Crasnick: HOF pitching trio truly dominated

Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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  • ESPN.com senior writer
  • Author of “License to Deal”
  • Former Denver Post national baseball writer
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — John Smoltz displayed a touch of humility and class during a recent interview when he observed that the 2015 New York Mets’ pitching staff is significantly more talented than the great Atlanta Braves’ rotations of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The passage of time, the fragility of ulnar collateral ligaments and the toll of thousands of innings will help render a final verdict. As Mets starters Jon Niese, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom take on the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field this weekend, Smoltz will be giving a speech in upstate New York, thanking all the people who made his trip to baseball nirvana a reality.

He’ll have some impressive company on the Clark Sports Center podium. When Smoltz and fellow pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez receive their Cooperstown plaques Sunday, along with longtime Houston Astros favorite and 3,000-hit club member Craig Biggio, it will mark a welcome flurry of recognition for a starting pitching fraternity that has been woefully neglected by Hall of Fame voters for 15 years.

Randy Johnson, who had a 22-year career in the majors, is second all time with 4,875 strikeouts. Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Last July, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine struck a blow for pitchers by becoming the first starting duo to enter the shrine since Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins were inducted as a tandem in 1991. Now Smoltz and his two buddies will make it five pitchers in two seasons. It’s the first time at least three starters have been inducted together since Jack Chesbro, Joe McGinnity, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell and Ed Walsh all made it through the Veterans Committee in 1946.

Among baseball historians, the natural reaction is, “What took so long?” After Nolan Ryan’s arrival in Cooperstown in 1999, Hall of Fame induction ceremonies were starter-free until Bert Blyleven ended the drought in 2011. During that fallow period, the standards for starting pitchers got out-of-whack and the bar for induction became almost impossible to clear.

The starting pitcher deluge of 2014-15 is particularly impressive because of all the obstacles the recent inductees overcame. They thrived in an era of heightened offense, facing bulked-up sluggers in hitter-friendly parks while throwing (alleged) rabbit balls into tighter, more restrictive strike zones. The deck was stacked toward offense, but they persevered.

“At no time when I was pitching did I feel like I was at a disadvantage,” Smoltz said. “My philosophy was, ‘I’ll find a way.’ And the great pitchers always find a way to adjust to whatever era they are dealing with. I think that’s the criteria for pretty much all of the Hall of Famers that are in there right now. That’s what makes them so great.”

Surviving the steroid era

Of this year’s four inductees, Martinez has been the most vocal critic of performance-enhancing drug use. During a recent Hall of Fame conference call, Martinez estimated that 60 percent of players used PEDs during the height of the steroid era — which is loosely defined as a 20-year period that began in the mid-to-late 1980s.

“If you ask me, I’m going to give you the same answer I always give when they ask me, ‘How did I feel pitching in the juice era?’ ” Martinez said. “I say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t want it any other way.’ So for me, there’s no crying as far as the way I competed. I know I did it the right way.”

Martinez, a scant 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, relied on an otherworldly three-pitch mix, an outsized heart and a flair for showmanship that turned every outing into “appointment baseball.” Johnson, whose 6-11 frame contributed to early wildness in Montreal, made the necessary adjustments to graduate from a thrower to a pitcher as his career progressed. And Smoltz was versatile enough to win 213 games and amass 154 saves, putting him in a two-man club with Dennis Eckersley as a 200-game winner and elite closer.

The numbers substantiate why Johnson sailed in with 97.27 percent of the vote, the eighth-highest total in Hall of Fame history. He’s second to Ryan with 4,875 career strikeouts and one of 24 pitchers with 300 career wins. Martinez’s peak lasted from 1993 through 2006, and he won three Cy Young Awards and made eight All-Star teams. He’s 13th in MLB history with 3,154 strikeouts despite ranking 165th in innings pitched at 2,827⅓.

Some of their individual seasons almost defy comprehension:

• In 1999, Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts to win his second Cy Young Award. Incredibly, his encore might have been even more dominant. In 2000, Martinez went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, 128 hits allowed in 217 innings and an adjusted ERA+ of 291. (The stat accounts for a pitcher’s ballpark and compares him to the rest of baseball, with a score of 100 being league average). To put that in perspective, the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke carries a streak of 42 2/3 innings into Friday’s start in New York, and he has an ERA+ of 281.

Pedro Martinez won three Cy Young awards during his 18-year career. Brad Mangin/MLB Photos/Getty Images

“Pedro did that pitching in Fenway, in the American League East, with the designated hitter, during the height of the home run craze,” said Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. “It would be like Jesse Owens or Ben Johnson setting a record for the 100-yard dash while running in sand. All the conditions were against him, and he still flourished and put up a year for the ages.”

• During a mind-blowing stretch in Arizona from 1999 to 2002, Johnson went 81-27 with a 2.48 ERA to capture four straight Cy Young Awards. In 2001, he whiffed 372 batters and gave up 181 hits — joining Martinez as one of only two starters to finish with twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed in a single season.

Johnson’s high strikeout totals and insistence on pitching deep into games routinely tested his stamina and his will. According to Baseball-reference.com, Johnson threw 140 or more pitches a total of 42 times in his career. Twice in the early-to-mid-1990s, he threw 160 pitches with the Seattle Mariners.

  • The right-hander rode an otherworldly three-pitch mix, an outsized heart and a flair for showmanship to Cooperstown. Summing up his stellar career in stats, social media and Pedro’s own words.

  • The Big Unit sailed into Cooperstown with 97.27 percent of the vote. We sum up the lefthander’s stellar career in stats, social media and Johnson’s own words.

  • The selfless righty became the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 100 saves. Summing up his stellar career in stats, social media and Smoltz’s own words.

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In late July 2002, when Johnson was 38, he threw 149 pitches in a complete-game victory over Montreal. It was a different world from today’s game, when the 100-pitch mark sets off alarms in the dugout.

“I think pitchers today are great, but I don’t know if they’re ever going to know how good they can be because organizations don’t let them pitch themselves through trouble or go deeper into the game,” Johnson said. “I became a better pitcher when I was in a situation when I was tired out there and the game was on the line. I would have 125 pitches, and I was sucking on fumes and I didn’t have much in the tank, but I had to get out of the inning. In today’s game, it’s more of a specialty-type thing where the manager will go and get a pitcher that will pick up for you because that’s his role.”

Johnson cites a shrinking strike zone as one of the biggest challenges confronting him and other pitchers of recent vintage. Baseball introduced the QuesTec camera system to evaluate umpires in 2001 before replacing it with a Zone Evaluation system in 2009.

“I remember watching [pitchers] in the ’60s and ’70s on old black-and-white footage and on baseball shows,” Johnson said. “The strike zone back then was from the knees to the armpits. And then when I was pitching and even today, you have the little strike zone they show on just about every game. Well, that’s the strike zone now, but it really isn’t, per se. It isn’t the strike zone that’s in the rule book. So that itself is more conducive for hitters.”

So what’s next?

Even with the advent of defensive shifts and comprehensive scouting reports that tilt the balance back toward run prevention, it’s figures to be a while before the Hall of Fame wraps starting pitchers in another big, warm embrace.

Roger Clemens’ candidacy is in serious jeopardy because of his alleged PED issues, and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina haven’t made much of a dent despite strong résumés. Schilling hit a personal high with 39.2 percent of the vote (with 75 percent required for election) in his third appearance on the ballot last winter. Mussina ticked up slightly from 20.3 percent to 24.6 percent in his second crack at Cooperstown. And Roy Halladay, the next starter who’ll warrant an extended look, won’t appear on the ballot until 2019.

The old-school milestones for induction are no longer reachable. Before the start of the 2015 season, Bill James assessed the likelihood of active pitchers to reach 300 victories by the end of their careers. Clayton Kershaw led the way at 31 percent, followed by Felix Hernandez (26 percent), James Shields (16 percent) and Justin Verlander (12 percent). No one else surpassed 10 percent.

John Smoltz won 213 games and had 154 saves in a 21-year career. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

Nevertheless, the current landscape is dotted with young and not-so-young pitchers doing incredible things. Kershaw won his third Cy Young Award at age 26; Madison Bumgarner has three All-Star Game appearances and a World Series MVP award on his résumé at age 25; Chris Sale is eliciting Johnson comparisons for his high strikeout totals; Greinke and Max Scherzer look more dominant than ever in their early 30s; and Jose Fernandez appears to be picking up right where he left off before having Tommy John surgery.

And everyone is gushing over New York’s young pitching contingent of Harvey, deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and (the Mets hope) a surgically-repaired Zack Wheeler, who could spur a baseball revival in Flushing while demoralizing major league lineups for years to come.

Could the current array of pitchers make inroads on Cooperstown in 15 or 20 years, once King Felix, Kershaw & Co. have retired and gone on the ballot?

“When you look out into a flat ocean, it’s hard to see which one is going to be the biggest wave,” Hirdt said. “Then all of a sudden, everything comes together. Maybe all these guys who are burgeoning right now and turning it into more of a pitcher’s game will be the real next wave.”

In the meantime, the quintet of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson and Martinez will keep the podium warm as worthy recipients of Hall of Fame plaques. Under the most disadvantageous of circumstances, they found a way to finish what they started.

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