Long-term, big-money contracts, particularly for pitchers, almost always become a speedy recipe for disaster. But as he did with most conventional wisdom about his career, Pedro Martinez defied that norm.
When the Red Sox traded for the Expos righthander following his first Cy Young season as a 25-year-old in 1997, they immediately locked him up under then-GM Dan Duquette for arguably the greatest pitching prime in history. The landmark deal was for six years and $75 million with an option for 2004 that ended up bumping the value of the deal to $90 million for seven seasons.
They did not regret it.
“Dan knew what he had in Pedro. He saw him day-in, day-out when he was the GM in Montreal. When he was here, he knew Pedro was the kind of guy who could bring a World Series and you could build a team around. And he did it,” Fern Cuza, Martinez’s longtime agent, recalled at Fenway Park on Tuesday following the press conference in which his client discussed his first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame. “He took a huge risk, got a lot of criticism for doing that contract. He took a lot of crap, but think back, Pedro lived up to that contract. He really did.”
Indeed, one can make a compelling case that Martinez was worth vastly more to the Red Sox than that figure. His seven-year run was historic, as he posted a 117-37 record with a 2.52 ERA while winning two Cy Young awards (1999, 2000) and delivering a third Cy-worthy campaign in 2002, when he finished as the runner-up to Barry Zito.
A $75 million guarantee and average annual salary (AAV) of $12.5 million were unprecedented for a pitcher in the winter of 1997, destroying the previous standard set in the middle of the ’97 season by Greg Maddux, who signed a five-year, $57.5 million extension ($11.5 million AAV) to stay with the Braves and forgo free agency.
Martinez moved the needle for the highest AAV in baseball history by 9 percent, while elevating the largest guarantee for a pitcher by just over 30 percent.
“Look back at when he signed his first contract with Boston. He broke the entire pitchers market at that time,” said Cuza. “Pedro broke the entire barrier. He nearly doubled it. And he actually opened it up for guys like Kevin Brown [who signed a seven-year, $105 million deal after the 1998 season]. He opened up the market for pitchers on long-term deals. He set the market at the highest, highest possible level.”
Of course, $90 million for Martinez’s age 26-32 seasons now seems quaint by comparison with the sort of deals being handed out today.
“You mean he’d do better [now] than what I gave him?” Duquette mused before erupting in laughter.
Players who have received deals of at least $75 million in recent years include the likes of B.J. Upton and C.J. Wilson while falling a bit short of the commitments to Russell Martin and Brian McCann; $90 million has been enough to secure five years of Hunter Pence while falling just short of the necessary commitment to land Pablo Sandoval.
So, yes, Martinez would do better than a $75 million guarantee with $90 million in potential earnings now. But by how much? To whom would he compare?
“Where would you see [comparable players for the purposes of determining a salary]? Cy Young?” mused former Expos GM Jim Beattie, the man who traded Martinez to the Red Sox in ’97.
It is intriguing to imagine, in an era of rapidly escalating revenues, what kind of contract Martinez might receive in baseball’s current economic environment, which has led to recent landmark deals for pitcher Clayton Kershaw (seven years, $215 million) and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million).
To do so, and to establish those elusive comps, it’s necessary to recall Martinez’s career prior to his arrival in Boston.
Is there any actual record of Martinez’s career in Montreal? He delivered greatness in obscurity for the Expos, and so it is necessary to examine the first act of his career, which represented a virtuoso performance in front of a nearly empty theater.
Martinez’ first four full big league seasons (one of which was spent in the bullpen with the Dodgers before Duquette traded for him after the 1993 season) demonstrated a pitcher of rare but not yet historic skill. Between the ages of 21-24, he forged a 48-30 record and 3.41 ERA with 8.9 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine innings. His ERA+ (ERA relative to the league average, adjusted for the park, where 100 represents a league average pitcher and a higher number represents greater dominance) was 124 through those years – putting him in the conversation as an All-Star, but not yet as an elite pitcher.
And then, 1997 happened. At 25, Martinez authored a season that could have been described fairly as one of the best few dozen in big league history. Amidst the juiced offensive boom of the late-1990s, Martinez posted a Deadball Era relic that included:
■ A 1.90 ERA, at a time when the National League as a whole forged a 4.20 ERA;
■ An average of nearly 8 innings a start;
■ An ERA+ of 219 (the 14th best of all time through that season), which would have translated in 2014 to a 1.67 ERA in the National League in 2014;
■ And 9.0 Wins Above Replacement (as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com), the seventh-best mark of all time to that point. (In the last 17 years, that bar has been passed an additional six times – twice by Martinez, three times by fellow 2015 Hall elect Randy Johnson and once by Zack Greinke.)
For his career to that point, Martinez had placed himself in fairly rare historic company. Thanks to his solid body of work through 1996 and his masterful 1997 campaign, he had a career ERA+ at the time of his trade to the Red Sox of 140 (meaning 40 percent better than league average), making him one of 10 pitchers in history at that point to occupy such a pinnacle through his age 25 season (min. 750 innings), with others on that list including Hall of Famers such as Walter Johnson, Hal Newhouser, and Tom Seaver.
Would Martinez, through that stage of his career, have been in line to surpass Kershaw’s contract (seven years, $215 million, $30.7 million AAV) through an extension? That is debatable.
Martinez had one Cy Young in his pocket and an otherwise strong but not great track record as he stood one year shy of free agency. Kershaw had two Cys bookending a second-place finish.
Moreover, Kershaw represents the ace prototype, a sturdy 6-foot-3, 225-pound ox. Martinez might not have surpassed six feet in spikes, and his build was unassuming enough to create questions (or at least offer grounds for contractual posturing) about his durability, even though he cleared 240 innings in the 1997 season and there reasons to believe that he could defy his diminutive stature.
“Someone’s always going to say, ‘You know, he’s so small…’ And he’d say he’d pitch for 10 more years. Who knows?” said Beattie. “[But] he had such great mechanics. Look at his mechanics against Kershaw’s.”
Still, there’s a chance that a time-traveling 25-year-old Martinez could have matched or even exceeded Kershaw’s deal if he had access to the current market. His 1997 season was more dominating than any one of Kershaw’s 2011-13 seasons, evidence of a pitcher coming into his own whose demonstrated ceiling exceeded that of any other pitcher in the game.
At that time, Martinez also had a broader array of pitches than Kershaw – a 95-97 mph fastball, one of the best changeups in the history of the game, a swing-and-miss curveball and, when he felt mischievous, a wicked slider.
“His stuff was better than anybody I see today. He had four-plus pitches that he could throw,” said Beattie. “If he was coming out of Montreal [now], he’s got to be up there with whatever Kershaw, [Max] Scherzer, [Jon] Lester and those guys – he’s going to be looking at some sort of big, long contract.”
Finding a comparable performer for Martinez – someone who had enjoyed some success but then a singular breakthrough in his mid-20s, shortly before free agency – is a challenge. The closest such example is Greg Maddux, who performed to a career 108 ERA+ through his age 25 season before harnessing his skills with a 20-11 record, 2.18 ERA and Cy Young Award as a 26-year-old with the Cubs in 1992, right before entering free agency.
Maddux left a potentially record-setting five-year, $34 million offer on the table from the Yankees (which would have exceeded the highest AAV ever for a pitcher by about 10 percent) to sign a five-year, $28 million deal with the Braves. But if Martinez, based on his 1997 peak, followed such a course, then he could have been in line for an AAV of roughly $33 million or $34 million, a mark that one agent who didn’t represent Martinez found reasonable.
“Pedro in his prime years was actually better than anyone today ... by a lot,” the agent wrote in an email. “In today’s climate, he most definitely would have been a six- to seven-year guy at $30 million to $35 million per [season] as an extension candidate. To finish the deal at age 32 would have left the possibility open to another substantial deal.”
If that projection held, then Martinez would have been in line for a six- or seven-year deal for somewhere between $180 million and $245 million – creating a very real likelihood that he would have tripled the record-setting $75 million guarantee he received from the Red Sox and Duquette in 1997.
And even at that huge sum, Martinez likely would have represented a bargain. Most models peg the value of one win above a replacement level pitcher (1 WAR) anywhere from $5 million to $7 million. During his seven years with the Red Sox, Martinez registered 53.8 Wins Above Replacement, meaning that his on-field value using that $5 million to $7 million range would have been anywhere between $269 million to a staggering (yet believable) $376 million.
Yet a case can be made that his impact went beyond that figure.
Consider: The Red Sox were valued as a $230 million franchise by Forbes estimates based on 1997 revenues and expenses. By the time the franchise was sold following the 2001 season, four years later, its estimated value by Forbes had nearly doubled to $426 million.
It would be hard to dismiss Martinez’s impact in restoring the Red Sox as one of the jewel franchises, a perennial contender with championship aspirations who infused unmatched electricity into the franchise following some largely nondescript years in the early- and mid-1990s.
“He earned every penny of it,” said Duquette, now the GM of the Orioles. “That franchise has never been the same since he signed there.”
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