For Mets Fans, the Only Thing That Matters Now Is Pedro
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The Mets may have their first division title in 20 years formally wrapped up, but it’s not as if they have nothing to play for. From Carlos Beltran, who leads the league in runs, down to relievers like Guillermo Mota who need to stay sharp so they enter October at their best, every player on the team has some goal to strive toward in the next two weeks. However, none of that really matters. The only thing that matters right now is Pedro Martinez.
It’s easy to look the fool when dismissing Martinez. Early in his career, when he was coming off a season in relief comparable to Mariano Rivera’s 1995 campaign, the Dodgers decided he was simply too small to hold up in the major leagues and traded him to the Expos. In his prime, he was routinely thought of as being a pitch away from the end of his career. He came to the Mets, after putting up what would have been a career year for nearly any other pitcher for a team that won the World Series, with a reputation as a bomb ready to explode. Every time people have said he can’t do something, he’s done it.
This time might be different. Because the Mets have done so well without him and because he’s Pedro Martinez, the general assumption before his disastrous first game back last week was that after resting up and healing from some nagging injuries he’d come out strong, tune up, and be ready to shut any team down by the time the playoffs came around. Instead, his last two appearances, spanning a period of a month, have been catastrophic — he’s not only been ineffective, he’s looked as if he doesn’t belong in the major leagues. Wild pitches, balks, incredibly flat fastballs, and rolling breaking pitches, and body language that tells the world he doesn’t know what’s going on are the last thing anyone expects to see even from vintage Pedro Martinez. It’s beyond worrisome and will continue to be so no matter what he does tomorrow night against the Marlins.
Both Martinez and the Mets continue to insist, credibly, that there’s nothing especially physically wrong with him. He’s had problems with his foot, leg, back, and shoulder at various points, often serious problems, and usually pitched right through them. Whatever’s wrong now, it’s kept him from pitching well for four months. Can he fix it in time for the playoffs?
I’d like to be optimistic, not least because knowing his past he’s liable to go out and throw a few shutouts while propelling the Mets to a championship, making predictions of doom look foolish, but I don’t like Martinez’s chances. While it runs the risk of psychologizing from afar, the difference between the pitcher we’ve seen lately and the one who’s pitched through all sorts of brutal difficulties is that this one is tentative, and looks to have lost his confidence. I’m not talking about his ridiculously overdiscussed crying in the dugout; baseball players are allowed to feel frustrated, and it doesn’t tell much one way or the other about how they’re going to perform. The relevant point is that in his actual choices of pitches and locations he hasn’t looked confident. No one can overcome that.
Martinez has had to deal in the last several years with the rapid deterioration of what was once the best pure stuff in baseball. For a while it didn’t make much of a difference; by the end of last year he was having problems breaking 85 mph at times, but he was able to tune his change-up to the speed of his fastball, his curve retained its snap, and his location was still fine, so it didn’t much matter.
The Martinez we’ve seen since June hasn’t had any of that going for him. He’s lost a bit more off the fastball, but much more troubling is the flatness of his breaking ball and his inability to hit spots.Whether or not Martinez is in pain or dealing with an active injury, that more or less has to be physical; you don’t simply forget how to throw certain pitches or how to set hitters up and pay off what you’ve set up. You also don’t adjust to the loss of those kinds of tools quickly; sometimes pitchers, even great ones, can’t adjust at all. It was one thing when Martinez had all his tools, just less of a fastball; changing speeds, locating, and playing the mental game can keep a pitcher among the game’s elite. Lose the ability to do the first two of those things and your ability to do the third will rapidly deteriorate.
For the Mets, the saving grace is an incredibly deep and strong bullpen; Martinez can run into some trouble and the Mets can still win a game. If anyone’s expecting him to do much more right now than get the ball to that bullpen, though, they’re probably going to be disappointed. Watch tomorrow for how that breaking ball snaps, and how much the catcher’s glove moves to grab it; if those are out of synch the Mets might finally find themselves in a real spot.