Among others, baseball’s Hall of Fame will prepare to welcome Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. For them, there was zero suspense: Hall of Famers don’t get more automatic, and as easy as it is to focus on the fact that neither player was unanimous, the percentage matters less than the ultimate outcome. The voting process is a little bit broken, but it would have to be in complete and utter shambles to deny Martinez or Johnson entry — and they’ll no longer have to appear on any ballot. Two of the very greatest ever have been successfully and swiftly voted into the place intended to recognize the very greatest ever.
Of course, neither pitcher was a borderline candidate. Every so often the game has players who are just exceptional, and when you go into the data, you stumble upon fun facts proving said exceptional-ness. For example, let’s consider starting pitcher strikeout rates from 1999. The top of the list, with a 100-inning minimum:
- Pedro Martinez, 37.5% strikeouts
- Randy Johnson, 33.7%
- Tim Hudson, 22.8%
That’s stupid. That leaderboard is stupid. It doesn’t make sense that pitchers could be so good. Not as starters, and not for as long as they were.
I don’t need to tell you that Pedro ranks in the top 20 all-time in starting-pitcher WAR, or that he ranks in the top-25 in RA9-WAR. I don’t need to tell you that Randy ranks in the top five all-time in starting-pitcher WAR, or that he ranks in the top 10 in RA9-WAR. I don’t need to tell you that Pedro has the lowest starter FIP- ever. And the second-lowest starter ERA- ever. Randy shows up just a little bit worse. Here’s something for you: Between the ages of 25 and 31, Pedro posted a 50 FIP- and a 47 ERA-. The second-best marks between those same ages: 64 and 58. Pedro’s peak was inconceivable for its extremity. Randy’s peak was differently extreme, in that it lasted longer. This is an unnecessary paragraph because nothing has to be argued. There’s no case to be made — literally everyone’s in agreement that Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson were extremely talented and effective major-league pitchers. Why summarize what we already remember?
It’s sexier to just look at moving images.
That’s better. That’s the stuff that allowed Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson to be Hall-of-Fame pitchers. Pedro was known for his location, and Randy was known for being overpowering; the dominance really shows up in the strikeouts. For his career, Pedro’s strikeout rate was 67% higher than the league average. Randy? Seventy-five percent higher.
That’s getting into something I want to explore. What we don’t need are more career summaries. But I want to try a little experiment. It’s easy enough to identify the seasons during which Pedro and Randy were at their best. Pedro, for example, owns the lowest single-season starter ERA- ever. He also owns the lowest single-season starter FIP- ever, and it was a different season than the first. Of the seven all-time-lowest single-season starter FIP- marks, three are owned by Pedro, and three are owned by Randy. You get the point. The thing about this is, eras have changed. Most specifically, strikeouts are way up, relative to where they used to be. So what might peak Pedro Martinez and peak Randy Johnson have done in 2014?
For your convenience, I’ll embed some graphs. Featured: K+ and BB+, which are simply pitcher K% or BB% over the league starter K% or BB% in the same year. I’ve included only starting data, for seasons in which the pitchers threw at least 100 innings as starters, and I’ve arranged the graphs in descending order of K+. Pedro first:
In his best strikeout year — 1999 — Pedro posted a K+ of 2.48. That is, his strikeout rate was 248% the American League starting-pitcher average. Since 1950, that stands as the No. 1 single-season K+. You’ll note, also, that Pedro hardly walked anybody. His success plan was simple: instead of giving up hits and walks, he would just not do that, and he would accomplish that goal by just striking a bunch of people out. In four different seasons — four consecutive seasons, between 1999 – 2002 — Pedro at least doubled the league strikeout rate. His second-lowest career K+ was 1.36.
As for Randy:
In his best strikeout year — 1995 — Randy posted a K+ of 2.33. Since 1950, that stands as the No. 2 single-season K+. Seven times, Randy at least doubled the league strikeout rate. His lowest career K+ was 1.29. In just four of 18 qualifying seasons did Randy finish with a K+ below 1.50, meaning he was almost always at least 50% higher than the mean.
For fun, let’s take some of this information and adjust it for the 2014 MLB environment. Take peak Pedro. In 1999, he finished with a 2.48 K+, and a 0.49 BB+. For the sake of comparison, remember Clayton Kershaw? Remember how good Clayton Kershaw just was? He finished with a 1.64 K+, and a 0.58 BB+. Kershaw struck out 32% of hitters, and he walked just 4.1%. Peak Pedro adjusts to a strikeout rate of 48%, with a walk rate of 3.5%. That yields an adjusted K-BB% of 44.5%. Last year’s league-best K-BB% belonged to Aroldis Chapman, at 40.6%. Adjusted Pedro beats that. He would’ve finished with baseball’s second-highest strikeout rate, but he also would’ve had Sean Doolittle’s walk rate.
In that insane 1999 season, Pedro wound up with a 28 FIP-. This is easier to consider, because it doesn’t require any era adjustments. Last season, Chapman had a 23 FIP-, and Wade Davis had a 32 FIP-. Pedro in 1999 was essentially a starting version of last year’s Aroldis Chapman or Wade Davis. We’re all wired to better remember recent history. Pedro hasn’t been at his peak for a while. This is what his peak was. He was the best reliever in baseball, except as a starting pitcher.
In three different years, all in a row, Pedro adjusts to a strikeout rate north of 40%. In those same years, he also adjusts to a K-BB% of at least 40%. I noted before that, over seven years in a row as a starter, Pedro posted a 50 FIP-. Last year Craig Kimbrel had a 50 FIP-. Pedro then, in a sense, was a starting version of Craig Kimbrel for seven years. That’s Peak Pedro Martinez, translated into the modern era.
I almost feel bad for covering Pedro first, because it’s hard for anyone to compare. Randy Johnson didn’t achieve Pedro’s highest of highs. But he did pitch more, and he was excellent for longer. Randy had those seven years where he at least doubled the league strikeout rate. Another three times, he almost doubled it. Let’s work with Randy’s 1995 season. We’re not even considering his playoffs. That year, he finished with a 2.33 K+, and a 0.82 BB+. Peak Randy adjusts to a strikeout rate of 45%, with a walk rate of 5.9%. That yields an adjusted K-BB% of 39.1%. That puts Randy, somewhat appropriately, in Chapman’s company. Aroldis Chapman, now, is our best approximation of Randy Johnson, then. Except that Chapman throws one inning at a time. Randy averaged more than seven innings a game.
In that 1995 season, Randy wound up with a 45 FIP-. Last season, that would’ve put him right in between Dellin Betances and Sean Doolittle. Clayton Kershaw registered as the best starter, at 51. Randy Johnson had three years that were better than that, and another two that weren’t much worse. Randy Johnson’s 10th-best FIP- as a starting pitcher was 70. His 10th-best ERA- was 74. Yu Darvish just finished at 71 and 76, respectively.
Just to round it out: again, last year Kershaw led big-league starters with a 1.64 K+. Randy Johnson had 12 starting seasons better than that, strictly in terms of strikeouts. That makes a dozen seasons that would’ve translated to a 2014 strikeout rate of at least 35%. Randy’s lowest translated strikeout rate is 24.9%, based on his 2006 with the Yankees. Last season, Jon Lester had a strikeout rate of exactly 24.9%. That was Randy Johnson at his least-whiffy.
But I intended here to write about peaks. Randy Johnson’s worst translated strikeout rate doesn’t represent his peak. At his peak, he was on the level of peak Clayton Kershaw, and sometimes a little bit better. His strikeouts were vaguely Chapman-esque, relatively speaking. As for Pedro Martinez? Randy topped out with a 45 FIP-. Pedro had two marks significantly lower than that, and another time he finished at 46. Translating Pedro’s 1999 to the season that just happened, he might’ve struck out almost half the batters he faced. Also, he hardly would’ve walked hardly anyone. In 2000 and 2001, Pedro was hardly any worse. In other surrounding years, he was hardly any worse.
The simplest way to understand this is, when they were at their best, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson pitched like elite-level relievers, except for several innings at a time. Six, seven, eight, nine innings at a time. Think back to how it felt to watch the Royals bullpen go to work in the playoffs. Now imagine that bullpen pitching almost a whole game. That’s why, in 1999, when Pedro Martinez started, the Red Sox went 24-5. That’s why, in 1995, when Randy Johnson started, the Mariners went 27-3. Over Pedro’s best seven years, teams went 136-63 in his starts, winning 68% of the time. They won 52% of the time otherwise. As for Randy, in his starts, teams won 73% of the time between 1995 and 2002. They won 52% of the time otherwise.
You’ll notice none of those numbers are 100%. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed win, no matter who you have taking the mound. But a win has seldom been more likely than it was with peak Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson. Not only is that a good way to make the Hall of Fame — that’s a good way to make the Hall of Fame without any sort of argument.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.