) when he didn't
  • Strung together seven consecutive starts with ten or more strikeouts from April 15th to May 18th, then rattled off eight straight starts with double digit strikeouts to end the regular season
  • Had six games with at least 15 strikeouts. Justin Verlander, who's made 232 regular season starts in his career, has never struck out 15 batters in a single game
  • Became the eighth modern pitcher with multiple seasons with 300 strikeouts, joining Nolan Ryan, Rand Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Rube Waddell, Sam McDowell, Curt Schilling, and J.R. Richard
  • His 13.2 K/9 rate broke the record set by Kerry Wood the year before, but the new record lasted all of two seasons before the Big Unit shattered it in 2001
  • Martinez had just three starts all year in which he allowed three earned runs and only two others in which he surrendered more than three earned runs. Interestingly, they were both against interleague teams (Montreal and Florida). Check out his earned run breakdown from his 29 starts:                                                  
  • 0 runs--5 starts                                                                                                                                 1 run--10 starts                                                                                                                                2 runs--9 starts
    3 runs--3 starts
    4+ runs--2 starts
As good as his 1999 masterpiece was, his follow-up campaign was even better.

Best offensive season of the 1990s--Mark McGwire (1998)

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