Although Pedro Martinez may not have had the longevity or durability of some of baseball’s other pitching greats, there is little doubt that his peak years were some of the best, if not the best, that any pitcher has ever produced. With the introduction of the “minus stats,” ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-, we have yet another tool with which to put these fantastic years in context. Here’s a look at Pedro’s 1999-2003, with the reminder that 100 is average and unlike the “plus stats,” (OPS+, wRC+, etc.), lower is better.
Of course, without context, those are just numbers. Beautiful numbers, but still just numbers nonetheless. To truly understand how legendary Pedro’s season was, we need to compare it to a number of other storied pitching performances and see how they compare.
Let’s start in Pedro’s own era. Martinez certainly wasn’t alone in pitching greatness, as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson – all easy first-ballot Hall of Famers – often rivaled him for the Cy Young award. Johnson’s total of six sub-60 ERA- seasons and two sub-50 FIP- seasons are impressive, but don’t compare to Pedro’s ’99-’01. Clemens never posted a FIP- below 50 or an ERA- below 45 (a number he achieved twice, ’97 and ’05). Maddux may have had a chance to best Pedro’s 2000 ERA- of 35 in either 1994 or 1995, both strike-shortened seasons in which Maddux posted a 37 and 39 ERA- respectively. However, Maddux never struck out enough batters to approach Pedro’s FIP- marks, never bettering a 53 in 1994.
Although the whole careers of the above pitchers compare very well to Pedro’s, at least by ERA- and FIP-, their peaks come up short. With that in mind, let’s look back into the annals of baseball history at some of the more legendary pitching seasons of all time.
As far as pitchers without longevity but fantastic peaks go, it’s hard to top Sandy Koufax. Koufax put up four of the best consecutive years in MLB history from 1963 to 1966, compiling at least 7.8 WAR (according to Baseball-Reference) each season. His best years bookend this stretch: 1963 and 1966 both resulted in 10.8 WAR. However, Koufax “only” managed ERA- marks of 62 and 53 and FIP- marks of 62 and 67 respectively. Of course, although Koufax didn’t quite dominate the league like Pedro did, Koufax’s season spanned over 300 innings, while Pedro’s hovered around 200, another difference in the two eras.
Finally, here’s a look at some of the best individual pitching seasons of all time.
Bob Gibson, 1968: 1.12 ERA, 1.78 FIP, 38 ERA-, 65 FIP-
Steve Carlton, 1972: 1.97 ERA, 2.01 FIP, 55 ERA-, 60 FIP-
Dwight Gooden, 1985: 1.53 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 44 ERA-, 59 FIP-
Walter Johnson, 1913: 1.14 ERA, 1.89 FIP, 39 ERA-, 62 FIP-
Gaylord Perry, 1972: 1.92 ERA, 2.50 FIP, 60 ERA-, 74 FIP-
Bob Feller, 1940: 2.61 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 63 ERA-, 72 FIP-
And just for kicks, a couple of recent ones.
Although with the older pitchers, their performances were coming in many more innings pitched (usually around 100 more, to be specific), nobody was able to outclass the rest of their league in the way that Pedro did from 1999 to 2003. Even matching one of Pedro’s three seasons from 1999 to 2001 is nearly impossible. Honestly, given how fungible pitching is and how ridiculously talented Pedro Martinez was, I would be quite surprised if I see such a tremendous peak again in my lifetime.