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One game, one pitcher … who do you choose?

Mar 27, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT

Pedro Martinez AP

Somebody asked me this question on Twitter: If I could have any pitcher from any time pitch one game (say a seventh game of the World Series or the ubiquitous “pitching for your soul” scenario”) who would I choose?

I immediately typed: Pedro. 1999.

This is always my fallback position. Back in the Trivial Pursuit days, my mother would guess “Babe Ruth” on pretty much every sports question. She has actually become much more knowledgeable about sports, in part because of this mess of a blog, but back then it was always “Babe Ruth,” even on, you know, billiards or horse racing questions.

And that’s how I am with Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season. Any baseball pitching question can be answered, somehow, by: Pedro, 1999. I would actually like to answer ALL questions that way. When I go fill up gas, and the little pump screen asks: “Cash or Credit” I’d love to be able to type in: Pedro, 1999.

Anyway, the choice lit up the Twitter lines with the expected objections — what about Bob Gibson in ’68 or Randy Johnson in 2001 or Walter Johnson in 1913 or Sandy Koufax in 1965.* You could make an argument for those and a couple dozen more — Carlton in ’72, Gooden in ’85, Grove in ’31, Hershiser in ’88, Mathewson in ’08, on and on.

*Am I the only one who gets kind of annoyed when people put some sort of finality stamp at the end of their opinions? You know what I mean by finality stamp — someone will not just say “Sandy Koufax in 1965 was quite sprightly.” No, they will say something like “Koufax. 1965. End of story.” Or: “Gibson. 1968. The end.” Or: “Carlton. 1972. Period.” Or: “Old Hoss. 1884. Goodbye.”

What are these emphatic termination words supposed to achieve? I mean YOU put those words there, right? I didn’t miss some mediator coming in and ending declaring your viewpoint supreme, did I? It’s not like you pulled Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to confirm your opinion … YOU confirmed your opinion. How does that mean anything? Is this like the Internet equivalent of taking off your shoe and clomping it on the table like a gavel? Stop doing that. It’s stupid. Period. End of story. Goodbye.

Anyway there was one alternative to Pedro 1999 suggestion that I found interesting for a completely different reason.

The suggestion: Pedro in 2000.

This post is not actually about Pedro Martinez, not specifically, but about WAR. As I assume everyone reading this blog knows, there are two prominent variations of the statistic “Wins Above Replacement.” There is Baseball Reference WAR. And there is Fangraphs WAR. Best I can tell when it comes to everyday players, the two systems are fairly similar — any real variations on players’ totals probably comes down to how defense was calculated.

But the two calculate pitcher’s WAR differently and this might be seen mostly clearly in Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Martinez made the same number of starts and threw roughly the same number of innings both innings, which is helpful comparison purposes. In 1999, Martinez threw 213.3 innings. In 2000, he threw 217 innings.

The other numbers, though, are quite different:

1999: 19-7, 2.07 ERA, 5 complete games, 1 shutout, 160 hits, 313 Ks, 37 walks, 9 homers.
2000: 23-4, 1.74 ERA, 7 complete games, 4 shutouts, 128 hits, 285 Ks, 32 walks, 17 homers.

OK, before diving in, here is what Baseball Reference WAR says:

1999: 9.7 WAR
2000: 11.7 WAR

So Baseball Reference has Pedro’s 2000 season worth two extra wins.

Here’s what Fangraphs WAR says:

1999: 11.9 WAR
2000: 9.9 WAR

And it’s almost precisely reversed — Fangraphs has Pedro’s 1999 season worth two extra wins.

Obviously both seasons are all variations of awesome and we’re just picking between Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And you probably know exactly why the two Pedro Seasons are calculated differently but let’s go step-by-step here.

Baseball Reference WAR values the 2000 season more because Pedro Martinez gave up fewer runs and fewer hits. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s at the crux of things. Martinez’s ERA+ in 2000 was 291, which is the record for a season. In 1999 his ERA+ was merely an otherworldly 243.

So that’s at the heart of Baseball Reference’s process — Pedro Martinez gave up 11 fewer runs in 2000 (largely because the league hit an almost unbelievable .167 against him, 38 points less than the year before) and that meant it was a clearly better season.

Fangraphs WAR, meanwhile, doesn’t deal with ERA. It deals with the three things that Fangraphs believes a pitcher can control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. In 1999, Martinez struck out an obscene 13.2 batters per nine inning (just behind Randy Johnson’s 2001 record) and he hardly walked anybody and, perhaps most overlooked, he gave up NINE HOME RUNS all season. Both of these seasons were smack in the middle of the Selig Era, when home runs flew like confetti, and to give up nine homers all year …

Well, let’s look at the top five in the AL that year in homers per nine innings:

1. Pedro, .380
2. Mike Mussina, .708
3. Freddy Garcia, .805
4. Omar Olivares, .831
5. Jamie Moyer, .908

That doesn’t look very close, does it?

Anyway, of the three things at the heart of the Fangraphs process he did two of them (strikeouts, home runs allowed) better in 1999 and the third (walks) was more or less a wash. So that’s why Fangraphs thinks 1999 was a clearly better season.

What makes this cool, though, is that it’s a great way to decide exactly which kind WAR speaks loudest to you. Which season do YOU THINK is better? If you think the 2000 season was better, then you are probably a Baseball Reference person. If you think 1999 — you’re Fangraphs.

I asked Tom Tango what he thinks and, as usual, he came up with an interesting way of looking at things. Looking at it another way, the question in play is this: How much control do you think a pitcher has on balls hit in play — yes, we’re crossing back to the famous BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).

If you think a pitcher has COMPLETE CONTROL over balls in play then you will naturally think that Pedro was a better pitcher in 2000 when his ERA and hits allowed were much lower. The BABIP numbers could not be more stark.

– In 1999, despite his dominance, Pedro allowed a .325 batting average on balls in play — which was actually the FIFTH HIGHEST in the AL.

– In 2000, Pedro allowed a .237 BABP — which was the LOWEST in the AL.

So, if you believe a pitcher has complete control over balls put in play then you will believe that Pedro Martinez learned a whole lot between the end of the 1999 season and the beginning of 2000.*

*I believe it is this Pedro gap, by the way, that helped inspire Voros McCracken to come up his theory about pitchers not having control of balls hit in play.

OK, but if you think a pitcher has ZERO CONTROL over balls in play, then you will definitely believe that Pedro was a better pitcher in 1999 and was just a whole luckier in 2000 (or had a team that played much better and smarter defense, which is in a way the same thing for a pitcher).

What Tango says — and I concur — is that it’s likely neither absolute is true. It’s likely that pitchers do not have complete control on balls hit in play, and it’s likely that pitchers are not entirely powerless.

“Since reality is somewhere between the two … we get into our conundrum: must we take a 0/100 approach to everything we track?” Tango asks. “Or, can we start to give partial credit? … No one likes the idea of partial credit, because it implies a level of precision that we can’t possibly know.”

Tango comes down closer to the side that a pitcher has limited control over balls in play. I again agree. I think there will still be studies and thought experiments that get us closer to that relationship between pitching and defense, but right now I lean just a touch more to the Fangraphs side. I think Pedro pitched a little bit better in 1999 than he was in 2000. That 313-37 strikeout to walk ratio is just absurd. Those nine home runs allowed, wow. I don’t think he was a full two wins better. But one game — we’re talking one game — I’m taking that Pedro Martinez in the middle of the Selig Era who didn’t let the ball in play much, who always kept it in the ballpark and who was good for 13 outs a game on his own.

And Tango? Well he says Baseball Reference and Fangraphs give us the extremes … and the answer, almost certainly, lies in the middle. And this is why Tango, when looking at Baseball Reference WAR, at Fangraphs WAR will split the difference.

This would make Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 seasons almost EXACTLY EVEN.

Which, if you think about it, is a good way to end this. Period.

110 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. gibbyfan - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    Bob Gibson–1968

    • alangyo - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:53 PM

      DONE

    • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:58 PM

      Lots of others who deserve consideration, but in the end there is only one answer, #45 from Omaha, and former Globetrotter, Bullet Bob.

      • rje49 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:38 PM

        Again, this is about one game. Like Game 7 of the WORLD SERIES, right? Gibson pitched game 7 in ’68 – and lost!

      • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 8:25 PM

        This could be the cherry picking of all time.

      • gibbyfan - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:48 PM

        He also set a couple of major records that year like all time best ERA of 1.12 and struck out 17 Tigers in the first game of the series……….yea he lost game 7 thanks in large part to a misplayed ball by by Curt Flood and by the way that was only after he had won 7 striaght WS games

    • Jeremy T - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:03 PM

      Hmm, he kept runs off the board that year like nobody before him or since, but comparing the offense of the 60’s with the offense of the 90’s is almost two different, sports, no?

      • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:35 PM

        It is a consideration, but there is also a major difference in stats. I am a big fan of Joe’s but there is a glaring error in this article. The question was, one game and then proceeds to back up his choice by seasons.

        It would seem to me that a more decisive analysis could be done, by comparing “Big” games, of the best of the best. I know it is tough to determine the definition of “big games” but that was the question, not who had the best seasons, or who would you rather have, or who was the best overall.

      • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:18 PM

        Yep, back in the 60’s, the best athletes all chose Baseball.

    • wpjohnson - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:28 PM

      Absolutely. These “experts” who don’t seem to know that baseball existed prior to 1990 are humorous. My second choice would likely be Sandy Koufax.

    • rje49 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:35 PM

      Oh, you mean when he lost game 7 of the WS to the Tigers?

  2. Bar None - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:46 PM

    Charlie Hough – any time.

  3. gothapotamus90210 - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:49 PM

    Randy Johnson, 2001

  4. penguins87and71 - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:53 PM

    Tough one, I would go with Clayton Kershaw. I know it’s a little modern.

  5. stoutfiles - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    Babe Ruth, when he was a pitcher. Book it.

    • davidpom50 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:00 PM

      If we”re playing under current NL rules… this is obvious. Really good pitcher AND the best hitter in the history of the game.

  6. okwhitefalcon - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    Gibson.

  7. alavanj - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    1997 Pedro: 1.90 ERA .93 WHIP 241 1/3 Innings Pitched 13 Complete Games 4 Shutouts 158 Hits 305 Strikeouts, 67 Walks 16 homers

    • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:44 PM

      1968 Bob: 1.12 ERA .85 WHIP, 304.2 IP, 28 CGs, 13 shutouts, 268 K’s, 62 BB’s, and 11 HRs allowed.

      He was also a lifetime .206 hitter, with 24 HRs, and 13 steals.

      He also won the GG in 1968 one of his 9.

      • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:15 PM

        Or if need be, perhaps guys like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford or Mel Stottlemyre.

        And if that doesn’t work, how about Carl Yastremski, Tony Conigliaro, or Jim Lonborg.

        Or perhaps just about any Tiger.

  8. kcroyal - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:00 PM

    Bruce Chen. Next question.

    • js20011041 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:03 PM

      Is this what Stockholm Syndrome looks like?

      • kcroyal - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:14 PM

        He really loves me though. You just don’t understand.

  9. 7mantel - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:01 PM

    Tom Seaver

  10. js20011041 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    I know it’s not technically part of the question, but don’t you kind of have to consider what kind of bullpen you have? As much as I love Pedro, and he was awesome in his time, he wasn’t going to give you a complete game. If I’ve got a crap bullpen, I can’t take Pedro for one game. I just can’t. I’ve got to go with someone who’s going to be able to go 9. Gibson or maybe Clemens.

    • Jeremy T - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:08 PM

      Pedro did have 12 complete games in those two seasons. It’s not at the level of some of the guys from the generation before him, but Pedro certainly wasn’t throwing 5 or 6 innings and hitting the showers every start. He actually averaged over 7 innings per start in both of those years.

      • js20011041 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:15 PM

        His complete games tended to occur when he was efficient and limited his pitch total. Pedro was notorious for losing effectiveness past the 100 pitch mark. That’s great if he’s facing a team that isn’t patient or his control is on and he’s able to limit his pitches. I still stand by my statement. If I’ve got a bad bullpen, I’d rather have the guy who can give me nine. If I’ve got a decent bullpen however, I’m taking Pedro every time. I don’t have more confidence in anyone else to give me 7 shutout innings than Pedro in his prime. He was spectacular to watch.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:32 PM

        9/10/99 Bos @ NYY

        9IP – 1ER, 1 HR, 1H, 0BB, 17K

        Most absurd pitching performance I’ve ever seen

        http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA199909100.shtml

      • sportsfan18 - Mar 28, 2014 at 2:58 PM

        Church… that was a great game… very good choice… so many, love the great performances.

        Greg Maddux when he threw a COMPLETE game against the Cubs and he ONLY threw 76 pitches.

        It was 9 innings too (not an 8 inning game if he was at home and his team was ahead).

        Of the 76 pitches he threw, 63 were strikes…

        He faced 31 batters and to get 27 outs, he only averaged 2.45 pitches to each of the 31 hitters he faced that game…

    • American of African Descent - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:10 PM

      You’ve got to adjust for the era, though. Pedro threw complete games in an era when pitchers generally didn’t go nine innings. In Gibson’s and Seaver’s day, on the other hand, pitchers finished what they started almost all of the time.

      Now I’d take Gibson on general principle—if they change the rules of the game for you, and they lowered the mound after Hoot’s 1968 season, you can make a pretty good argument that you’re the best of all time. But I wouldn’t say “don’t pick Pedro” because he can’t give you nine innings.

      • js20011041 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:20 PM

        I’m not choosing based solely on who can go nine innings. Remember, we’re talking about the best pitchers to ever play the game. I’m not picking Freddy Garcia over Pedro. We’re talking about thin margins. Pedro was awesome, but was he so awesome that he blows Gibson, Clemens, Koufax, or Johnson out of the water?

      • American of African Descent - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:27 PM

        Yes, Pedro blows Clemens out of the water.

  11. Jeremy T - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    By Fangraphs WAR, Steve Carlton in 1972 (12.1 fWAR) was the only pitcher outside the 1800’s to top ’99 Pedro. Baseball Reference also has him at exactly 12.1. Fangraphs has what it calls RA9-WAR, which calculates based on runs allowed instead of the hits, walks, and home runs, and it likes him even more, at a whopping 13.2!

    The thing is, that’s for a full season, and Carlton threw 346.1 innings that year. Tough to compare. On a rate basis, Pedro really is on another planet, it seems like.

  12. Caught Looking - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    Vote for Pedro.

    Plus, Pedro “threw roughly the same number of innings both innings”. How many other pitchers can do that?

  13. stlouis1baseball - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    1) Bob Gibson – 1968
    2) Dizzy Dean – At any point in his career
    3) Chris Carpenter – 2005
    4) Adam Wainwright – 2006
    5) Joaqin Andujar – 1982
    5-A) John Tudor – 1985

    • gothapotamus90210 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:10 PM

      Wainwright was a closer in ’06 …

      • stlouis1baseball - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:13 PM

        Yes he was. And a very solid closer at that. Lol!

    • cohnjusack - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:19 PM

      John Tudor had a 1.93 Era and 10 shutouts in a year that would have been remembered as one of the best of the 80s had it not been the same year Doc Gooden went nuts. How the hell is he 5th on even a Cardinals only list ?

      • stlouis1baseball - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:25 PM

        Yeah…he was lights out. Sorry…it should have went like this…

        1) Bob Gibson – 1968
        2) Dizzy Dean – At any point in his career
        3) Chris Carpenter – 2005
        4) Adam Wainwright – 2006
        5) John Tudor – 1985
        5-A) Joaqin Andujar – 1982

        Cause’ I am damn sure not going to put him in front of any of the other guys on the list.
        It’s my list Cusack. Remember that…MY. LIST. Lol!
        But wow. With the thumbs down I see we have several people taking themselves very seriously today.

      • sandpiperair - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:06 PM

        If we’re talking big games, then there is no game bigger than game 7 of the World Series. Tudor and Andujar both pitched in game 7 in ’85– and got shelled.

      • cohnjusack - Mar 27, 2014 at 10:34 PM

        If we’re talking big games, you should know better than to buy into the myth of “big game pitchers” and that, in an sampling of starts, everyone has had great and bad ones. Choosing a pitcher based on a couple of good or bad starts is downright foolish.

    • alavanj - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:00 PM

      QUIET STLOUI1SBASEBALL! As you can tell I’m still bitter about that. Was just a completely unhitable

  14. nothanksimdriving123 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:05 PM

    My opinion. Period. End of story. The end. Although I am having trouble deciding between Koufax, Johnson, Pedro, and a few other reasonable choices. But I have eliminated Bert Campaneris though, despite his success that time he pitched in a game.

  15. unlost1 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:06 PM

    Satchel Paige was better than Roger Clemens on roids. But have any of you heard of Sid Finch?
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1119283/

    • alavanj - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:10 PM

      If only he were real…

      • unlost1 - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:35 AM

        Happy early April Fools

  16. American of African Descent - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    I’ve got to win one game?

    Jack Morris, 1991.

    Isn’t it obvious?

    • superpriebe - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:22 PM

      Wow, I never would have guessed that Ken Gurnick was a HardballTalk reader….

  17. sdelmonte - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    My first thought was Koufax. But frankly, I love all of this.

    That said, the best game I ever saw pitched was Jack Morris in 1991. You know which game. Give me that guy, at that moment, and I will be happy. Not the career Morris, the one who isn’t a Hall of Famer. Just Morris when it was all riding on him and he was amazing.

    Still, Pedro was at a level of sustained awesome like nothing else in my lifetime. What Morris did once Pedro did all the time.

    • rje49 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:05 PM

      Don’t forget, if Lonnie Smith didn’t get faked out and stop at 3rd on Pendleton’s double in the 8th, Morris would have lost, 1-0, and nobody would remember what a “great game” he pitched. Baseball’s a team game.

    • jwbiii - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:45 PM

      Absolutely. I know which game.

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN199110080.shtml

  18. cktai - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:20 PM

    What does VORP say? (I am guessing 2000)

  19. sethcohenplayedsomeball - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    Nolan Ryan 1973 at twilight in Anaheim as California scheduled for many of his starts in the 70s. Good luck opposition; a good night is an 0fer and avoiding an HBP! Great question btw!: )

  20. toodrunktotastethischicken - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:32 PM

    Roy Halladay. 2010.
    Just because I was at the NLDS no hitter and I get giddy just thinking about it.

  21. tfbuckfutter - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:36 PM

    What a stupid question. This is unbelievably easy. If I had to choose one pitcher and one game, I choose Don Larsen against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series.

    *Didn’t RTFA

    • spudchukar - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:22 PM

      RTFA=Ridiculous Try For Accuracy.

      • infieldhit - Mar 28, 2014 at 3:16 AM

        So he didn’t make a ridiculous try for accuracy?

      • spudchukar - Mar 28, 2014 at 9:19 AM

        What?

  22. larrytsg - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:37 PM

    Hmmmm, lots of love for power pitchers, Gibson, Pedro, Randy Johnson, etc, but I think if I needed a guy to pitch one game, it would be Greg Maddux 1994 or 1995. Maybe he’s not a WAR monster(8.3 and 9.5, respectively), but vintage Maddux from that era was almost unhittable. Subtle, sly, not sexy in the least, but he’s the ONE I want.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:34 PM

      Does the extra wide home plate come with him? I kid, I kid….

    • American of African Descent - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:43 PM

      Except that I don’t recall Maddux ever elevating his game when it was all on the line.

  23. Bar None - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:37 PM

    Ricky Vaughn – 1989.

  24. stabonerichard - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:39 PM

    One more vote for Petey here.

    It’s a shame he didn’t get more opportunities to pitch in the postseason while he was at his best. From age 25-30 (’97-’02), he had just four postseason appearances…

    ’98 ALDS – Pedro won Game 1, before the Tribe swept the next three games to win the series.

    ’99 ALDS – Another Boston vs. Cleveland matchup, Pedro tossed 4 scoreless innings to help Boston win the opener, but had to be lifted early due to injury (a balky back, IIRC?). Fast forward to the deciding Game 5, Pedro was brought on for emergency relief to start the 4th inning, in a wild game that Cleveland led 8-7 thru 3 innings. Against that Tribe offense that had scored over 1,000 runs during the ’99 regular season & was lighting up the scoreboard early in Game 5, Pedro toyed with them over 6 hitless innings (running his tally to 10 scoreless innings for the series) to close out the game & series, allowing Boston to advance to face the Yankees.

    ’99 ALCS – After his heroic efforts closing out the previous series, Pedro wasn’t available to pitch until Game 3 against the Yanks. He completely dominated, striking out 12 Yankee batters over 7 shutout innings. It would be the playoff defeat for the ’99 Yanks as they stampeded to the 2nd of their three consecutive titles.

    Pedro of course pitched beyond that, and everyone remembers the Grady Little/Aaron bleepin Boone game, but during his peak Pedro’s opportunity to dominate was mostly limited to the regular season.

    • stabonerichard - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:42 PM

      ^ It would be the *only playoff defeat for the ’99 Yanks.

      • stabonerichard - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:50 PM

        Or to boil it down, ’99 Pedro did this in the 1999 playoffs:

        Facing a Cleveland offense that scored over 1,000 runs in the regular season, and a Yankee team that roared thru the ’99 postseason undefeated in games not started by Pedro…

        17 innings, 0 runs, 5 hits, 23 Ks

      • alavanj - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:12 PM

        Wasn’t there something about him only being able to use his change-up and curveball for that start as well?

      • clemente2 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:34 PM

        This.

  25. William Riggin - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:40 PM

    Doc Gooden 1985….anyone?

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