This year’s Baseball Hall of Fame class features two pitchers who dominated from opposite ends of the physical spectrum
Author Joe Lemire Illustration PJ Loughlin
Baseball is in many ways the most egalitarian of sports, one in which men of all shapes and sizes can succeed. Take, for example, two current stars: Bartolo Colón has put together an 18-year career despite a 285-pound, bowling-ball physique, and at age 42 he’s still dominating for the New York Mets. Meanwhile, José Altuve, one of the best second basemen in today’s game, weighs 165 pounds and stands just 5-foot-6—so small that, during a 2012 game, Houston Astros broadcasters wryly wondered “how many Altuves” a home run of his had traveled. Yet Altuve has been an All Star and a batting champion.
On July 26, when the Baseball Hall of Fame inducts its 2015 class, another one of the game’s great physical contrasts will be on display. Standing on the stage in Cooperstown, New York, will be the two most dominating starting pitchers of their generation: Randy Johnson, a 6-foot-10, left-handed Californian who was known as the Big Unit during a career that saw him pitch for six teams, and Pedro Martínez, a Dominican right-hander who stood just 5-foot-11 and who was called Petey by his Boston Red Sox teammates.
Martínez was so slight that the team that originally signed him, the Los Angeles Dodgers, believed he wouldn’t last as a starter and traded him to the Montreal Expos when he was just 21. This was in spite of his ability to light up radar guns in the mid-to-upper 90s.
“My body frame did not intimidate anybody,” Martínez says. “I was a freak of studying mechanics. I became a patch of everybody.”
Martínez tailored his workouts to his body, using medicine balls, running stairs and doing calf and shoulder exercises. “I was very precise with my mechanics, but legs were the ultimate dictator when it came to strength and power,” he says. “I had a very different workout routine than anybody. I was able to harness everything I had and get such pinpoint control.”
He applied that command to a devastating arsenal of pitches: At Martínez’s peak, he arguably had the best fastball, curve and changeup in the majors. What’s more, he understood how to mix those pitches to attack hitters, and he was never short on confidence—to a point that bordered on cockiness.
“I saw everybody as an enemy,” Martínez says. “I saw everybody like in the jungle. You just kill to survive. That’s the intensity and focus I had to keep.”
Despite being much more physically imposing, Johnson, who once inadvertently killed a flying bird with a pitch, also had to overcome doubts early in his career. With his height and long arms, learning how to pitch didn’t come easily.
“I can’t imagine being as tall as Randy and having to fine-tune all these parts,” Martínez says.
Indeed, while Johnson possessed a fastball that once hit 102 mph and a slider that was as fast as most pitchers’ fastballs, he struggled to control them. As a minor leaguer in the Montreal organization, he walked more than seven batters per nine innings—a rate that’s twice as poor as what’s usually acceptable. The Expos traded him to Seattle, and while he threw a no-hitter for the Mariners in 1990, that same season he walked 120 batters. After several more up-and-down seasons, Johnson sought help from fellow Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan—another fireballer who battled early-career wildness—and pitching instructor Tom House, who helped Johnson become consistent with his mechanics.
“Obviously, my height was to my advantage, but only once I was able to harness my ability,” says Johnson, who signed with Arizona, where he spent his peak years, as a free agent in 1999. “I was all arms and legs, and obviously there weren’t too many power pitchers that came before me [like that], so I didn’t have a blueprint to work with. It was an uphill battle. There were moments when I wanted to quit the game, but I stuck with it.”
In the end, despite their obvious differences, these two pitchers produced eerily similar results. Johnson and Martínez rank first and second, respectively, in Major League history in career strikeout rate for starting pitchers. Johnson whiffed 10.6 batters per nine innings pitched; Martínez fanned 10.0. They both plied their craft during the so-called Steroid Era, when scoring was the highest in baseball history, yet one would never know it by looking at their numbers. Perhaps the most telling indicator of their success comes from the advanced statistic ERA+, which adjusts earned run average based on league-wide scoring rates and home ballparks to make historical comparisons easier. An ERA+ of 100 is league average; a 105 is 5 percent better, and a 95 is 5 percent worse. Johnson posted an ERA+ above 175 seven times, topping out at 195 in 2002. Martínez topped 200 five times, and in 2000, his 1.74 ERA translated to a 291 ERA+, the best single season in Major League history. His career ERA+ of 154 is also the best in history among starting pitchers.
Aside from their consistency, both pitchers brought a thrilling, must-see-event air to each start. Martínez never completed a no-hitter but once threw nine perfect innings before allowing a hit in the 10th of what had remained a scoreless game. Johnson threw that no-hitter with Seattle at age 26, and then a perfect game for Arizona in 2004, at age 40. Johnson had nine starts in which he struck out at least 15 batters while allowing three or fewer hits; Martínez had five such games. Those totals rank first and second in the last 30 years.
In spite of their differences and their humble starts, Johnson entered the Hall of Fame with 97.3 percent of the baseball writers’ votes, Martínez with 91.1 percent. Both truly stood tall on the field. While that may literally have been easier for Johnson, as Martínez noted in a television interview after the announcement of his Hall election, he had one helpful aid when pitching that neutralized his height disadvantage: “When I’m on the mound,” he said, “I’m taller than anybody.”
That’s true—but only because he never faced Johnson in the batter’s box, in which case the 10-inch mound would still have left Martínez one inch short.
Freelance writer Joe Lemire, who grew up near Boston, used to plan his schedule around Pedro starts; he once watched Martínez strike out 16—but he also watched Grady Little leave him in too long.