Supreme ace of all-time? Pedro Martinez still best despite Clayton Kershaw's dominance with Dodgers

Kirk Minihane
July 07, 2014 - 9:13 am

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for four years, and right now he is at the absolute peak of his skills.

For the fourth straight season he leads the NL in ERA (1.85, though he's technically just short of enough innings to qualify), his strikeouts per nine innings is by far the highest of his career (11.9) and his walks per nine are by far the lowest of his career (1.2, an absurd 9.58 K/BB ratio). He leads the league in both K/9 and BB/9, which would mark the first time anyone has done that since Walter Johnson in 1913.

And P.S.? Kershaw hasn't allowed a run in his last 36 innings, a stretch that included a no-hitter against the Rockies on June 18. This is how brilliant he's been this year: He allowed two hits in eight innings on July 4 (no runs, obviously), struck out eight, walked one. That means his K/BB ratio went down for the season. This is a future Hall of Famer on his way to a third Cy Young and one of the great careers.

So, naturally, folks are trying to figure out where Kershaw stands historically. We know what we're seeing is all-time stuff, but is it the highest level anyone has ever reached?

The answer, of course, is no. As great as Clayton Kershaw is -- and will be -- he isn't close to what Pedro Martinez was in 1999 and 2000. For those two seasons Martinez was the best pitcher in history, and it's not even really an argument statistically. But let's take a looksie, if only for the sake of nostalgia.

We'll focus on Martinez 2000 -- as off-the-charts as his 1999 season was, 2000 was his zenith -- vs. Kershaw 2014. And at first glance, it's close.

ERA: Martinez 1.74, Kershaw 1.85

WHIP: Martinez 0.737, Kershaw 0.870 

BB/9: Martinez 1.3, Kershaw 1.2

K/9: Martinez 8.88, Kershaw 9.58

Hits per nine innings: Martinez 5.3, Kershaw 6.6

On its own, a slight to medium edge for Martinez, right? Fairly decent lead in WHIP, almost a hit and a half fewer per nine innings. So without factoring in anything else, it's a 10-9 round for Martinez.

But let's factor in the other stuff. Clayton Kershaw is doing all the wonderful things he's doing in the National League in 2014. The National League in 2014 has a batting average of .248, with an OBP of .311 and a slugging percentage of .384. Pedro Martinez was at his best in 2000, when the American League batting average was .276, with an OBP of .349 and a slugging percentage of .443. The league ERA in the National League this season is 3.65 -- the league ERA in the American League in 2000 was 4.91.

Put it another way: That 3.65 ERA would have ranked second among all AL starting pitchers in 2000 -- Martinez led the AL with that 1.74 ERA, beating runner-up Roger Clemens (3.70) by almost a full two runs. Clemens was closer to 38th place (Rolando Arroyo) than to first place. If Jimy Williams had left Martinez in for another inning during his final start of the season and he had allowed 45 earned runs without recording an out he still would have won the ERA title. No other starter had an ERA under 3.70 in the American League in 2000 -- there currently are 27 NL starters (not counting Kershaw, who isn't yet eligible) with an ERA under 3.70.

Remember, 2000 was the height of PEDs, the league was stuffed with juicers and scammers and liars and average guys hitting 30 homers. And in the middle of that madness, Pedro Martinez had the best single-season WHIP in history (the average AL WHIP for the season was 1.49). It's three steps past mind-boggling. The other four guys in the top five in single-season WHIP have been dead for a combined 393 years. Martinez put up dead-ball numbers in the most prolific offensive era in major league history. Impossible, except we all saw it.

Picking nits here, I suppose, but there's also this: Martinez pitched in a hitters' park and Kershaw pitches in a pitchers' park.

Kershaw at home, 2014: 1.80 ERA, .778 WHIP, 15.5 K/BB

Martinez at home, 2000: 1.84 ERA, .806 WHIP, 8.93 K/BB

Edge Kershaw, at least until we took the time to figure out what it all means in 2014 vs. 2000. But take a look at the road numbers:

Kershaw: 1.91 ERA, .969 WHIP, 6.63 WHIP

Martinez: 1.66 ERA, .681 WHIP, 8.823 WHIP

No contest, Kershaw's road numbers are terrific yet it's still a 20-length victory for Martinez.

(Martinez's road OBP against was .206, and batters hit just .154 against him. Bill Barnwell had a really good two-part series on the guys he thinks have held the title of best pitcher in baseball over the years, and he writes that Martinez's 2000 numbers translate to about 19-5 with a 1.00 ERA with the 1963 Dodgers. And that's exactly why I won't hear the Sandy Koufax case -- let's pick 1966 as Koufax's best season, OK? It's his best ERA+, his best ERA, stuck out 317 guys, all that stuff. His road ERA was nearly half a run higher than his home ERA. Now both were superb, but he was helped greatly by Dodger Stadium. Pick a different year? His famous 1965 season? He had a 1.38 ERA at home, 2.72 on the road. Go back to 1963 -- the same 1.38 ERA at home, 2.31 on the road. And remember the AL OPS of .792 in 2000? It was .697 in the NL in 1966, .685 in 1965 and .669 in 1963. The league ERA in 1966? 3.61. Koufax was dominant, and he still can't get near Martinez at his best.)

This isn't intended to denigrate Kershaw, it really isn't. He's the best pitcher on the planet today, and probably will be for the next five years. I hope he stays healthy, breaks the scoreless streak, wins 350 games; he's very, very good for a game that needs every star it can get. But there is this need today to make everything that's going on the best thing that has ever happened -- LeBron is better than Jordan, the World Cup is the greatest sporting event in the world, have Brady or Manning eclipsed Montana -- and sometimes there needs to be a pause. Clayton Kershaw will continue to put up these numbers, and people are going to start to compare it to what Pedro Martinez did. And that's nearly as insane as Martinez's numbers in 2000, easily the greatest season by a pitcher in baseball history.