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Pedro's legend continues to grow

Pedro's legend continues to grow

In the 32 months since Pedro Martinez signed on to pitch for the Mets, so much of the news he has generated has involved his anatomy. First it was his big toe, then his hip; then one calf, then the other; and finally his right shoulder. And now, there is this footnote: He has 3,000 career strikeouts.

Martinez reached that milestone in the Mets' game against the Reds on Monday when he struck out two batters in the second inning. It was an accomplishment of some historical import, of course, because only 14 other pitchers have reached 3,000 and because the baseball community is obsessed with round numbers and so mindful of the game's history.

In the context of what Martinez is hoping otherwise though -- that is, come back from shoulder surgery and contribute to the Mets -- reaching 3,000 was nothing more than a footnote. As significant an achievement as it will be when his career resume is completed or his Hall of Fame plaque is forged, it is overshadowed by the seemingly mundane -- five innings in a Labor Day start in Cincinnati.

Little intrigue and less anticipation existed in this circumstance. Martinez's reaching 3,000 was more a foregone conclusion -- once he returned -- than it was a quest. It was comparable to neither winning 300 games, as teammate Tom Glavine did last month, nor hitting a 700-anything home run and only because his return to active duty took precedence. A pitcher reaching 3,000 doesn't have the cachet of a hitter reaching 3,000 hits. Just doesn't.

For that matter, little suspense existed because Martinez was so close. Two strikeouts in a start, even one restricted to 75-80 pitches is a modest achievement for almost any pitcher these days. If suspense ever existed in this low-profile pursuit, it evaporated months ago because his doctors said a September return was more than possible and his rehabilitation from the surgery went without setback.

That Martinez had retained the skill to strike out a big league hitter wasn't an issue either. His rotator cuff had been torn for 12 days and his "good" calf already was strained when, with three pitches, he made Scott Thorman of the Braves his last out of 2006 and his 2,998th career strikeout victim Sept. 27.

If he could do it then, four weeks before his 35th birthday with his legs and shoulder so compromised, and if he has struck out 17 Class A batters during his four rehab starts (18 innings), it was only a matter of time Monday before Martinez put himself in a group that includes nine Hall of Famers, four other active pitchers and Bert Blyleven.

But as a conspicuous absence of public awareness and suspense exists in this statistical situation, intrigue and suspense were -- and still are -- palpable in other parts of the equation that is Pedro Jaime Martinez and his comeback. He was on the brink of returning to active duty and on the verge of reaching 3,000 strikeouts. And all that really mattered Monday was how his anatomy -- all parts -- responded to the renewed strain of pitching. And it will be no different Sunday when he is to make his second start.

* * *

In February, months before he threw anything that resembled a pitch, Martinez found his way to the big league side of the Mets' sprawling complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and delivered a state-of-the-comeback address. Strikeouts went unmentioned, but he delivered a message that rankled some teammates. "Hold 'em for me and I'll push 'em back," he said, as if the Mets were incapable of achieving their objective without his input.

Even with five months of uneven play, the Mets have a five-game lead in the National League East, shooting a few holes in Martinez's statement of implied self-importance.

"It will be a welcome boost," Tom Glavine said last week. But if we play the way we should, we don't need Pedro to win."

But after falling one victory short of the World Series last year and with their cast of characters certain to change before next season, the defending NL East champions do have a sense of urgency about the pending postseason and a sense that an unqualified return of Martinez could make their October objectives more readily achieved.

"I'd love to help. I'd love to be the one to spark them and help out," Martinez said Friday.

He never said, "I can't wait to get to 3,000 strikeouts."

But he barely waited Monday striking out his seventh and ninth batters, Scott Hatteberg and opposing pitcher Aaron Harang, to become a different kind of Mr. 3,000.

The Mets won't need strikeouts from Martinez before or during the postseason. Except for those times when people start counting, they are merely a means to an end. What they'll need are innings, starts, victories. Strikeouts will come if Martinez provides the others.

"We can't know what to expect from Pedro," catcher Paul Lo Duca said as the trading deadline approached last month. "But in the back of your mind, you're saying, 'If we get all of Pedro back, that's bigger than any trade we can pull off.' But no one in here has a clue about what he'll have."

The Mets have a better idea after Martinez pitched five innings and beat the Reds on Monday. But as Martinez said Saturday: "The second [start] is going to be bigger than the first." Then the club will know more about his stamina and ability to recover.

"All of Pedro" is the operative phrase. Earlier in the summer, Martinez said he planned a 100 percent return. Pedro '07, he said, would be comparable to the pitcher who ruled the American League in the late '90s and into this decade.

"If anyone could come back from this and be better, it's Pedro," Mets coach and Martinez's confidant Guy Conti said.

The Mets weren't expecting that nor asking for anything close to it. But if Martinez can pitch with a degree of consistency at the level he established in 2005, his first season with the club, the Mets will be delighted and a stronger playoff team.

Martinez wasn't, in 2005, the formidable force he had been with the Expos and Red Sox. He won 15 games, lost eight and produced a 2.82 ERA, striking numbers for a pitcher on a team that won 83 games, but hardly extraordinary. Martinez led the league in nothing and no longer was the pitcher who could compensate for his team's foibles. The Mets won merely 17 of his 31 starts.

And though he wasn't the pitcher he had been when he won Cy Young Awards in 1997, 1999 and 2000, he was an event. His starts at Shea Stadium became celebrations of him and, by association, of an improving, but hardly special team. His grandeur and Randolph's no-nonsense approach changed the culture of the Mets, the first stage of an upgrade that carried them to the '06 playoffs.

Martinez certainly had his moments in 2005. The Mets lost their first five games that year. Martinez won the sixth in a compelling confrontation with the Braves and John Smoltz that resurrected the first-name-basis identity he had with the Red Sox Nation. Now and probably forever, he is Pedro -- like Elvis, Madonna and Michael, no surname necessary -- to fans in Montreal, L.A., New England, Queens, the Bronx and most points in between.

Later in Los Angeles, he flirted with the first no-hitter in Mets history, electrified Shea with a 12-strikeout, two-hitter and gave the Mets a sense of hope that might not have developed so quickly otherwise.

But Pedro '05 was an inconsistent force. And after he won his first five starts last season, injuries undermined his performance. He lost eight times and won four times in his last 18 starts.

All of that fed the sense of uncertainty that surrounds him now even as some Mets and most Mets partisans are getting giddy about his return. Although these rules of thumb never have been applied specifically to Martinez, doctors have said the period necessary for recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery typically is 12 months, and that recovery from rotator cuff surgery typically requires more time and is less predictable.

Pedro's career strikeout ratios
Year
Ratio
2006 9.29 (didn't qualify, pitched too few innings)
2005 8.63
2004 9.41 (82nd highest ever)
2003 9.93 (55th highest ever)
2002 10.79 (22nd highest ever)
2001 12.57 (didn't qualify, pitched too few innings)
2000 11.78 (ninth highest ever)
1999 13.20 (second highest ever)
1998 9.67 (64th highest ever)
1997 11.37 (13th highest ever)
1996 9.22 (95th highest ever)
1995 8.04
1994 10.01 (didn't qualify, pitched too few innings)
career -- 10.20 (third highest ever)*
as a Met -- 8.88
1999-2001 -- 12.51

* minimum 1,000 career innings

Yet, Wednesday is the 11-month anniversary of Martinez's surgery, and he already has pitched five innings and struck out four batters. "Nobody has ever done this," Martinez said Saturday. His doctors -- Mets physician David Altchek performed the surgery -- told him they knew of no other pitcher who had pitched within a year of rotator cuff repair. "Nobody has been able to climb that big mountain," he said. "I'm happy to give it a try."

And though he fared well in his return, the issue of his ability to help the Mets in the postseason will remain a start-to-start unknown.

The greatest questions seemingly had involved the velocity of his pitches and his ability to recover from exertion that was bound to exceed what he has experienced in any of his four rehab starts. The popular theory had been that the adrenalin rush prompted by his return would add one or two mph to his fastball and put it close to or at 90.

It was need that got his fastball up to 90 on Monday -- though for one pitch only. The Reds were threatening in the fifth. But what about subsequent starts?

"If I'm throwing between 85 and 88 [mph]," Martinez said Friday, "and I have command of my pitches, I'll get anybody out." His performance Monday supported that brash statement.

If any pitcher with an exceptional fastball ever has been capable of surviving -- even prospering -- without it, it is Martinez. On occasion, he has dominated an opponent with his changeup, curve and the occasional, keep-'em-honest cut fastball. His fastball was ineffective in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series, his final appearance with the Red Sox. Yet he shut out the Cardinals on three hits for seven innings with changeups, curves and the occasional, keep-'em-honest cut fastball.

But arm speed is required to generate a fastball of sufficient velocity to make the offspeed stuff effective. Will arm speed and strength be regularly available in sufficient quantities to get Martinez 15 or 18 outs four or five times? Another uncertainty about '07 Pedro.

* * *

No matter how his body responds and now much velocity he can generate, whatever pitching Martinez does will include strikeouts. He has strikeout genius. He has a swing-and-miss mentality, with strategies designed to put hitters on the defensive, i.e. to get them to two-strike counts. As much as any of 14 pitchers who have beaten him to 3,000, he can get by without strikeouts. But he didn't get to 2,998 by throwing ground balls.

"Even when Pedro doesn't get a strikeout, his reputation precedes him," Mike Piazza said after one of his first Mets games catching Martinez. "[Hitters] protect against the strikeout. They might hit a weak ground ball against him on a two-strike pitch just because they're trying to avoid a strikeout or because the situation calls for them to make contact."

Martinez's career strikeout ratio -- strikeouts per nine innings -- is the third-highest, 10.20, among pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings. Of the 15 pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts, only Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson have more strikeouts than innings pitched. When Martinez finished his Labor Day work, he had thrown 2,650 2/3 innings and had 3,002 strikeouts. Ryan, the all-time strikeout leader with 5,714, threw 5,386 innings, and Johnson, third in strikeouts behind Roger Clemens, has 4,616 in 3,855 1/3.

Six of the 100-highest, single-season ratios are his, including the second-highest. He struck out 313 batters in 213 1/3 innings in 1999, a ratio of 13.20 that stands behind only the 13.41 Johnson established two years later.

Though Martinez remains a strikeout pitcher, his rate of strikeouts per nine innings, 8.8, in his time with the Mets is down considerably from what it was in his peak seasons. He has had nine starts with the Mets in which he has struck out 10 or more batters, raising his career total of double-digit strikeout games to 108, the fourth-highest total in big league history.


Pedro Martinez has produced an ERA at least two runs below his league's average in four seasons: 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003. There are merely 30 other comparable instances in big league history. The difference in his 2000 season was 3.17 -- 1.74 to the league's 4.91 -- which is the greatest in history (minimum: 150 innings). The difference in his 1999 season -- 2.79 (2.07 to 4.86) -- is the second greatest.

Just how a slightly-built, 5-10 pitcher from the Dominican became one of the elite strikeout pitchers in history makes for interesting background. Not that every strikeout pitcher has been physically imposing; see David Cone, Ron Guidry and Billy Wagner.

But when the Dodgers traded Martinez to the Expos following the 1993 season, part of their rationale was that his too-small body couldn't handle the rigors of high-speed pitching. The Dodgers were proven right, but not until last season after his resume included 13 more seasons, 195 more victories and 2,871 more strikeouts, not to mention the Cy Young Awards and four of the 34 seasons in history in which a pitcher produced an ERA at least two runs lower than his league's ERA.

Martinez's pitching acumen began to develop early. His father, Paolino, was one of the best pitchers in the Dominican in the '50s. His older brother -- by 3 1/2 years -- Ramon pitched for the Dodgers and won 135 games. They were the primary influences.

The stories Pedro Martinez likes to tell had him and his brothers rolling socks with fruits and even a sister's doll head inside to serve as makeshift baseballs, and that he tagged along for one of Ramon's Dodgers workouts in 1984 and threw pitches that a Dodgers' scout measured at 80 mph. He was 13.

By 1992, he was a Dodgers rookie. By '93, he was causing a stir by missing bats and hitting batters.

His velocity came from the all-but-unique way he contorted his body, creating extraordinary torque with his legs, torque that tortured the large toe on his right foot. In the spring of 2005, when Martinez was learning to pitch, wearing custom-made shoes designed to reduce the strain and stress on his damaged toe, the Mets pitching and medical staffs made note -- and expressed shock -- about how violent his delivery was.

When he delivered a pitch, the outside of his right ankle somehow rubbed against the orange clay of the pitcher's mound and then violently snapped back into a normal position. Then he would drag his foot forward. The stress on his toe would make the non-squeamish blanch.

Pitching coach Rick Peterson acknowledged that all power pitchers twist their ankles in a similar manner, but none that he has seen does so with force comparable to what Martinez exerts.

"It's the difference between high winds and a tornado," Peterson said.

The ankle twist, by itself, was "an indication of high-end velocity. You don't have to watch his pitches to know he throws hard," Peterson added.

He noted a pitcher who throws hard and doesn't have the torque Martinez generates is likely to put too much stress on his arm and break down.

The greater the force or torque, the greater the power of the pitcher. "People want to know how a pitcher of Pedro's size throws so hard," Peterson said. "That's how."

The push-off foot has two other responsibilities -- it initiates the rigorous task of decelerating the body, considered a greater strain than accelerating the body, and it stabilizes the back end of the delivery, affecting a pitcher's command of his pitches by enabling him to maintain a consistent release point.

That consistency is critical to the pitcher's command -- Martinez's command often has been extraordinary. Velocity is the sexier, higher-profile component of strikeouts, the one that prompts "ooo's and ah's" from spectators. But, as with real estate, "location, location, location" is critical too.

"You take Pedro's velocity, his ability to locate his pitches and his stuff," Lo Duca says, "and you can see why he's had the career he's had. They're all off the charts when he's healthy and able to execute his pitches. It's been a while since he's been healthy.

"We don't know for sure what he's going to be now, how strong he's going to be, how much he'll be able to repeat his delivery. But if he's Pedro again, watch out."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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