During an illustrious career that spanned at least parts of 18 major league seasons, Pedro Martinez pitched in 487 games covering a whisker more than 2,827 innings. Nobody caught him more than Jason Varitek.
And generally speaking, Martinez preferred it that way.
“To be honest, half of my success in the big leagues is because of Jason Varitek,” Martinez said by phone last night from Miami, where he has a home. “Whatever I say will fall short of how I feel about Jason and his career and how he goes about his business.”
Martinez was a member of the Red Sox from 1998-2004, of course, and as we all learned during those years, he can be prone to overstatement from time to time. In this case, much of that comes out of respect. Varitek would be the first to say that Martinez was solely responsible for the success he had throughout a career that should land the pitcher in the Hall of Fame during the summer of 2015, regardless of who was behind the plate at any point in time.
But as Varitek moves one day closer to official retirement, an announcement scheduled for tomorrow at the Red Sox’ spring training facility in Florida, one of the best ways to remember him is, perhaps, as Martinez’ most trusted battery mate. In and of itself, that speaks volumes. Martinez could be among the most temperamental sorts to take the field during his major league career, the kind of talent and competitor who often demanded special treatment -- and sometimes warranted it.
Here’s what people don’t remember: when Martinez came here in 1998, Scott Hatteberg was the starting catcher. During that season, Hatteberg caught 182 of Martinez’ 233.2 innings. A year later, at the start of Martinez’s historic 1999 campaign, Hatteberg started each of Martinez’ first three outings before Varitek entered in the middle innings of a game against the Chicago White Sox.
From that point forward, Hatteberg caught just one more of Martinez’ innings on the season, that coming in a meaningless season finale against Baltimore, when Martinez relieved his older brother, Ramon, in a postseason tune-up. With Varitek behind the plate that year, Martinez went 21-3 with a 1.97 ERA and 284 strikeouts in 192.1 innings, a rate of 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
A battery was born.
“I asked for him in the bullpen [between] starts,” Martinez remembered. “He had a big body -- he was a big target -- and he had good hands. I asked Joe [Kerrigan, then the pitching coach], ‘Why don’t you give me this guy?’ and he said yes. The next time out, I threw a shutout.”
Martinez’s memory, like his pitches, proved accurate: in his first start with Varitek behind the plate in 1999, Martinez pitched 7.2 shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers in an eventual 1-0 win.
Excluding 2001, when both players were injured for a large chunk of the season, Martinez rarely took the mound with anyone else behind the plate. In 2000, the second of Martinez’s two Cy Young Award-winning seasons, Varitek caught 203.1 of Martinez’s 217 innings. In 2002 and 2003, no one other than Varitek caught a single pitch thrown by Pedro. And in 2004, Martinez’s last with the club, Varitek caught 210 of Martinez’s 210 regular-season innings.
All in all, from April 1999 through 2004 -- again, excluding 2001 -- Varitek essentially caught 991.2 of Martinez’s 1,013 innings when both players were available, a whopping 97.9 percent.
Where Varitek especially excelled, Martinez remembered, was in game preparation and “pitch sequencing,” the former of which has been expressed by many who have worked with the catcher, the latter of which Martinez was a stickler for. For all of the physical gifts Martinez possessed on the mound, his mental gifts were routinely evident.
For example: on the night of Aug. 2, 2000, Martinez pitched a complete game in a 5-2 win over the Seattle Mariners. In that game, Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 4. Martinez began each of Rodriguez’s first three at-bats with a called strike -- once on a fastball, once on a curveball, once on a changeup. By the time Rodriguez stepped up the fourth time, Martinez -- and Varitek -- were fairly certain that Rodriguez would be swinging at the first pitch this time, so the tandem opted for curveball that would break away from the batter.
Reaching for the ball after being caught out on his front foot, Rodriguez hit a harmless, high bouncer to the left side and was thrown out easily on the first pitch.
Based on the comments of other Sox pitchers this week, that kind of telepathy was something Varitek shared with many members of the Boston staff, including Curt Schilling, who was intent on calling his own games when he came to the Red Sox in 2004. Before long, Schilling, too, had ceded control to his catcher. That is only further illustration of the trust Varitek had from his pitchers, some of whom were among the best ever to take the mound.
“I think it was his determination to sacrifice himself for the good of us,” Martinez continued, echoing a sentiment that that has been expressed by many in recent days. “He was determined to better for the team than he was for himself. A lot of people take for granted what he did for us.
“For me, if he hit .220, it was like .320. He was worth .100 points to me,” Martinez said. “If I had a 2.00 ERA, it would have been 3.00 without Jason.”
An exaggeration? No doubt.
But then, in many ways, Pedro Martinez always had some flair.