The New York Yankees, a team so desperate for starting pitching depth that even Carlos Silva (shudder) was not too putrid an option, still considered Kevin Millwood a hopeless cause; yet Millwood, as we have just learned, has been offered a minor league contract by the Red Sox. That alone should speak volumes of the MLB-ready starting pitching depth available to the team right now. It's an open question whether John Lackey will regain a semblance of effectiveness when he returns, and an even more ominous question whether Daisuke Matsuzaka will need season-ending TJ surgery for his injured elbow. In these troubled times, what the hell would it hurt for Theo Epstein to pick up his secret red Kremlin phone, make a discreet call, and be answered by a certain quasi-retired, quasi-not-retired Dominican righthander?
As we all know, Pedro Martinez has been in a state of limbo since his last appearance in the 2009 World Series pitching for the Phillies. I should not have to recount his character or accomplishments, and I am sure most of us are familiar with the details of his self-described "vacation" from MLB in the time being. Would Pedro come back? Could he? Should he? Does he even want to pitch anymore? You can basically separate that question into two parts: Would the 2011 Pedro come out of his semi-retirement to pitch for a certain red-footwear-clad team, and could he survive in the gauntlet that is their division?
For question #1, I think the answer is quantifiably yes. I have no doubt that for the right combination of circumstance, personal sentiment, and offer, Pedro would seriously consider another 1/3-1/2 season go in MLB with the team that elevated him from a superstar to a legend. Not because of any sentimental desire to end his career in this uniform; he will do so anyway as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Not because he craves any last ovations or cheers; he can get that anytime with ceremonial pitches and Opening Days. Certainly not because he has anything left to prove; his accomplishments and stats practically burn a goddamn hole in the screen they are viewed on. No, in my opinion Pedro would give serious thought to one last go because it would (whether or not he would admit it to himself, or anyone else) intensely appeal to the one part of his character that drove him harder than anything else: his pride. Remember that his last appearance in MLB was walking off the mound to the jeers of Yankee Stadium, in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series, as he and the Phillies proceeded to lose the game and the Series a few hours later. While Pedro has always been quick to say that no one game has ever mattered to him (nor should it, given his career), I think long time Boston fans who remember him would agree that his reputation and legacy have always been dear to him.
As someone who came of age watching Pedro slice through the American League like they were overmatched children, my memories of him are exclusively confined to that era. I can call up dozens of mental anecdotes from 1998-2004. And my last image of him is walking off the mound in St.Louis after jumping into the DeLorean for Game 3. I never watched his experiences with the Mets, which by and far were miserable for him, and only saw a few innings' worth of his time with the Phillies out of curiosity. So of course for me, and, I'm sure, most Red Sox fans, our memories of Pedro are against a background of victory and exultation, not defeat or humiliation. For Pedro, however, his last memory is Game 6 with the Phillies. Failing to get the job done, failing to keep his team in the World Series, and failing to prevent the Yankees from celebrating yet again on their home field. I am sure with the time away from the game and spent with his family, he has mellowed from that moment. Tens of millions of dollars, an accomplished career, the undying respect of millions of otherwise gruff New Englanders, and the adulation of an entire island nation can do that. I certainly don't think his priorities are so out of whack that stewing over losing the World Series two years ago is more important to him than being with his kids or his charity work. For all I know he may not give a shit about it at all. But with how we know Pedro, I wouldn't bet on it. And with the team that he will always be synonymous with likely heading into an intense playoff battle, in the toughest division in MLB, in what is quite possibly the last season for the handful of familiar faces he once played with, and reeling from injuries to starters, ask yourself this: if you were Pedro Martinez, a man of intense and unwavering pride in his talent and career, who remembers in the back of his head that his last memory left in MLB was one of defeat, would you be at least tempted if that red phone rang?
Whether today's Pedro would not be cut to pieces in today's AL East, however, is a perfectly legitimate question that rather bluntly puts a halt to any excessively romanticized fantasies. As he threw only tiny sample sizes in 2007 and 2009, and was injured for much of 2008, there is not much point trying to project anything statistically from his last 3 active seasons. Instead we can only get some general points. During his last few seasons he became a predominantly flyball pitcher while putting up a low-7 K rate and very low BB rate. Despite an increasing vulnerability to the HR, his xFIP remained at or below league average. He averaged 87-88 with the fastball, using a mix of cutter, curve, and change for almost 40% of his pitches. Unsurprisingly for anyone who remembered prime Pedro, the change and curve still stubbornly produced decent pitch-type run values for him. Combined with the post-prime Pedro's recipe of control, command, deception, and craftiness, he was still surprisingly effective despite his obvious loss of fastball velocity. These facts are all well and good, you say, but the NL East of 2009 is a far cry from the AL East of 2011. True. TexasLeaguers PitchFX data for Pedro's 2009 with the Phillies, however, derives some interesting data that add another element: pitch movement. It is this element that convinces me Pedro would be just fine as a 5th starter in the East.
His fastball (TL classification likely includes the cutter), despite a pedestrian average speed of 89.4, averaged 7 inches of horizontal movement, a figure which is frankly a lot more important than velocity. For comparison: Jonathan Papelbon's fastball this season is averaging 6.99 inches of horizontal movement; John Lackey's is averaging 1.54 inches. We all know whose is getting hammered, and whose is generating swings and misses. The difference is not, contrary to the casual fan's belief, simply velocity. A Papelbon fastball arrives fast, moves in the process, and is thus highly difficult to hit. A Lackey fastball arrives slower, has practically no movement, and gets easily squared up. MLB hitters will find ways to hit a straight-arrow fastball regardless of speed. True, a comparatively turtle-like 89 MPH fastball will be lucky to find its way back to the pitcher regardless of movement, IF said pitcher is unable to locate it properly. Control and command have always been Pedro's calling cards; combined with movement, they have allowed him to continue pitching even without throwing 98 at will.
His curve and change both also retained their massive breaks, with the curve averaging 7.47in of downward break and 8.37in horizontal break despite a Wakefield-esque 71.2 average speed; the change an impressive 8.85in of, yes, screwball-action arm-side horizontal break. I'm pretty sure Pedro can spin that change until the day he dies. Again for comparison: Beckett's curve this season: 8.46in downward, 8.57in horizontal. Daniel Bard's change: (think the Swisher pitch): 10.02in arm-side break.
What do all those numbers mean? In short, that while Pedro had certainly lost velocity and his ability to get away with mistakes in the strike zone, he still retained sufficient arm speed to generate good movement on his fastball and get tight movement on his offspeed pitches, especially that curve and change that haunted the nightmares of AL hitters for so many years. He still retained his trademark control and ability to place pitches where he wanted them. Pedro was doing it long before Cliff Lee was, it was just that nobody paid attention when he was doing it at 97 miles an hour. So why the hell not, Red Sox?
-As a 5th starter, his matchups would be optimized whenever possible. Nobody would be expecting Pedro to strike out Jeter with the bases loaded, although almost anybody can do that nowadays.
-With Crawford, Ellsbury, and Drew roaming the outfield, his flyball tendencies are no longer the defensive problem they were in Philly, who might as well have put a statue in the outfield instead of playing Raul Ibanez.
-A single game started by Pedro at Fenway would be worth more publicity than another fifty commercials of Pedroia hawking tires or Papelbon running on Dunkin's.
-Can't be worse than Lackey or Matsuzaka up to this point.
-Anyone who would rather watch Alfredo Aceves instead of Pedro Martinez should be drawn and quartered.
Do it, Theo. Thank me later.