Month: January 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Pedro Martinez at the ’99 All-Star Game

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At his peak, Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher who ever lived, a terrifying combination of tremendous ability and unquenchable intensity. Standing below 6 feet and weighing around 160 pounds, he wasn’t exactly the picture of dominance. But years of being told he was too small left a mark on young Pedro. Once he fully assumed his powers, he didn’t exist just to win, but to see his enemies driven from before him and to hear the lamentations of their women.

I jest. But only kind of.

“That was the result of the negativity around me, telling me, ‘No, you can’t,’ when I knew I could,” Martinez said shortly after being inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015. “That transformed my mind and my body.”

We sometimes indulge in superlatives with sports. It’s part of the fun, right? So know that I don’t mean this literally, but Martinez was a killer. His strikeouts had the punctuality of a breakaway LeBron James dunk, finished routinely with glares and side-eye. Martinez wasn’t here for handshakes after the game. He was here to sit your ass down.

Each punchout and stare came with a lesson. How dare you challenge me?

This is why I love Pedro Martinez.

***

If one wishes to breakdown excellent Martinez seasons, there are plenty of options. I am choosing his 1999 season because of three events:

  1. Electrifying the Fenway Park crowd upon striking out 5 of the 6 batters he faced during the All-Star Game
  2. Striking out 17 Yankees in the Bronx
  3. His relief appearance in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS, where he dominated the Cleveland Innings

We’ll focus on the first of those three moments today. The 1999 season wasn’t short of star power, but on a warm summer night in Boston, the season revolved around #45. Martinez was having an excellent season up to that point:

W-L IP BB K ERA
15-3 132.2 24 184 2.10

Lord. You’ll be shocked to learn he went on to the 1999 AL Cy Young award unanimously.

The ’99 All-Star Game packs sentimental value for two reasons. One, as we are getting to, Martinez stacked the National League’s best hitters up like cordwood. Two, Red Sox legend and Hall of Famer Ted Williams made an appearance as part of MLB unveiling the nominees for its All-Century Team:

(If you care at all about baseball history, watch at least the first minute or two.)

To follow along at home with Martinez performance, watch here. I’ll be providing plenty of gifs for those of you who can’t.

Martinez’s first batter was Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. Martinez starts him off with a high fastball that misses, then pumps another right by Larkin for strike one. The Fox radar gun says 94.

Larkin fastball swing.gif

The next offering is a nasty changeup that breaks off the plate low and away. This is a critical development — the outside corner is now in play. The changeup is likely Martinez’s nastiest pitch, a wicked combination of arm action (everything Martinez throws looks the same out of his hand), speed difference, and that plunging movement. If you Google “best pitches ever” you’ll find his change mentioned more than once.

The fourth pitch is a 95 MPH fastball on the outside corner, in the exact spot the changeup would have gone had it been a fastball. Larkin takes it for a called strike two. How do you decide which one is coming? Martinez is far too good to give you any type of tell.

Martinez comes middle-in with the next fastball. Larkin fouls it away. The sixth pitch in the at-bat is the hardest fastball so far, 97 MPH, on the inside corner. Larkin manages to foul it off. It’s no accident that Martinez established the outside and started moving in. He’s setting Larkin up.

The seventh pitch is a 98 MPH heater square on the outside corner. Larkin dives out over the plate to barely knock it foul. At this point, Martinez is completely in control. He has both sides of the plate and two ridiculous breaking pitches to go with here.

He chooses the change.

Larkin changeup K

Barry Larkin is one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball. He’s the 1995 NL MVP and a Hall of Famer. Martinez made him look foolish. Why? A combination of things. Martinez established he could place the fastball anywhere, and that his changeup and fastball are perfectly tunneled. You can’t tell the one from the other out of the hand. Add in that rollercoaster movement and you have a highlight-reel punchout.

One down.

Next up is the 1997 NL MVP Larry Walker, hitting a whopping .382 at the break. Martinez starts him off with a nasty change for a called strike one. (The brief glimpse of a 1999-era Fox lineup graphic comes free of charge, just for you.)

Walker change called strike

Walker fends off a hard fastball high-and-away to set the count 0-2. As we just saw with Barry Larkin, this a no good very bad place to be as a hitter against 1999 Pedro Martinez.

Walker takes another high-and-away fastball for a ball.

And then …

Walker called strike K.gif

The Fenway crowd roars. In the moment, you start to notice something special is happening. Pedro Martinez just sliced up two of the best hitters alive.

Next up is Sammy Sosa, he of the 66 home runs in 1998. You remember this, right?

Image result for sosa mcgwire si cover

That cover ran in December of 1998. Those damn togas hurt the sport more than any steroid use, and justice for those crimes was served on this very night by Judge Pedro Martinez.

Martinez starts Slammin’ Sammy off with his first curve of the evening, just off the plate away. Those of you watching the video will note that Sosa seems to flinch a bit. Who can blame the guy? It’s a nasty ball one.

I’m not saying Martinez read Sosa’s reaction and intentionally threw the same pitch more inside, but given how it played out I’d prefer to believe it.

Sosa curve flinch

Hoo boy.

The same tunneling principle that submarined Larkin applies here with the curveball. Look, guys, a Martinez fastball threatening to careen off your dome is a serious reason for concern. I’d probably stop, drop and roll. Sosa flinches and the curve drops in for a called strike.

Martinez comes back with a fastball high and away for ball two. It’s a deliberate pitch, not a miss, and it sets up the changeup that Sosa swings through for strike two.

Sosa change swing

Now Sosa is in utter peril. The crowd rises. The announcers make mention of the dominance on display.

Sosa fastball K

This is an eff-you fastball. Don’t forget: Sammy Sosa is a tremendous power hitter. He finished his career with more than 600 bombs.

No matter. Martinez fears no man and blows him away.

Pedro Martinez just carved up three of the last four NL MVPs. Inning over.

***

Now comes the main event. Mark McGwire, Sosa’s fellow toga-wearing heathen, steps up to the dish to open the second inning. Just so it isn’t lost on you how great Mark McGwire had been, take a gander at his last three seasons:

Season Average On-Base Slugging
1996 .312 .467 .730
1997 .274 .393 .646
1998 .299 .470 .752

He was awesome. Those numbers were certainly … enhanced … but it was quite a show. His at-bats became national events late in 1998, and given that baseball fans were very much still reveling in the wonder of endless moonshots, seeing McGwire step in against Martinez was a treat.

Now, unfortunately, our video fails us here by lurching to the end of the McGwire at-bat. Baseball-Reference tells us the at-bat to this point had went ball, called strike and swinging strike. The count is 1-2. Here is the finish:

McGwire fastball K.gif

Another one bites the dust.

Next up is Matt Williams, a forgotten All-Star in an era of legends. To be fair, Williams is batting fourth only because Giants leftfielder Barry Bonds was hurt and unable to play. That’s no slight to Williams, mind you.

Alas, Williams does something no one else will tonight. He puts a ball in play, a curveball hit weakly to second. The usually surehanded Roberto Alomar bobbles the feed and remarkably the National Leaguers get a man on base.

Williams groundball error.gif

Martinez takes to the stretch to face another superb National League first baseman (handling the DH role tonight) in Jeff Bagwell. He opens the affair with a 96 MPH fastball on the black for strike one. Bagwell steps out and seems upset with the call. (He might have a point — umpires in this era were a smidge liberal with the outside corner.)

In a great example of both sequencing and tunneling, Martinez follows the fastball up with a curveball off the edge for a ball. He’s done this several times tonight, setting up one pitch with another. I doubt he expected Bagwell to swing, but now he has to be wary of the breaking ball off the plate.

Third pitch is a nasty changeup in the same spot as the fastball for a called strike. Martinez is living on the outside corner and Bagwell hasn’t moved the bat once. He’s in the 1-2 danger zone now, too.

Martinez keeps him looking away with a 97 MPH fastball well off the plate, so far in fact that it was effectively a pitchout. If Matt Williams was foolish enough to venture far off first base, Pudge Rodriguez was more than ready to gun him down. Williams — for now, anyway — stays put. 2-2.

Martinez offers another 97 MPH fastball, this one more up than away for ball three. Pudge shows off his arm and nearly picks Williams off first. It’s the All-Star Game and people do funny things in exhibitions, but … Matt Williams wants to test Pudge Rodriguez?

Now the count is full. The crowd is ready. Martinez has been pumping fastballs to Bagwell. Who wants to guess what’s coming?

Bagwell K and CS.gif

Bagwell goes down helplessly against perhaps the nastiest changeup of the night and Pudge guns Williams down. Inning over.

***

Let’s review what we just saw, shall we? Pedro Martinez just faced Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Matt Williams and Jeff Bagwell. He struck out five. If Pudge hasn’t thrown out Williams, Martinez would have faced Mike Piazza with an opportunity to punch out six in an All-Star Game. Wow.

Martinez’s performance didn’t surprise the American League’s manager, Joe Torre, who said he expected a clean sweep of strikeouts. That didn’t happen — thanks again, Matt Williams — but what did happen was a dominating display of power and finesse, strategy and swagger.

In a night full of stars, Pedro Martinez grabbed the spotlight and never let go.

 

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My 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Part 2

Mariano Rivera is expected to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this winter. | Rob Carr

If you missed part one, please find it here.

***

Edgar Martinez

68.4 Wins Above Replacement- .312 average /.418 on-base percentage / .515 slugging percentage

Edgar Martinez could flat out rake. Playing in Seattle, outshined by stars like Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, it’d be easy to overlook just how good he was. But all he did was spray line drives all over the American League. From 1990 to 2003, he slashed .317/.426/.531. That’s a lot of awesome, guys.

But unlike Rolen or Bonds, Martinez contributed nothing in the field. He was a DH. You might be wondering why I’m not penalizing Martinez for that. Well, I am. So is bWAR. The fact is, despite rarely donning a glove, Edgar was such an outstanding hitter that he’s Hall-worthy anyway.

If Martinez had stayed at third base, would he have given away many of the runs he produced, a la someone like Adam Dunn? It’s possible. But ultimately, even if being limited to DH suggests something about him overall, he so thoroughly dominated in his role that to keep him out of Cooperstown feels foolish to me. Edgar Martinez wasn’t a good DH — he was a fantastic DH.

Larry Walker

72.7 Wins Above Replacement – .312 average /.418 on-base percentage /.515 slugging percentage – 1 Most Valuable Player award

Larry Walker is a tough one. He was a fabulous all-around player, surpassed by only a few inner-circle guys in his day. He raked, he was excellent in right field and a reliably elite base runner. Walker had no major flaws.

But.

Walker benefitted from his time in Colorado. He hit like a video game character at Coors Field (for his career: .381/.462/.710, which is basically 120% of Mike Trout) and was far closer to “pretty good” away from it. He got hurt a lot, too.

But again, much like Edgar, sometimes the traditional means of evaluation don’t work. He’s nowhere close to 3000 hits or 500 homers, the typical hitting milestones for a Hall of Famer. But ignoring that, and even if we take into account the Coors factor and the games he missed, Walker was great.

Note that he wasn’t just good — like for example Harold Baines or Jim Rice. Walker was awesome. I think that distinction is critical. No offense to either guy, but hardly anyone ever confused someone like Baines or Rice for the best player in the world. In 1997, Walker was seriously in that conversation.

Mariano Rivera

56.2 Wins Above Replacement – 1283.2 innings – 1173 strikeouts – 286 walks – 205 ERA-plus

I should note that Mariano Rivera was my favorite player growing up, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt. Okay? Okay.

Mariano Rivera was clockwork, his dominance so routine that it felt preordained. The Yankees have a lead in the 9th inning? The game is as sure as over, we might as well head to the car. “Enter Sandman” would play, he’d throw a few nonchalant warmup tosses, break a few bats and the game would be over.

Armed famously with one pitch (a devastating cut fastball), Rivera was the most consistently dominant reliever in baseball history. Rivera used the cutter like a swordsman wields a blade, slicing up hitters on both sides of the plate, breaking bats and producing endless weak contact. He thrashed left-handed hitters especially.

The Sandman did all this during the offensive explosion of the steroid era in the league’s toughest division. We can certainly quibble about how Rivera was used — he typically only threw 1 inning per appearance, although in the postseason he was more widely deployed — but it’s lunacy to debate how good he was.

No reliever has ever come even close to being Mariano Rivera. Period. He’s the all-time leader in saves and ERA-plus. He’s one of the sport’s great postseason performers.

Rivera will not be the first unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame, which is a testament to what a bunch of buffoons the BBWAA writers can be (if you are wondering why someone would decide not to vote for Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb or Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, welcome to the wonderful world of the Hall of Fame). Rivera’s in.

Roy Halladay

64.3 Wins Above Replacement – 2749 innings – 2117 strikeouts – 592 walks – 131 ERA-plus – 2 Cy Young awards

Roy Halladay was the man.

His story is famous now and for good reason. Halladay burst into the majors as a prized prospect of the Toronto Blue Jays and almost immediately fell apart. In 2000, he somehow was battered to the tune of a 10.64 ERA in 67 innings. How does that even happen?

The team worked with Doc to rework his mechanics and in doing so unlocked arguably the best pitcher of the last 15 years. I can give you numbers all day long to fully describe his dominance, but consider this instead. Halladay spent many agonizing years pitching well for a team that couldn’t sniff the playoffs in Toronto. He battled the Yankees and Red Sox, won awards and established himself as the premier pitcher in the sport.

But that wasn’t enough. Roy Halladay wanted to win. He was loyal to Toronto — they showed him patience and he didn’t forget that. But, eventually, he asked for a trade and made his way to the Philadelphia Phillies, who’d recently won a World Series and remained serious contenders. He promptly started dominating for them, too, and the talented Phillies won the NL East.

The moment had come. The best in the world finally had his chance to compete in October. And so what did Roy Halladay do the first time he stepped foot on a postseason mound? What only one other person in the sport’s history has done, throw a no-hitter (his second of the year, mind you, as he also diced up the Marlins earlier in May.)

What did Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker say after watching Doc dominate his club?

“That is the best-pitched game I’ve seen since I’ve been going to the playoffs and the World Series.”

Yep.

Halladay, who tragically died in a plane crash in 2017, should cruise into the Hall of Fame.

My 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Part 1

BBHOF
Who will enter these hallowed halls? We find out Jan. 22.

On New Year’s Eve, everyone with a ballot to vote for the 2019 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame turned in their selections. I, of course, do not have a ballot, but that won’t stop me from sharing how I’d vote.

Because this got real wordy real fast, I’ve decided to cut it up into two posts. Hopefully, that makes it all a bit easier to digest. Later this week or next, I’ll explain why I didn’t vote for certain people.

Note that each ballot is held to a maximum of 10 selections. Without further adieu and in no particular order:

Barry Bonds

162.8 Wins Above Replacement – .298 average /.444 on-base percentage /.607 slugging percentage – 7 Most Valuable Player awards

Barry Bonds might be the best baseball player who ever lived.

He was the best player of the 1990s and the 2000s. Bonds was perhaps the perfect offensive player, almost like an earlier version of Mike Trout. He excelled at everything. He showed ridiculous levels of plate discipline, creating fables of umpires assuming a pitch was a ball because Bonds didn’t swing. He coupled that with true batting skill, not just for power, but for putting the ball wherever he wanted. And then later, regardless of how he did it, Bonds became the best power hitter ever, breaking Hank Aaron’s legendary home run record. Even if that became what defined his career, Bonds was so much more.

He was a smart baserunner, rarely giving away outs (514 stolen bases, 141 caught stealings) and fast enough to make outfielders worry going first-to-third. Defensively he had the range to easily handle left field and a good-enough arm. Given how bulky he ended up, it might be hard to remember just how athletic Barry Bonds was. He was simply on a different level.

Did he use steroids? It’s likely. Do I care? Not really, especially in a sport that relishes bending the rules. At the time, using what Bonds likely used wasn’t against the rules. I can’t keep him out for it. How else do we draw a line? I’m uncomfortable with the moralism of some writers to attempt to banish any perceived steroid user while ignoring the rampant amphetamine use of prior decades, for example.

The situation sucks. That’s the truth. Baseball did a terrible job of policing this for about 15 years and now here we are. That said, even if we arbitrarily decide Bonds’ career ends after 2000, he’s still one of the best outfielders ever. Bonds was so good that to keep him out of the Hall of Fame devalues its very existence.

There can be no shrine to baseball’s elite without him. Period.

Roger Clemens

139.6 Wins Above Replacement- 4916 innings – 4672 strikeouts – 1580 walks – 143 ERA-plus – 7 Cy Young awards – 1 Most Valuable Player award

Same story as above. Sure, he probably took steroids. But you just can’t have a Hall of Fame without arguably the best right-handed pitcher ever.

Roger Clemens is the textbook definition of a power pitcher, racking up strikeouts like virtually no one else in history. He pitched forever and at a very high level. He won a ton of awards and was a defining pitcher of his era.

Clemens attacked hitters with a hard, mid-to-upper 90s fastball and later developed a devastating split-finger fastball. He possessed the prototypical drop-and-drive mechanics, using his powerful legs to pump heat to the plate. Clemens pitched aggressively, living on the inside corner and intimidating hitters. Older fans surely remember his antics with Mike Piazza, when the latter was a New York Met. That was fairly normal.

Clemens was excellent in three distinct decades, winning Cy Youngs as a member of the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros. He produced indelible moments, like becoming the first hurler to strike out 20 hitters in a game. He struck out 17, 15 and 19 hitters in various postseason starts. Clemens was the picture of dominance, a snarling fastball-throwing punch-out machine.

Statistically, he has a case to be the best who ever lived.

But, of course, the steroids. It’s the ever-present cloud over his masterful career. How do we handle this? Do you want to simply pretend his post-Red Sox career didn’t happen? No problem. He’s a no-brainer anyway.

Mike Mussina

83.0 Wins Above Replacement – 3562 innings – 2813 strikeouts – 785 walks – 123 ERA-plus

It’s easy to forget how good Mike Mussina was. He’s a pretty good pitcher in an era dominated by Mount Rushmore names like Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Mussina rightfully isn’t in that class.

But Mussina is absolutely one of the best pitchers of all time, and a deserving Hall of Famer. By bWAR alone, he’d rank right now as the 22nd best pitcher in the Hall, just between Robin Roberts and Fergie Jenkins. I think what people miss about Mussina is the longevity. No, he didn’t burn down the league like a Pedro or Clayton Kershaw. He didn’t rack up countless Cy Youngs like Maddux or Johnson.

He simply was a really good pitcher for 20 years in a heightened offensive era. Mussina was craftier than he gets credit for. He threw a ton of pitches from a variety of arm angles, which helped ease the blow of his diminished velocity later on. His knuckle-curve was flat-out nasty.

Curt Schilling

79.6 Wins Above Replacement- 3261 innings – 3116 strikeouts – 711 walks – 127 ERA-plus

It’s hard to argue Mussina’s case and not apply the same logic to Curt Schilling. Schilling might even have a better case given that his peak was better (from 1997-2004, he threw 1824 innings with 1945 punchouts to a 142 ERA-plus). Plus he dominated in the postseason, most notably in 2001 for Arizona and 2004 for Boston. That stuff matters. Baseball is a sport of moments, and Schilling produced some indelible ones. We should reward players who excel in October.

Schilling pitched in the model of Clemens, a dominant power arm racking up strikeouts and limiting the walks. Schilling threw hard (upper-to-mid 90s) with a devastating split-finger fastball. He racked up most of his career value with the Philadelphia Phillies before moving on to Arizona and then Boston. He was superb at each stop.

Much of the discussion surrounding Schilling today turns to his political rants and failed business ventures. There can be some handwringing as to whether he’s violated the fabled “character clause,” but I don’t buy it. We’re not electing anyone to sainthood here.

There are so many pitchers in the Hall of Fame who aren’t on his or Mussina’s level that to keep them out borders on absurd.

Scott Rolen

70.2 Wins Above Replacement – .281 batting average /.364 on-base percentage / .490 slugging percentage

Scott Rolen is one of the best defensive players to ever grace a diamond. Rolen was strong-armed and nimble at third base and coupled that with a better-than-you’d-think offensive game.

An excellent glove at a premium position with high on-base skills and plenty of power turns into a Hall of Famer real quick. But he was never famous — Rolen was grouchy with the press and avoided endorsement opportunities. Not surprisingly, he rarely was regarded nationally as among the game’s inner-circle — those headlines belonged to guys like Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and more — but that’s more a function of the broader baseball community’s inability to recognize defense.

It turns out that preventing runs is important. I’m not saying Rolen was that good, but he was an upper-echelon player without a doubt. (The same is true of Adrian Beltre, who also should be a Hall of Famer when his time comes.)

No, Rolen didn’t tally 3000 hits or 500 home runs. No, he never won an MVP. Voting for Rolen is an exercise in ignoring the traditional benchmarks, and I’m happy to do it.