Pedro Martinez was a genius with a baseball in his right hand. One of the most dominant pitchers of all time, he didn’t just overpower hitters. He outsmarted them. When he was on top of his game – as he often was – he was almost unhittable. No starting pitcher in history has a better adjusted ERA.
Martinez might be best described as a thinking man’s power pitcher. His pure stuff alone would have made him a star. His ability to read hitters and maximize his talent put him on a whole new level. The Hall of Fame awaits.
Martinez – currently a special assistant for the Red Sox – shared the wisdom of his craft earlier this week at the site of some his greatest glory, Fenway Park.
Martinez on the art and science of pitching: “Pitching is both [art and science] and you have to put them together. You have to study a lot. You have to study the movement of your pitches – the distance your pitches move compared to the swing paths of batters. You have to learn to read bat speed against the speed of a fastball. You can tell a slow bat or a long swing, or a short, quick swing. You counter those things. If a hitter has a slow swing, I don’t want to throw him anything soft. I want to go hard against slow. If he has a quick bat, I probably want to be soft more than I want to be hard. You have to be able to repeat your delivery and be deceiving at the same time.
“You repeat – you try to be consistent – until they start to figure out what you’re doing. If they don’t, that’s great. Just go through your routine and repeat, repeat, repeat. I wish I could have just thrown fastballs, but that wasn’t the case. I went along with the way the hitters and the game was going. I let the game come to me. I executed whatever I had to execute.”
On being a student of the game: “I would say the second half in 1996 is when I [made the transition from thrower to pitcher]. After that I felt I was on top of my craft. I felt like I could do what I wanted to do. I’d have off games sometimes, but everybody does. But most of the time I’d be around where I wanted to be. That’s when I feel I was becoming who I wanted to be as a pitcher.
“So much goes into it. You spend as much time as you can watching the game. You watch what the players do and how they do it. That’s how you become better. You never learn how to play ball on your own. If you follow the ball, the ball should teach you. You see over and over, and you repeat over and over what’s going on with the ball – the ball curves, the ball bounces bad, the ball bounces good, the ball is caught, the ball is thrown, the ball is hit. Everything is around the ball.”
On the importance of feel: “Pitching is feel. Your hand and the ball is a marriage that should never end. The pitcher and the ball should be married forever. Hands, fingers, the ball – they should be married forever. It’s like caressing your wife. It’s touching and getting that feel to know her, alone. It’s the same thing with a baseball.
“I can tell you right away the difference between two balls. If you put them in my hands I’ll tell you this one I like because of this, this one I don’t like because of that. I would throw them back. Unless I felt comfortable with a ball I wanted to throw for a certain pitch, the umpire was going to get it back. If I was planning to throw a curveball, I wanted the seams to be sticking up. Some balls have bigger seams than others. And I didn’t want a dry, slippery ball with a bad rub, or really flat seams for any pitch. I wanted to be on top of what the ball was going to do when I threw it.”
On weather effect: “Sometimes the weather is a factor. If you have a strong wind in front of you and you throw a ball and expect to see it break… if you’re used to seeing it break a foot, and the wind knocks it, it might break only half a foot. You delivered the ball right, but it broke six inches. That’s mother nature.
“Throw a knuckleball in front of wind. Ask R.A. Dickey or Tim Wakefield, or Charlie Hough. They’ll tell you what happens to a knuckleball with wind in front of them. Same with a changeup, because the rotation on a changeup is backwards. Sometimes it’s in circles going away from the hitter. If the wind is coming from the north – from your right – it might have a certain impact on the rotation of the ball.
“[Exact[ movement you never know. Gravity is a factor. That’s why everything is together. Science. Everything we’ve talked about is part of it. Mother nature. I liked hot, humid, sticky days to pitch. I hated windy days. Looking back, I think in 40 percent of my games it rained it before, during, or after the game. It was always something with the rain for me.”
On commanding the ball: “I didn’t always throw to the mitt. I had different targets I threw to. One was the ear flap on the catcher. I’d use that as guidance for height. I looked for hands; I’d throw right below the hands on certain hitters. For some others I would look knee high, or even lower. Sometimes I’d throw off the black, away by three or four inches. It depended on the hitter and the movement. I knew on a given day how my ball was moving.
“I pitched to my strength with whatever I had that day. The feel was something I woke up with. One day you might wake up with a great breaking pitch. Other days you wake up with a good changeup but not a breaking pitch. Maybe you just wake up with your fastball. I had three pitches I could normally rely on, but they weren’t always all there. On the days they were, it would be a shutout. Maybe it would be a one-hitter, something special.”
On his changeup and his fastball: “I had control over how much my changeup was going to move. I could command it. I’d have to say I tried to throw a strike with it about 50 percent of the time. It depended on the situation. If I was ahead in the count, the strike zone wasn’t an issue. Sometimes I wanted the ball out of the strike zone. But the times the count was 3-2 and I flipped that changeup, I wanted to throw it for a strike. And I would change speeds on it. You can’t always throw the same thing. Would you go to the movies to see the same one all the time?
“My fastball was my best pitch. I was a power pitcher for most of my career. My fastball had a natural tail. I threw four-seams and two-seams, but predominately fours. My four was a power fastball that I could ramp up when I needed to. I could spot it.
“I needed [velocity] when I was younger. I didn’t have it late in my career, but I was mature. I was old. I was wise as far as pitching, so I didn’t have to throw as hard. The equalizer was age.”
On mechanics and arm action: “I changed [my mechanics] over my career. I was always studying and always trying to improve. I looked at a lot of video and not only of myself. I looked at everybody who pitched and made comparisons. I was a patch. I wasn’t gifted with everything I had. I was a patch of everything I learned from so many players.
“My arm action stayed the same until I got older. It got a little slower and my arm angle got a little lower. But it was good enough to pitch. You can change things as you learn. How do you study medicine? As a kid, you have that passion and you study it. How do you become a ballplayer? You practice it. Repetitions, repetitions, repetitions. You keep learning and getting better. I never stopped trying to learn.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.