Monday, January 5, 2015

Everything You Know Is Wrong: Pedro Martinez Edition

There are many fine baseball discussion groups on Facebook, and naturally I keep an eye on the Hall of Fame group. With the BBWAA election of new Hall of Fame members coming up tomorrow, the discussion has been hot and heavy. Today, I found myself in a strenuous debate with one of my closest baseball friends, Bill Deane. During our separate tenures as researchers at the Hall of Fame library, Bill and I were often besieged by people lobbying for against this or that player's rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Usually we're on the same page, but not this time.

Bill's contention was that Pedro Martinez was a "thug" on the mound, based primarily on his high frequency of hitting batters with pitchers. I disputed this contention, and the debate took off from there. Bill came up with a wonderful statistic. He cited Martinez's career ratio of HBP to walks as empirical evidence that when a pitcher with pinpoint control like Martinez--the only pitcher with more than 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks--hits a batter, it isn't merely a pitch that "got away" from the hurler. There must have been something purposeful about it, and if Martinez chose to hit that many batters, it must be because he is, at heart, a thug.

Here's the exact stat that Bill cited: Martinez has a HBP:W ratio of .185, or nearly one hit batter for every five walked batters. Bill also noted that Bob Gibson, probably the most mean-spirited pitcher of our time, had a far lower ratio of .076 and said "see if you can find someone higher. I got on, checked the all-time HBP list, and within a few minutes found that Joe McGinnity had a ratio of .220, quite a bit higher than Martinez. Eddie Plank was not far behind Martinez at .177. When I posted this response to Bill's challenge, he answered, "If you had to go back to Joe McGinnity, I rest my case."

I have no idea why he thought that my finding someone higher proved his case, but there you go. I tried a different tack I pointed out that Greg Maddux's ratio was .137, or 80 percent higher. By Bill's logic, that would mean that Maddux was nearly twice the "thug" that Bob Gibson was, which is ridiculous, as anybody who watched them pitch knows. Any stat that makes Maddux look so much thuggier than Gibson cannot have any significance.

At this point, I googled Martinez and HBP and found several references to a remarkable 2013 article in the New York Daily News, in which Martinez declared that "probably 90 percent" of the batters he hit were on purpose. “You have to actually make (batters) feel uncomfortable all the time if you want to have success," he said, echoing a basic truth of major league baseball.

The article included a dandy story by Martinez's former Boston teammate, Kevin Millar, about a game Martinez pitched against Roger Clemens. After Clemens drilled Millar with a pitch, Martinez asked Millar whom he wanted to be drilled in retaliation. As Millar told it, “First pitch to (Alfonso) Soriano — wham! Up near the neck. Next batter, (Derek) Jeter — wham! Up near the neck. Pedro later told me, ‘You tell Clemens, he hits one of mine, I take two of his.’”

That does sound like the Pedro Martinez we know, taking his retaliatory responsibilities quite seriously. Does that kind of action constitute thuggery? Perhaps. I decided to take a closer look at all those hit batters. has an entry for each player titled "Top Performances," which lists the games on which a player compiled the highest stats in an array of categories.

For Martinez and HBP, 16 games are listed, one in which he hit three batters and 15 in which he hit two batters--including Game 5 of the ALCS, in which he plunked two Yankees--Miguel Cairo and Alex Rodriguez. Clemens did not pitch that day, and no Red Sox were hit by pitches. So Millar wasn't referring to that game. I determined to find out when this happened.

The 3-HBP game came in 2006 when he pitched for the Mets against the Nationals, plunking Jose Guillen twice and former Yankee Nick Johnson once. Later that season, he got two Phillies in a game he left after one inning with a leg injury. Four of the other instances occurred when he pitched for the Expos. So that left ten games with the Red Sox in which he hit two batters.

Although I went through all ten of those before taking the next step, I'm going to jump ahead here and note that while Martinez pitched for Boston from 1998-2004, Kevin Millar played for Boston from 2003-2006. So the Clemens game would have had to take place in 2003 or 2004. Martinez hit two batters in a game three times in those two seasons, including the 2004 ALCS game mentioned earlier. That left the games of March 31, 2003 and August 28, 2004.

On August 28, 2004, they played Detroit, and the HBPs occurred three innings apart. No Red Sox were hit in that game. On March 31, 2003, the Red Sox played Tampa Bay. Kevin Millar was hit by a pitch in that game, so maybe that was the event that got confused in his memory. But no. Martinez hit Al Martin in the fourth inning, Millar was hit by Joe Kennedy in the following inning, and the last HBP came in the seventh inning. So that wasn't it either.

I still hoped to track down the game Millar might have referred to, having seen enough tales based on faulty memories to suspect that was the case here. In 2003, he was hit by five pitches, including once by Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium. It happened in the second inning, and it's true that Alfonso Soriano was also hit by a pitch in that game. However, it was Ramiro Mendoza who nailed him, and it happened three innings later. Jeter followed the HBP with a single. That doesn't fit Millar's story either.

In 2004, Millar led the American League by getting hit with a pitch 17 times. In late April,. he was hit at Yankee Stadium in back-to-back games. The first time it was by Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning, and Martinez didn't pitch that day. The next day, Javier Vazquez got him in the second inning. Pedro was the pitcher--maybe this was it! But no. Not only did Pedro not hit anybody, Soriano had been trading away to Texas. That disqualified Millar's 2004 season, though it was fun to see that he was hit three more times by Yankees pitchers that season. Even Mariano Rivera found him. But Martinez didn't pitch in any of those games.

I had one more thing to check. Both Soriano and Jeter were hit exactly once in their careers by Martinez. This took more digging, but maybe I'd find that they happened back-to-back and that Millar was only hoping it was because Martinez came to his defense. In 2002, Martinez hit two Yankees in a game twice, and both times it was same player--Jason Giambi the first time and Robin Ventura the second.

On July 7, 2003, at Yankee Stadium, Martinez plunked Jeter for the only time in his career. It happened in the bottom of the first inning. The Retrosheet box score tells us that Soriano led off by striking out, but he left the game after that inning. Perhaps Martinez didn't hit him, but merely brushed him in a way that caused Soriano to pull a muscle ducking out of the way. Jeter also left the game after two innings, possibly with a sore neck if that's where he was hit. On the other hand, Millar did not bat in the top of that inning, and the Yankees' pitcher that day was Mike Mussina, who didn't hit anybody.

Well, maybe Millar was hit the previous day by Clemens and Martinez was exacting justice the first chance he got. That theory went out the window when I saw that Andy Pettitte pitched the previous day and did not hit Millar or anybody else. Jeter, however, was hit by John Burkett.What was Millar thinking about when he told that story a decade after it supposedly happened? I have no idea.

So where does that leave me? Bill Deane did get around to answering my point about Greg Maddux, saying, "Maybe hitters didn't mind getting hit by Maddux's 85 mph stuff, as it seemed the only way they could get on base." That might have some validity. Over the course of Maddux's career, opposing batters had a .250 lifetime average and a .291 on-base percentage. So taking a cutter off the elbow pad would seem to be an acceptable way to get on base against the winningest pitcher of his generation.

But what about Pedro Martinez? In his career, opposing batters had a .214 average and a .276 on-base percentage. That shows that Martinez was a much tougher pitcher to hit than Maddux, and even though his fastball measured 5-8mph more than Maddux's, it still seems like a better percentage for them to take that heater off the elbow pad. Just because I ducked a high-inside heater from Bill Deane and scratched out an infield single, it doesn't follow that a major league hitter would be above taking a free base from the hardest-to-hit pitcher since Nolan Ryan took his total of 158 hit batters and retired.


Perry Barber said...

Gabriel, after double-checking your research and doing a little of my own via, I came to the same conclusion you did: Kevin Millar's memory was faulty. He may have conflated incidents that occurred in different games, or he may have simply "misremembered," to borrow a Clemensism, the entire thing. Perhaps he just dreamed it! But then a funny thing happened. I refused to give up my search for the game Millar references in that NY Times article and navigated my way to a video of Martinez throwing at Karim Garcia of the Yankees during the 2003 ALCS, the pitch that started a riot that included the sorry sight of Don Zimmer rushing at Martinez and winding up on the ground. During Garcia's at-bat, right after the pitch Pedro threw that hit him, announcer Tim McCarver can clearly be heard saying,"That was perilously close to his head... Martinez hitting Soriano and Derek Jeter the last time the Yankees and Red Sox played a 2-to-1 game won by the Yankees back in August." So apparently Millar isn't the only one who dreamed it! After considerable further due diligence, I believe I figured out the discrepancy between the Millar/McCarver recollections and the timeline of what actually happened. The game in which Millar was hit by Roger Clemens was played on July 5th, 2003; the game where Martinez allegedly retaliated on Millar's behalf took place TWO DAYS later, on July 7th - and Martinez hit just one batter in that game, Derek Jeter. The Red Sox relief pitcher, Byung-Hyun Kim, hit Jorge Posada, not Alfonso Soriano, when Kim came in to relieve Martinez in the bottom of the eighth - perhaps at Pedro's urging? (Although why Kim would purposely hit Posada when there were runners on second and first is another mystery for another time.) Soriano batted leadoff for the Yankees during this game but had only one at-bat in the bottom of the first during which Martinez struck him out swinging. He was replaced by Enrique Wilson after the first inning, perhaps because of injury. It's entirely possible that Millar's and McCarver's recollections of Martinez hitting two batters in that game were imperfect, and that Martinez merely buzzed Soriano, who batted before Jeter, then hit Jeter. That would somewhat explain the conflation of events that Millar and McCarver were referring to when they referenced the game.

In any event, the myth of Martinez as a headhunter or "thug" deserves dispelling, and you are definitely the man for the job, Gabriel. Well done.

Here's a link to the video with McCarver's comment about the game Millar remembers: Links to the box scores of those two games are here: and here:

Gabriel Schechter said...

Bravo, Perry. I looked at the July 6th box score but not at July 5th. I wondered if Soriano was injured trying to duck a brushback pitch and was going to check out the NY Times account at the HOF library tomorrow (and I still might). In that July 5th game, Millar was hit in the second inning, and Red Sox started Ramiro Mendoza hit Soriano three innings later. That was a well-timed HBP, with two outs, nobody on base, and the Red Sox leading 6-0. The Kim HBP of Posada was certainly ill-timed, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, loading the bases with nobody out. That could not have been on purpose. (The Yankees won the game two batters later.) I've found that this conflation is quite typical, and it isn't at all surprising considering that over the course of a 15-year career as a pro, a player will see upwards of 3,000 games. Only Sheldon Cooper could remember that many details clearly.

Perry Barber said...

Another interesting feature of that game (the one in which Jeter got hit by Martinez) is that the batter who ended it by getting on base on an error when the bases were loaded with Yankees in the bottom of the ninth, forcing the winning run to score, was Curtis Pride. Pride is one of only a very few deaf players I know of who have played in the big leagues. He also played for, coincidentally, the Nashua Pride in the independent Atlantic League when I was an umpire there during the 1999 season.

Unknown said...

Gabe, I think you are misrepresenting our "debate." When I mentioned Pedro's "thuggishness" (as a factor which might cost him Hall of Fame votes), this was not based on a stat, but on over a decade of watching him pitch: throwing purpose pitches at batters for real or imagined violations of his code (like any hint of admiring a home run). This was a guy who, despite pinpoint control, was usually among the hit batsmen leaders (five times in the top three), and that was no accident. When you took exception to my invented word, I invented a stat (HBP/BB)which I thought would illustrate the thuggishness. I'm not sure how valid it is, but the fact you had to go back over a century to find someone who topped Pedro in HBP/BB, seems to add validity to my contention. I didn't bring up Bob Gibson, you did. I was only a teenager when Gibson retired, and remember him only as a fierce competitor, not a thug (though sometimes there is a fine line). Pedro was a great, great pitcher who absolutely belongs in the Hall. He was also, in my opinion, a thug.

Perry Barber said...

That's kind of a loaded word these days - I strongly disagree with the characterization of Martinez as a "thug." He was a true competitor, cast from the same die as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale - and no one uses that word in any context when describing either of them. Or Walter Johnson. Or Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan or any number of other hard-throwing pitchers who owned the plate and refused to yield the inside to the hitters. That's baseball, not thuggery, and that's a very unpalatable choice of words to describe some of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, including Pedro.

Gabriel Schechter said...

Okay, Bill. Our "debate" did not begin until you presented your stat of HBP:BB. Before that, all I did was ask a question. Then you said "see if you can find someone" with a higher percentage. You didn't say it had to be a contemporary of Martinez. So I found one, and you disqualified him based on some new criterion. That was pretty weak. As for your contention in the comment above, you state that Pedro was in the "top three" five times in an 18-year career. He was also in the top ten exactly three teams. If a pitcher had a core philosophy of trying to hit people, he would've cracked the top ten in his own league more often than that. Jack Billingham, Mike Boddicker, and Darryl Kile all made the top ten the same number of times, so I don't think that proves much. Dave Stieb joined Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and others with eight top-ten seasonal totals. As an invented stat, HBP:BB ranks with the Edsel, since it "proves" that Greg Maddux was far more "thuggish" than Bob Gibson. I also agree with Perry that your usage of "thug" is ill-advised. The word is derived from a Hindi term for robbers who strangle their victims. Is that the league you'd put Pedro in?

Unknown said...

I'm grateful for your post, because I really remembered something like what Kevin Millar described.

I remembered a game when the Red Sox had a rookie pitcher on the mound, and he didn't retaliate for someone on the Sox getting hit, and then I remember the next day's Sox game and watching Pedro knock the first two Yankee players out of the game.

Your research indicates that my memory was faulty though, even thought what you found is amazingly close to what I remember.

I seem to have mis-remembered that it was the Saturday (not Sunday) game when someone (Millar?) got hit and Pedro retaliated, and I must have mis-remembered Soriano leaving the game without actually being hit.

Mostly, I remembered thinking what an incredible pitcher Pedro was, and that the pitches to Soriano and Jeter were "surgical."

I still remember it, like Kevin Millar, a bit imperfectly ...

Marc Schneider said...

Thug is a bad word; the word that was typically used back then was "headhunter" and I believe it was used with respect to at least Don Drysdale. I'm not taking sides here, but your reference to Walter Johnson as not being considered a "thug" is rather specious since Johnson was known to his contemporaries as someone who was deathly afraid of hurting someone; people like Ty Cobb would take advantage of that to crowd the plate. I don't know about the others you mentioned but baseball changed over the years; things that were acceptable in the 30s/40s/50s became less acceptable and I think that's the case with Pedro Martinez. Ignoring the word choice, it's not as if your friend simply made up the idea that Martinez was a headhunter; many of his contemporaries thought so too. By the same token, assuming that every time a guy with good control hits someone it's on purpose is rather silly too. During the 1995 World Series, Greg Maddux hit a batter and Orel Hersheiser accused him of doing it on purpose based on the notion that Maddux's control was too good for it to be an accident. But there is also a difference between "refusing to yield the inside of the plate" and throwing near someone's head. You can move hitters off the plate without throwing up at their heads. Whether or not Martinez was more prone to doing that than other pitchers I don't know, but a lot of people certainly thought he was.

That doesn't take anything away from how good Martinez was and it doesn't prove that he was trying to hit guys or that he as a "thug." But he did seem to not worry too much about throwing near guys' heads and just calling him a "fierce competitor" doesn't make it better.

The Wizard said...

great post and great forum. been waiting for this. I probably dislike Martinez more than any player in history. Martinez WAS a thug. his HBP/BB is higher than just about everybody's. I have no issue with how he treated Zimmer. he basically pushed him away, and that is what you have to do.
It is true they cannot be comfortable, and all PLAYERS, great and otherwise, are going to agree with it, whether they like it or not. But Martinez took it to a new level. It would be interesting (I am sure impossible to do) to see how often Gibson hit people in the head area compared to Martinez. Martinez seemed to have no problem going after the head. Further, it seemed that Martinez only needed somebody to get a few hits a previous game, and he decided that since he was God, he could not allow that. So, he threw at you. He was bad for baseball. Fierce competitor? It would be fierce if he was ALSO dodging baseballs thrown at him, but he certainly was not in the AL.