5 years later, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz ‘old goats’
NEW YORK (AP)—Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz already consider themselves relics.
Baseball transformed during the second half of their careers and has been revolutionized in the five years since their final pitches.
Out: big boppers.
In: strict pitch limits, a profusion of relief pitchers and sudden swell in defensive shifts.
“Old goats” is what Martinez called the newest Hall of Famers, products of another age—remember back before high definition TVs and mobile Internet browsers were commonplace?
So much has changed so quickly.
“The game has kind of gone to a Stratomatic-type baseball game, where hitting is difficult because you’re facing nine and 10 pitchers combined per team,” Smoltz said Wednesday. “Guys are not going attain 3,000 innings. They’re not going to get 3,000 strikeouts.”
“Vive le difference!” seemed to be the motto of their joint news conference.
Smoltz, pretty much average for a pitcher at 6-foot-3, stood on a chair to drop a cap onto the head of Johnson, the tallest of 215 Hall of Fame players at 6-foot-10. All the while, the Big Unit struggled to button his cream-colored jersey with “Hall of Fame” in red script, unable to line up the buttons with the correct buttonholes.
“Those left-handers,” Johnson quipped.
At 5-foot-11 the shortest pitcher picked for Cooperstown since Whitey Ford in 1974, Martinez held both hands up with fingers raised and smiled broadly.
The trio of pitchers, elected to the Hall on Tuesday along with Craig Biggio, are among the all-time greats statistically, given the era they pitched in.
Martinez’s 2.93 career ERA is 1.47 below the big league average during the years he pitched, easily the best margin in major league history among pitchers with 1,500 or more innings, according to STATS. The next best are Carl Hubbell and Lefty Grove at 1.15, Hoyt Wilhelm at 1.14, Greg Maddux at 1.13 and Roger Clemens at 1.12.
Johnson’s 1.01 is 13th and Smoltz’s 0.97 is 15th.
Speaking at a Manhattan hotel, Johnson said the game is just starting to get back into whack. He thinks pitching became more onerous in the 1990s and early 2000s because smaller ballparks replaced multiuse stadiums and Major League Baseball introduced QuesTec, a computer system put in place in 2001 to evaluate ball-strike calls. Umpires responded by shrinking strike zones back toward the rule-book definition.
“When I watch old footage of pitchers throwing strikes from the letters to the knees, it’s black-and-white footage, back when dinosaurs roamed. That’s not the strike zone that I pitched in,” he said. “Things still are slighted towards offense. Offense is what creates fan base. But there’s still well-pitched games out there, and things are starting to balance out now, yes, absolutely.”
Drug testing has played a part, too. Since urine samples started to be collected in 2003, offense has shrunk along with muscle mass. And the rise in computing capability has led to defensive shifts that take away hits, too.
At the tail end of the Steroids Era in 2000, scoring rose to 5.14 runs per team per game and ERA to 4.76, the highest for both since 1930. By last year, runs dropped to 4.07 and ERA to 3.74, the lowest since the early 1970s.
Every team seems to have hard-throwing relievers heading in from the bullpens in earlier and earlier innings.
“We never had a pitch limit,” Smoltz said. “Your manager’s eyes and pitching coach knew when your pitch limit reached the mechanical failures or the fact that you weren’t getting it done.”
Johnson won 303 games and struck out 4,875, second-most in major league history. Martinez was 219-100 and struck out 3,154. Smoltz went 213-155 with 154 saves and 3,084 strikeouts, the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves.
Martinez believes there’s “more of a level ground for every team” these days because of changes such as revenue sharing and the luxury tax, which has created additional “home-cooked product,” made more teams contenders and heightened competition.
“I can only imagine,” he said when asked whether his stats would be even better now. “I don’t know what it would be like. I’m not going to try it. But I’ll tell you what, I enjoyed the way I did it. I enjoyed my era. I enjoyed the way I competed. And that’s the way I wanted it.”
Smoltz predicts additional evolution, perhaps a return to the era when starters went deeper into games. He thinks babying arms has led to more catastrophic injuries. He had a ligament replaced in 2000, then spent most of four seasons in the bullpen before returning to Atlanta’s rotation.
“Something’s got to change,” he said. “And I don’t think condensing it and lowering the pitch limit is the reason that we’re going to save arms.”