The Year of the Pitcher

Pedro just came at batters in 1999. It must have been terrifying.

If Pedro Martinez was only a personality with colorful opinions and ideas on what it means to be a pitcher in the major leagues, then he would still be worthy of a story or two within publications and websites dedicated to all things wonderful in baseball.

But Pedro was more than that. And if there’s any one reason why a little site like this can afford to dedicate an entire week to one man, then 1999 is that reason.

1968 is often said to be the true Year of the Pitcher, but if any pitcher ever truly owned a year, it was Pedro in ’99. His 2000 season was likely better, and he won a Cy Young Award in 1997 as well with Montreal. But in 1999, a reputation of dominance and unbending brilliance was born. I mean, we can run through the numbers first.

To start, in 1999, Martinez led the league in:

  • ERA: 2.07
  • Wins: 23
  • Strikeouts: 313
  • ERA+: 243
  • K/9: 13.2
  • K/BB: 8.46

He also posted a WHIP of 0.923, 5 complete games, and issued only 1.6 walks per nine innings pitched. He actually topped many of these numbers in 2000, including a 291 ERA+ that is the highest in baseball history after 1880. If you’re at all aware of baseball stats and their relevance, I apologize for likely causing you to spit your coffee onto your shiny new laptop.

In 1998, Martinez pitched his first year in the American League, coming over from the Expos to the Red Sox, but was overshadowed by the hulking behemoth of Roger Clemens, who would win his fifth Cy Young Award and second in Toronto that season.

But 1999 belong to Pedro, and it began on Opening Day. He pitched well enough for the win, going six innings and surrendering only two runs on the strength of nine strikeouts. He had another solid outing the next time out, picking up win no. two in Tampa Bay on seven innings and another nine strikeouts. He lost his next start against the White Sox, a tough-luck effort where Boston was shut out.

And that was it. In his next 16 starts, Pedro went 14-2, only giving up as many as four runs once in that stretch, striking out at least 10 batters 10 times. And honestly, I just stopped at 16 starts arbitrarily. It was an unholy hellfire of pitching all season long, where he only managed to throw a no-decision twice all season, where he made fools of batters year-round.

It was in 1999 that Pedro starred in the All-Star Game held in Fenway Park, striking out 5 of the games biggest batters in two innings of work — Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell — and earned MVP honors for his Carl Hubbell-like performance.

And it was this season when he pitched perhaps his greatest game. On Sept. 10, Martinez walked into Yankee Stadium with the Red Sox looking to stay in playoff contention. In the second inning, Pedro gave up a home run to Chili Davis on a 1-1 pitch. It turned out to be the only hit he’d surrender. Pedro racked up 17 strikeouts, no walks, and faced only one batter over the minimum of 27 that night. Yankees manager Joe Torre said it was the most dominating performance by a pitcher he’d ever seen.

Late in the 1999 season, I bought a navy blue t-shirt with Martinez’s no. 45 on the back in red. For the rest of that season, into the playoffs, and through 2000, I wore the shirt for every one of his starts. If I had to work, I made sure to wear it under my green Stop & Shop polo shirt. Needless to say, it was run through the wash once every five days, just like Pedro ran opposing batters through the ringer on schedule.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Red Sox were the Wild Card in the playoffs that year, squaring off against A.L. Central champs Cleveland in the first round. Pedro pitched the first game, but was forced to leave after four innings with injury. Despite not giving up a run in those four innings, the Red Sox lost, and dropped the next game, pushed one game from elimination.

The Red Sox, though, rallied in the next two games, winning Game 3 and 4 at Fenway Park in blowouts. Game 5 was back in Cleveland, and the Indians pounded starter Bret Saberhagen and reliever Derek Lowe for eight runs in the first three innings. But the Red Sox matched, and going into the bottom of the fourth inning, the score was tied 8-8.

Martinez, still injured and without his fastball, entered the game and authored his tour de force. Using only his changeup, curveball and his remarkable control, he baffled a potent Indians lineup, including Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel. Through those final six innings, Pedro didn’t give up a hit. The Red Sox, led by Troy O’Leary and Nomar Garicaparra, picked up four more runs in one of the more resilient efforts you’ll ever see from a team on the brink. The Sox took the game and the series, and Pedro had one of the great postseason moments of all time.

It’s hard to say that Pedro arrived in 1999, two years removed from a Cy Young award and seven seasons into his career. But his reputation as perhaps the best pitcher since Sandy Koufax was cemented that season. He was, quite simply, the most dominant, electrifying and thrilling performer I’d ever seen on a baseball diamond.

And he remained at that level through the 2002 season.


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