As one who grew up watching the exploits of Pedro Martinez on the mound for the Boston Red Sox, I can tell you without a doubt that he is the greatest pitcher I have ever watched. I can quote a bunch of numbers from Baseball Reference that are pretty impressive. But there are others that will say he only had five truly elite seasons, and looking at the raw numbers, that argument could certainly be made.
Overall, over 18 seasons of Major League Baseball, Pedro accumulated 409 starts (219-100 W-L), 3154 strikeouts against 760 walks (4.15 K/BB per 9 innings) and 82.6 WAR.
Pedro's Early Career
Pedro began with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992. He had one start and one relief appearance. In 1993, he was given a full-time bullpen job. While he did make 2 starts, he appeared in 65 games overall, and over 107 innings, he recorded 119 strikeouts, but also collected 57 walks. All in all he was worth almost 3 WAR just as a reliever. He clearly had talent, and looked like he deserved a shot to prove himself in the starting rotation.
That chance would happen not in Los Angeles for Pedro, as he was traded to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino Deshields. This proved to be a steal for then General Manager Dan Duquette of Montreal. In 1994, the strike-shortened season, Pedro was a part of a pretty good Expos team, and made 23 starts with decent results. He finished with a 3.42 ERA, As a 22-year old, though, he was still a bit raw, and though he walked fewer batters than he had the season before, he also hit 11 batters. As it would turn out, though, it was because Pedro was never afraid to pitch inside, something that would make him a very special pitcher.
In 1995 and 1996, Pedro was a good, if not spectacular pitcher for the Expos. He was solid, but still struggled with his command a bit. Still, it was clear he had the talent to be an ace, something that in 1997 finally was realized.
The Greatest 5 Pitching Seasons on Record?
Pedro's first truly dominant season in 1997 was one of the most dominant seasons on record for any pitcher. This included 13 complete games and 4 shutouts. His baseball card stats were phenomenal: 17-8, 1.90 ERA in 241 1/3 innings with 305 strikeouts against only 67 walks (for an 8.7 WAR according to Baseball Reference.) This earned him his first of 3 Cy Young awards.
This dominant led Boston to trade for Pedro after that season, surrendering top pitching prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. While his first season in Boston was nothing like his 1997 season, he still finished second in Cy Young voting. His numbers were definitely ace-worthy as well: 19-7, 2.89 ERA (63% below league average), 251 strikeouts to 67 walks, and was worth 6.9 WAR to Boston. He would be worth 45 WAR more to the Red Sox over the next six seasons (including an injury-plagued 2001 season). Four of those seasons may be four of the best pitching seasons (especially in the highly offensive American League) of all-time.
The next two years, 1999 and 2000, would be the two best of Pedro's career. In 1999, Pedro had a win loss record of 23-4 in 29 starts with 5 complete games. He led the league with a career high 313 strikeouts against only 37 walks, a rare feat to be sure. He was worth 9 and a half wins that year to the Red Sox (9.5 WAR). The next season in 2000, he had a record of 18-6 again in 29 starts, but an even lower ERA and 284 strikeouts against 32 walks. He won the Cy Young Award in the American League both seasons. In 2000, he had the highest WAR of his career (11.4 WAR), adding about 11 wins to his team that year.
To put a WAR of 11.4 in perspective, Babe Ruth had a 11.5 WAR in 1920 and an 11.4 WAR season in 1924, Lou Gehrig had a 11.5 WAR in 1927. The last pitcher to post a WAR total that high was Roger Clemens in 1997 with 11.8 WAR for the Blue Jays. The only other pitchers beside Walter Johnson in the 1910's and 1920's to post higher single-season WAR totals are Dwight Gooden (13 WAR in 1985), Steve Carlton (12.1 WAR in 1972), and Bob Gibson (11.7 WAR in 1968). Johnson, Gibson, and Carlton of course are in the Hall of Fame. For awhile, it appeared Gooden could have been, as well, were it not for his personal issues.
Pedro would have an injury-marred 2001, but still managed to start 18 games and produce a 4.9 WAR. It's very likely barring the injury he could have had yet another Cy Young Award caliber season. He would return to form in 2002, however, with a 20-4 record and a 2.26 ERA (best in the league) and a 6.2 WAR. However, it was clear that the injury had taken its toll on his strikeout rate, as he struck out "only" 239 batters in 199 innings. His walk rate was still excellent, however, as he walked only 40 in those innings. But he would not win the Cy Young Award that year, or in fact, ever again, as he lost the crown to Barry Zito. Looking at the numbers, however, Zito was not really as good as Pedro. Zito won 3 more games and made 5 more starts. He didn't strikeout as many as Pedro (182) and walked more (78) in 229 innings (only 30 more than Pedro).
In 2003, Pedro had the last of his 5 most dominant seasons. For a second straight season, his strikeout rate fell slightly and he walked a few more batters than usual. Still he went 14-4 (a record very deceiving because he received a great deal of no-decisions that year) with 2.22 ERA in 29 starts. He did increase his WAR total, however, with a mark of 7.8 WAR. He'd never reach that mark again.
Without a doubt, 2004 marked the end of Pedro's run of dominance. While he was still a 5 WAR pitcher, he was clearly nowhere near the ace that he once was. Curt Schilling assumed that role that year with his 7.5 WAR. Schilling won 21 games against 6 losses, and Pedro won 16 against 9 losses. While win-loss record is not always indicative of true pitching performance, in Pedro's case, he was becoming inconsistent. A 3.90 ERA was similar not a number you would see from Pedro. It would actually come out to be the third highest season total of his career.
After the season, the Red Sox and Pedro decided to move on, and Pedro signed a lucrative four year deal with the New York Mets. In 2005, on paper, Pedro looked great for the Mets. But for the first time since 2005, he failed to strike out at least a batter per inning, although he walked fewer batters than in 2004. He was still an ace, though aging. But in 2006, the wheels began to fall off. He only pitcher 137 in 23 starts and had a roughly league average 4.48 ERA. He was still a "good" pitcher, but his overall dominance was clearly gone and his arm began to really bother him at that point.
2007 would be a relatively lost season for Pedro, him having only 5 starts, although he pitched fairly well in those starts. In 2008, everything fell apart for Pedro and in twenty starts was practically a replacement-level scrub (-0.5 WAR). That looked like the very end for Pedro.
Pedro Compared to Other Hall of Famers
Pedro's career 80.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) puts him in 51st place all-time. In and of itself, that's a pretty special accomplishment. This puts him on par with Robin Roberts (career 80.1 WAR) and not far off from Gaylord Perry (career 84.5 WAR) and Steve Carlton (career 84.6 WAR). As all of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame, Pedro's in very good company.
Even if you don't buy into the WAR statistic, looking at the career numbers of Roberts, Perry, and Carlton show that they pitched many more starts than Pedro. For Pedro to be able to amass the same Career WAR as pitchers with 600+ starts in only 409 starts is very impressive. Also, take into account that a good chunk of those later starts were with him wearing down considerably. Even though he had five truly dominant seasons, he also had five or six pretty good ones, on which most teams he would be considered an ace or at least a #2 starter.
Consider that he had 5 out of this world seasons and 5 All-Star level seasons on top of that, you could say that Pedro really had 10 very good years overall. He gave his teams tons of value whenever he pitched, except for that dismal 2008 season with the Mets. Even taking his lost season and that into account, he basically produced the same value as his potential Hall-of-Fame peers in far fewer starts.
Ryan Roberts had 609 starts over 19 years. Perry had 690 starts over 22 years. Carlton had 709 starts over 24 years. Pedro generally out-performed Roberts in 200 fewer starts and did almost what Carlton and Perry did in 300 fewer starts. Baseball fans can all agree that Roberts, Carlton, and Perry were all great pitchers that belong in the Hall of Fame. While he isn't quite to the level of Bert Blyleven (89.3), Randy Johnson (96.3) or Greg Maddux (101.6), he's in the neighborhood.
So by the overall numbers overall, he was probably the fifth best pitcher of his era, if you include Roger Clemens 100+ career WAR. But no one had 5 seasons like Pedro did. No one dominated the baseball scene the way he did. Watching Pedro pitch was watching a masterpiece almost every time he took the mound. The memories alone are probably what make us think he was the greatest of all time. As we can now see, his top seasons most certainly were among some of the greatest of all time for pitching (by WAR standards). However, he's not quite the greatest of all time. He's still worthy of being in there, but from the looks of it, he may not be the first of his Hall of Fame class to get in.
Photo credits: All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons