Baseball by the numbers: Pedro Martinez aces out Sandy Koufax

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Sandy Koufax was a dominant pitcher in his era, but the metrics show Pedro Martinez was even better. | Sun-Times (left), Charles Krupa/AP


For the Sun-Times

There’s no great cosmic significance in Pedro Martinez’s Hall of Fame induction having been Sunday, the day after Cole Hamels became the first pitcher to no-hit the Cubs since Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. There’s more of a coincidence in that online communities have had a great debate for years:

Who was the more dominant pitcher, Koufax in the amazing last five seasons of his career or Martinez during his best stretch?

Older fans usually say Koufax. I sympathize, having been a 13-year-old who agonized, listening on the radio while on a family vacation as Koufax trumped a one-hitter by the Cubs’ Bob Hendley. Younger fans stand behind Martinez.

But what do the numbers say?

Individual-season numbers favor Koufax because he pitched in a four-man rotation and Martinez in a five-man. Martinez’s career high in victories was 23; Koufax had seasons of 25, 26 and 27.

Still, Martinez had a seven-year stretch ending in 2003 that matches up surprisingly well with Koufax’s final five. In his final season with the Expos and first six with the Red Sox, Martinez led his league in ERA five times and won three Cy Young Awards. In Koufax’s last five seasons with the Dodgers, he led the National League in ERA every season, matched Martinez with three Cy Youngs and added a Most Valuable Player award in 1963.

From 1997 to 2003, Martinez made 201 starts and pitched 1,408 innings; Koufax made 176 starts and pitched 1,377 innings from 1962 to 1966. Martinez was 118-36 with a 2.20 ERA and 1,761 strikeouts; Koufax was 111-34 with a 2.07 ERA and 1,444 strikeouts. Martinez had a higher strikeout rate (11.26 per nine innings pitched) than Koufax (9.44).

Those look awfully similar, but let’s look at ERA, where Koufax leads 2.07 to 2.20. Koufax’s streak came in the first five years of Dodger Stadium, while six of Martinez’s seasons were in Fenway Park. Martinez’s park factors, weighting home and road games, were 99.1 in his final season with the Expos, followed by 100.3, 104.1, 102.2, 100.7, 101.2 and 101.4. Koufax’s were 91.5, 94.1, 92.3, 93.1 and 90.8. A park factor of 100 signifies a neutral park, so Koufax’s low-90s were extremely low-run environments.

Martinez pitched in an era that was tougher on pitchers. The average league ERAs were 3.94, 3.29, 3.54, 3.54 and 3.61 during Koufax’s stretch and 4.21, 4.66, 4.87, 4.92, 4.48, 4.47 and 4.53 during Martinez’s.

Martinez’s ERAs were more below the league average in tougher parks to pitch in than Koufax’s. That shows up in ERA+, which adjusts for park and normalizes to league average. With a 100 ERA+ signifying an average pitcher, Koufax’s run was amazing at 143, 159, 186, 160 and 190. But Martinez was at another level at 219, 163, 243, 291, 188, 202 and 211. Koufax never reached 200; Martinez did it five times in seven seasons.

Koufax was special. But as much as it pains the 13-year-old in me to say so, Martinez was even more dominant. Both make the Hall of Fame a better place.

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