Baseball, Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: Jacob deGrom dismantles the Diamondbacks

Image result for jacob degrom

You try hitting off this dude.

Here’s a fun fact about Jacob deGrom. By Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, three of the 2018 NL Cy Young winner’s offerings were among the best in the sport. He threw the fourth-best fastball, sixth-best slider and second-best changeup; so you can imagine the fun we’ll have today.

So far in this series, we’ve covered three pitchers of yesteryear: Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana and Mike Mussina, but today we leap to May 2018 to examine one ridiculous inning from the only player bringing joy to tortured Mets fans. deGrom was off to an incredible start, boasting a 1.83 ERA in 44.1 innings with a sizzling 56 strikeouts to only 14 walks before the Arizona Diamondbacks visited Citi Field.

We’ll be focusing on the top of the fourth inning. Due up for the Snakes are the 2-3-4 hitters; right fielder Steven Souza, third baseman Jake Lamb and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

A recurring theme in this inning and all season is the dominance of deGrom’s fastball. Averaging nearly 97 MPH and registering in the 75th percentile in spin rate, he pounds batters with it over and over, betting they’ll struggle to make solid contact. That combination of velocity and spin rate make the pitch lethal. Why? Higher velocities pose obvious problems for hitters, but higher spin rates correlate to swinging strikes and flyballs. In a related note, deGrom punched out 269 last season.

Facing deGrom is no picnic. Just ask the Diamondbacks.

***

Souza’s fun begins with a slider away.

Souza 1 slider away.gif

deGrom comes back with another slider, a tad higher, for a called strike.

Souza 2 fastball away.gif

Now we get our first fastball of the evening. Take note of the consistent locations deGrom and catcher Devin Mesoraco are working.

Souza 3 fastball foul away.gif

Souza is not in a good place here. The count is 1-2 and you just fought off a low-and-away 96 MPH fastball after seeing two sliders in the same spot. The rest of the plate is wide open.

Souza 4 fastball foul away.gif

deGrom leaves the fastball up in the zone and Souza flicks it away foul. From the broadcast, it’s clear deGrom wanted it higher, so in a sense, we can consider this a mild mistake. This is the burden of battling an ace, though — the mistakes aren’t exactly easy to punish. That fastball is no picnic by itself, but then consider the sequencing and tunneling (you notice how deGrom easily repeats his delivery no matter what he’s throwing?) and suddenly it’s impressive Souza didn’t miss, lower than desired or not.

Souza 5 fastball away ball.gif

The Mets ace comes with his third consecutive fastball, this one again outside but lower. It just misses outside. Five straight pitches all around the outside corner. Hmm.

Souza 6 change inside K.gif

Dear God. That is an absolutely nuclear changeup, out of the exact same release point as those beefy fastballs but about 12 MPH slower and diving toward Souza’s feet. Because Souza couldn’t do anything with the heat, he was completely vulnerable to a change of speed. This is the terrible fate of facing an ace like deGrom.

Take note of Mesoraco’s relaxed flip to third base. Oh, another day, another punchout. We’ll be seeing more of that.

Up next is the lefty Jake Lamb. Lamb showed some serious pop in 2016 and 2017, hitting 29 and 30 homers but also striking out a boatload. For our purposes, that’s a delightful combination. deGrom starts him with a slider away for a called strike one.

Lamb 1 slider away called strike.gif

Again deGrom works down-and-away, establishing the outside corner with a breaking pitch. He does so for a very specific reason and I promise we’re getting to it, but before you scroll down, just take a moment. Breathe.

Because what you are about to see is just flat-out unconscionable.

Ready?

Okay.

Lamb 2 fastball swinging.gif

Oh dear God. I mean, what can poor Jake Lamb do with that? deGrom flashes a nasty slider and then pulverizes him with a high fastball. I mean seriously, what can you even do with that?

Lamb 3 fastball up and in K

Alright, I think we all need a drink after that. Right? Give me a second.

Lamb 3 fastball behind catcher view

You’re right, Mr. deGrom, two drinks. Just a moment.

I went with a Tullamore Dew. That camera angle is a national treasure, by the way. Also, did you enjoy our second nonchalant toss to third base by Mesoraco? I sure did.

We’re two outs into the fourth inning and deGrom has thrown nine pitches, five of them fastballs and punched out both hitters in particularly electric fashion.

Up next is first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The D-Backs star was scuffling up to this point in the 2018 season, particularly against fastballs. Later in the year, he’d return to form, but at this point, he wasn’t himself. I’m sure the fastball thing won’t be a big problem.

deGrom starts the third hitter of the inning with a slider.

Gold 1 slider ball.gif

Look at the intensity. The wonderful Rob Friedman — aka PitchingNinja on Twitter — loves to spotlight what he calls “pitching with intent.” For me, that calls to mind Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens; perhaps in today’s game, Max Scherzer or deGrom. Pitchers with the stuff and precision of the Mets ace tend to exude this kind of “controlled aggression,” if you will. They want outs and they want them quick. If you are so generous as to ground out weakly, fine. If not, you can go the route of Lamb and punchout on three pitches.

They want to dominate. Look at deGrom in the above gif. He wants to tear the Diamondbacks apart; he’s insulted they’d dare step into the box against him.

The slaying continues with another slider away, but it also misses to run the count 2-0.

Gold 2 fastball away.gif

Notice how deGrom lingers just a moment, staring at the pitch. Even the umpire isn’t exempt from the look.

Gold 3 fastball swinging strike.gif

See what I mean? That’s unadulterated dominance. A pitcher powering a fastball past a batter is king of the jungle stuff, and deGrom, in a hitter’s count, just tore a hole through one of the best first basemen in the sport. Remember what we said about velocity and spin rate? There ya go.

Gold 4 fastball foul.gif

deGrom again works away, forcing the first baseman to flick a ball foul. Because of that slider and changeup, Goldschmidt has to be careful.

Gold 5 fastball foul.gif

Another hard and heavy fastball, this one snaking back to touch the outside corner. Goldschmidt barely makes contact, but in a sense, that’s a victory on its own. deGrom is incredible but not infallible; keep the at-bat alive and he’s capable of grooving a fastball or hanging a slider. Goldschmidt is a skilled hitter, not just a slugger, and keeping himself in the at-bat is proof.

Gold 6 ch away K.gif

Yeah but then that happens.

***

Jacob deGrom finished the night with a whopping 13 strikeouts in seven innings, allowing just one run (Lamb, believe it or not, doubled off him in his next at-bat). The Mets offense cobbled together three runs, enough to give the future Cy Young award winner his fourth win on the season.

Indulge me for a moment while I share some fun deGrom stats:

  • deGrom started 32 games last season and struck out at least ten hitters in 11 of them
  • He generated at least 15 swinging strikes in 18 of his 32 starts
  • He produced the highest percentage of soft contact of any starter in baseball (25.2%)

deGrom’s dominance was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season in Queens. After a busy winter full of upgrades, perhaps we’ll be so fortunate as to see him pitching in October again.

***

This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early access to content like Ode to a Pitcher sent to your email in advance. Sign up today and support great baseball writing.

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Baseball, Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: Mike Mussina saves the Yankees in Game 7

Image result for mike mussina

Mike Mussina was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.

His first at-bat of the game … there’s a flyball deep to left! It’s on its way! There it goes! And the Yankees are going to the World Series! Aaron Boone has hit a home run!

Charley Steiner’s words echoed throughout that cold October night in the Bronx, the perfect frame to an indelible moment in Yankees history. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS was tied in the bottom of the 11th and Aaron Boone, the team’s future manager, then a struggling third baseman without a regular spot in the lineup, was up to bat. With his brother Bret fumbling through commentary in the Fox booth upstairs, Boone stepped up to the plate and crushed a Tim Wakefield knuckleball over the left field fence, sending the Yankees back to the Fall Classic. It was a thrilling end to a dreadfully long and stressful evening for fans of both sides. (It was probably great for the non-partisans.)

A lot happened to set the table for Boone’s heroics.

Obviously, Red Sox manager Grady Little’s decision to keep the great Pedro Martinez in the game to fall apart in the 8th inning gets the majority of the focus when retrospectives of Game 7 are written. But I don’t want to focus on that. I want to dig into what happened a few innings prior.

The marquee for Game 7 shined bright. The Red Sox sent Martinez to square off with Roger Clemens, who at the time was publicly considering retirement (nope). It was yet another battle between the two flamethrowers, but on this night Clemens was a mess. Joe Torre pulled the burly righthander down 4-0 with runners on the corners and no outs in the fourth inning. The Rocket’s final line wasn’t pretty:

IP H BB Ks R NP
3 6 1 2 4 65

Yikes.

Torre called on Mike Mussina, his other ace righthander to try and stem the tide. Mussina, making his first-ever relief appearance (and only on two days rest) was pretty good in Game 4 (6.2 IP, 3 ER) but took the loss. With Martinez cruising through the first three innings (only two baserunners allowed), pretty good might not cut it. Any further damage potentially puts the game out of reach.

Torre, not fully trusting any reliever in his bullpen not named Mariano, turns to Moose.

***

Red Sox C Jason Varitek, boasting a 120 OPS+, steps up to face Mussina with RF Trot Nixon at third and 3B Bill Mueller at first. Mueller provides no threat of a steal, so Mussina knows he can focus on Varitek. Note the optimal plan here: strikeout, groundball double play. The order of events is important. If Varitek puts a grounder in play, unless the fielder has time to stare Nixon back to third, another run scores.

Not great. Mussina is one of the best strikeout pitchers in the league at this point, and still close to his peak. My guess is he wanted a K. But that ain’t easy or without risk. Varitek was flat-out good overall in 2003 and slightly harder to punchout than the average hitter. Pushing for the strikeout also incurs the risk of a wild pitch after a breaking ball or a line drive to the alley if a fastball misses over the plate.

Entering with runners on the corners gives Mussina a bit of leeway, in a sense. If he falls behind Varitek 2-0, the Yankees can intentionally walk the Red Sox catcher and attack Johnny Damon instead. But the risk of a blowout climbs there. The Bombers are one swing from it being essentially over.

Mussina has a tightrope to walk if the Yankees are going back to the World Series.

He starts the at-bat with a changeup, which Varitek fouls away.

Varitek Pitch 1.gif

The future Hall of Famer comes back with his signature pitch, a nasty knuckle-curve. Varitek is way out in front and bounces it foul to run the count 0-2.

Varitek Pitch 2.gif

To use a bit of football parlance, a no-ball two-strike count opens up the playbook, allowing Mussina the use of another breaking ball below the zone (an indication of trust in C Jorge Posada) or a high fastball. This is strikeout territory.

He chooses the knuckle-curve in under the hands.

Varitek Pitch 3

Varitek has no chance.

Up next is CF Johnny Damon. He doesn’t present the same type of threat that Varitek did (Damon’s OPS+ sat at 94, just under league average) and oddly, even as a left-handed hitter hardly fared better against righties. But he’s considerably faster and was one of the toughest hitters to double-up in all of baseball that season. The Varitek strikeout reduces the odds of the inning getting out of hand, but by no means are the Yankees out of the woods.

Mussina starts his future teammate off with a fastball for called strike one.

Damon Pitch 1.gif

The placement of that pitch is incredible (notice how Posada barely moves the glove). Damon watched it go by for strike one; but had he swung, the movement and location easily could have produced weak contact. Brilliant pitch by Mussina.

Damon Pitch 2.gif

Mussina moves the next one inside under the hands, dropping it in for a high strike. Damon gives the umpire a look afterward, but Fox’s slow-motion angle confirms what a filthy pitch it is:

Damon slowmo fastball

It takes more than just great stuff to pull that off. Mussina is pitching with confidence, throwing curveballs in under the hands to Varitek and knifing a nasty fastball along the inside corner to Damon. Wow.

Remember Bill Mueller? He’s still at first and he’s still slow. It’s hard to say if he realized how good Mussina looked, but him dancing off the bag to draw a throw over is a sneaky smart move. Pitchers and batters fight back and forth to disrupt the other’s timing, after all. Why can’t a baserunner do the same?

Damon throw to first.gif

With the count back at oh-and-two, the Yankee Stadium crowd begins to roar, that familiar tension mixed with the allure of relief coursing through the old venue’s veins. The Yankees are on the doorstep of escaping a disaster.

Damon has watched two fastballs sail by. Does Mussina go to a breaking ball? Another fastball?

Damon Pitch 3.gif

Filthy. Mussina returns to the fastball away, prompting Damon’s swing — assuming he read it as a second-straight inside pitch — and drawing weak contact. The ball bounces right to SS Derek Jeter who scrambles to second and fires to first for the double play.

Inning over. Mussina held.

***

Mussina ends up throwing three shutout innings, stabilizing the game and giving the Yankees offense a chance to pick away. Felix Heredia and Jeff Nelson took over from there and kept the Red Sox at bay, both contributing two-thirds of an inning. Torre replaces Nelson with another starter, lefty David Wells, who promptly surrenders a long home run to DH David Ortiz to make the score 5-2.

You know what happens next. After the Yankees rock Martinez to tie it up, Torre lifts Wells in favor of the world’s premier reliever, new Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, who pitches a dominant three innings. I’m not sure Torre knows who would have replaced Rivera.

He never had to find out.

***

I hope you liked this week’s Ode to a Pitcher, where I examine a great pitching performance. I aim to make these posts informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early-access to content like Ode to a Pitcher.

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Baseball, Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: Johan Santana, Game 1 2004 ALDS

 

Image result for johan santana

Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers of the mid-to-late 2000s. Getty Images

I knew the first Ode to a Pitcher had to be about Pedro Martinez — it was only a matter of which start. I picked the ’99 All-Star Game.

I also knew the second post had to be about Johan Santana, one of my favorite pitchers in the era when my baseball fandom exploded (2000-09) and a great example of a white-hot peak and little else. Santana was awesome and then poof, he was gone:

Season WAR
2004 8.7
2005 7.2
2006 7.6
2007 5.0
2008 7.1
2009 3.3
2010 4.7
2011 N/A
2012 1.7

Flat-out fantastic. To be honest, he deserved at least a conversation about the Hall of Fame, but alas. For Santana, 2004 was his breakthrough; he led the league in strikeouts and claimed his first Cy Young Award (he’d win his second in 2006). How’d he do this? Well, Santana lacked great size and didn’t throw especially hard (low 90s, although that’s pretty good for a lefty). However, his changeup was devastating, one of the best in his era and arguably one of the best ever. You can’t design one any better; it was about 10 mph slower than the fastball and plummeted off the plate. Plus, because his delivery was so smooth he had little trouble concealing it. Add in a better-than-you-remember slider too and you have a dominant pitcher.

But seriously, the changeup:

johan changeup k example

That is a hapless swing. Santana was lethal.

The 2004 Twins won the AL Central for the third straight year. Santana led the rotation, followed by Brad Radke. Corie Koskie, Lew Ford (!!!) and Torri Hunter led the way at the plate, while a young and extremely-well hyped catcher named Joe Mauer had come up and fared well with the bat in limited action (138 OPS+). Ultimately, Minnesota claimed the division comfortably.

A familiar foe awaited in the postseason. The Twins danced with the New York Yankees in the Division Series a year prior and lost in 4. The 2004 Bombers were as loaded as ever, a 101-win powerhouse with an absurd offense and enough pitching to get by. Remember, this Yankee team was fresh off a World Series appearance and added Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. However, astute fans remember the Bombers lost Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and a couple prized pitching acquisitions, um, failed to pan out. Certainly, the starting rotation wasn’t as stacked as years past.

Therein lies the path to victory for Minnesota. The Twins march into the ALDS as the underdog but with the ability to run arguably the world’s best starter out two times  — that’s a big card to play in a short series. Santana faced the Yankees twice in 2004 and pitched well both times.

The pursuit of another championship in Minneapolis begins in Game 1, with the Twins’ ace stepping onto the fabled Yankee Stadium mound. For the purposes of the post, we will focus on the first inning.

***

This lineup is no picnic:

Name Position Bats OPS+
Derek Jeter SS R 114
Alex Rodriguez 3B R 131
Gary Sheffield RF R 141
Bernie Williams CF S 108
Jorge Posada C S 131
Hideki Matsui LF L 137
Ruben Sierra DH S 94
John Olerud 1B R 114
Miguel Cairo 2B R 100

Frankly, injuries limit the damage. Jason Giambi missed most of the year and was ineffective when he did play. Also, note that Kenny Lofton is on the roster but not starting. Why am I noting that? Because Kenny Lofton was the man, that’s why.

It begins with The Captain. Derek Jeter steps to the plate and attacks a middle-low fastball and puts fairly decent wood on it. But Torri Hunter is there for an easy first out. One pitch, one down.

Alex Rodriguez steps up next. Let’s remember something about A-Rod in 2004; he was awesome. The failed Red Sox-Rangers trade from the prior winter was a massive story and Rodriguez ending up in New York felt like a dynasty-extending move. It also irritated people who were sick of seeing Jeter and the boys play late into each October. I set this up because Rodriguez vs Santana is a hell of a matchup, an elite pitcher battling a top-of-the-line hitter. This is what October is all about.

We don’t get an extended battle, however. Santana opens with a breaking ball that Rodriguez scatters to second and Michael Cuddyer fumbles it. Note the way Santana tumbles off the mound — the announcers gloss right over it, but I bet you the Twins dugout took notice:

a rod reaches on error

Another new Yankee, rightfielder Gary Sheffield, steps up to face Santana. Sheffield was tremendous in 2004, finishing second in the MVP voting and most importantly for this at-bat, tore up lefthanded pitching all season (.314/.423/.550).

Santana opens the at-bat missing high and away with a breaking ball. As Joe Buck and Tim McCarver discuss Sheffield’s love life (seriously), Santana goes high and away again, this time with a fastball at 93 MPH. Two-and-oh is not a comfortable count against someone as aggressive and dangerous as Sheffield, so Santana works him carefully, just missing low-and-away with a nice looking changeup. After shaking off his catcher — which McCarver, a former catcher, is flabbergasted about — Santana misses again with a fastball away, sending Sheffield to first.

A-Rod singled, Sheffield walked and now Santana must deal with the switch-hitting centerfielder Bernie Williams. By 2004 Williams had ceased to be the hitter he once was, but the veteran still had pop against lefties (.265/.384/.464) was no stranger to postseason heroics. Still, one wonders if Santana decided it better to face Williams with a 0-0 count than Sheffield at 2-0. Either way, early in Game 1 things are getting tense. Luckily, Santana is no stranger to punchouts and the Yankee lineup trends easier to deal with from here.

The 2004 AL Cy Young award winner opens the exchange with a 93 MPH fastball right past Williams:

Williams miss fastball.gif

He ain’t getting cheated with that hack. Williams is the third Yankee this half-inning to swing at the first pitch. I’d love to ask Santana how he felt seeing Williams miss here. Knowing the fastball can beat the Yankees centerfielder opens up so many options.

Santana doubles down and powers another fastball past Williams, this one perhaps a smidge higher to run the count 0-2.

As A-Rod dances off second base, Santana misses high with another fastball. Three consecutive fastballs up in the zone aren’t by accident; Santana has set Williams’ eye level. With the count 1-2 and the best strikeout pitcher in the league on the mound, you know what’s coming.

Williams changeup for a ball.gif

The pitch ends up too far outside for Bernie to chase, but the idea is obvious. Fastball-fastball-fastball followed by a low-and-away off-speed pitch. That’s standard sequencing, and Santana’s smooth delivery helps disguise it. He misses off the plate away, but given the count that’s no problem. The idea is strikeout or weak groundout.

The count moves to 2-2. Santana comes back with the fourth fastball of the at-bat, this one catching a bit of the plate. Williams fights it off. Because the command is so precise, despite getting four fastballs Williams has barely even made contact. Santana is pitching carefully, yes, but he isn’t nibbling. Fastballs up in the zone aren’t a sign of timidity.

The count holds at 2-2 and Santana serves up a nasty changeup that barely misses outside.

williams changeup for a ball 2-2

That’s a hell of a take.

Full count. Rodriguez and Sheffield on the bases. Old Yankee Stadium growing loud. One more miss and the Twins find themselves staring down the barrel early in Game 1. Rodriguez and Sheffield inch further into their leads as Santana delivers another high-and-away fastball and Williams again fights it off.

I love what Santana does with the next two pitches. The eighth pitch to Williams is a break in approach, a fastball in on the hands that the centerfielder barely fights off. Instead of going back upstairs, Santana comes inside. Now Williams knows he has to protect each part of the plate, but Santana knows Williams likely won’t chase. What a battle.

With Rodriguez growing bolder off second base, Santana looks him back and receives a cascade of boos. Eight pitches in, Santana has options here. You’d expect him to return to the changeup, but where? Or do you risk elevating the fastball?

Williams K, A Rod CS.gif

Dear Lord.

Williams takes a nasty change for a called strike three and Blanco easily guns down Rodriguez. After a tense at-bat against a tough hitter, Santana ends the threat.

Inning over.

***

If you watch the whole game you’ll figure out quickly that Santana didn’t have his best stuff. He had to pitch carefully and manipulate the fearsome Yankee offense into weak contact. Consider how he pitched to Williams — fastballs up and away, time and again going back to that lethal changeup lower in the zone. The Yankees chose to be aggressive and had no problem going after his fastball — so Santana used that to his advantage. When Williams didn’t chase the two changeups away, Santana moved inside and froze him. Not everyone can pull that off. It takes confidence, great stuff, and the skill to execute in a pressure situation.

“You have to be careful with them, because if you make a mistake, then you have to pay for it,” Santana said. “I was able to throw the right pitch at the right time, because I know that my teammates can make some plays. That’s the way we are.”

He wasn’t kidding — the Twins turned an incredible five double-plays to support their ace. He finished with 7 innings, allowed 9 hits, 1 walk and struck out 5. Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan closed the door, shutting out the Yankees to win the series opener.

Ultimately we know where this story goes. Santana faces the Bombers again in Game 4 with this team down 2-1 in the series. He pitches well but not deep into the game and the Twins bullpen fails to protect a 4-run lead. Minnesota hasn’t won a playoff game since the shutout.

The Yankees move on, build a (seemingly) insurmountable lead in the ALCS only to eventually collapse, clearing a path for a bunch of idiots to move on and win their first World Series in about a thousand (or so) years.

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Baseball, Ode To A Pitcher

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

Pedro Martinez struck out five batters in the All-Star game.

Pedro Martinez in the late ’90s was the picture of dominance.  JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

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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