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Tom Verducci
October 11, 1999
In an American League MVP race almost too close to call, one candidate stands out with an accomplishment unmatched in the majors in 61 years
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October 11, 1999

Photo Finish

In an American League MVP race almost too close to call, one candidate stands out with an accomplishment unmatched in the majors in 61 years

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YEAR

PLAYER, TEAM

W-L

ERA

GS

IP

BB

SO

MVP FINISH (WINNER)

1963

Sandy Koufax, Dodgers

25-5

1.88

40

311

58

306

1

1965

Sandy Koufax, Dodgers

26-8

2.04

41

335.2

71

382

2 (Willie Mays, Giants)

1966

Sandy Koufax, Dodgers

27-9

1.73

41

323

77

317

2 (Roberto Clemente, Pirates)

1966

Juan Marichal, Giants

25-6

2.23

36

307.1

36

222

6 (Clemente)

1968

Bob Gibson, Cardinals

22-9

1.12

34

304.2

62

268

1

1968

Denny McLain, Tigers

31-6

1.96

41

336

63

280

1

1971

Vida Blue, A's

24-8

1.82

39

312

88

301

1

1972

Steve Carlton, Phillies

27-10

1.97

41

346.1

87

310

5 (Johnny Bench, Reds)

1978

Ron Guidry, Yankees

25-3

1.74

35

273.2

72

248

2 (Jim Rice, Red Sox)

1985

Dwight Gooden, Mcts

24-4

1.53

35

276.2

69

268

4 (Willie McGee, Cardinals)

1995

Greg Maddux, Braves

19-2

1.63

28

209.2

23

181

3 (Barry Larkin, Reds)

1999

Pedro Martinez, Red Sox

23-4

2.07

29

213.1

37

313

?

For 131 of the Boston Red Sox' 162 games this season, their ace righthander, Pedro Martinez, could be found in the dugout, usually wearing sneakers instead of spikes, his tongue flying about as fiercely as one of his mischievous fastballs. He had as much chance of getting into the game as a beer vendor. One night his teammates got so tired of Martinez's lounge act that they taped him to a dugout pole and then slapped a strip of adhesive over his mouth. "We're trying to focus, so we want him out of the dugout most of the time," says Boston third baseman John Valentin. "Sometimes it's good when he cuts up like that. But there are times when you want to go, 'Get the f—- out of here.' "

Elsewhere on those four of every five nights in which the idle Martinez was auditioning for the Catskills, Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez might have been taking another foul ball off his cup, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Cleveland Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar were probably gobbling up grounders and zipping around the bases, and Cleveland right-fielder Manny Ramirez was continuing to drive more people home than Greyhound. Of course, on the 31 occasions Martinez did ascend the mound, he slung the ball with an astonishing efficiency that, when measured against his contemporaries, has never before been seen in the game. His 2.07 ERA was 2.79 better than that of his league, an unprecedented gap.

The Most Valuable Player award has always seemed to be an invention by Rorschach, but never more so than this year in the American League. (Because Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves is such a clear-cut choice in the National League, no ink blots need be consulted there this year.) The 28 baseball writers (two from each city in the American League) who submitted their ballots before the playoffs began this week had no fewer than seven worthy candidates to consider for their personalized interpretation of most valuable. None of those could-be MVPs represented more of a beguiling blot of confusion than Martinez, who was either such an all-powerful force for the Red Sox that he helped them win games even in his sneakers or a Milton Berle with too much time on his hands.

The pitcher-versus-player debate has unfolded many times with mixed results (chart, right), most notably when the Los Angeles Dodgers' Sandy Koufax lost to the San Francisco Giants' Willie Mays in 1965, the Yankees' Ron Guidry lost to the Red Sox' Jim Rice in '78 and the Red Sox's Roger Clemens won over the Yankees' Don Mattingly in '86. (Clemens is the only starting pitcher to finish first or second in either league's MVP balloting since '78.) Never before, though, has the value of a starting pitcher been measured against so many players toting MVP credentials.

"No matter how you fill out your ballot, you'll get a call from a city saying, 'How could you vote our guy sixth?' " said Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun, a member of the electorate, last week. "It's fascinating. I think the guy who will win is the guy who gets the most votes in the top five."

Here's who won't win: anyone whose team isn't playing this week, no matter how impressive his numbers. So Oakland A's first baseman Jason Giambi, Toronto Blue Jays' rightfielder Shawn Green and Seattle Mariners' centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., thanks for playing and drive home safely. Also, here's who shouldn't win: a starting pitcher for a second-place team who has pitched fewer innings than the Indians' Dave Burba. Sorry, Pedro.

"Pedro Martinez affects games the day before he pitches and the day after he pitches," says Tony Massarotti of the Boston Herald, who cast his first-place vote for Martinez. "[Manager] Jimy Williams can use his bullpen more before Pedro pitches because he's going to get seven or eight innings, guaranteed [from Martinez]. And the day after Pedro pitches, Williams has a fresh bullpen."

It's a nice theory, though it would carry more weight if Martinez had pitched at least seven innings in more starts than the Baltimore Orioles' 12-game loser Scott Erickson (each went seven or more 21 times) and had finished better than tied for eighth in the league in innings worked. If a starting pitcher is going to be more valuable than an every-day player, he'd better carry an extraordinary load. No starting pitcher has won the MVP award without chucking at least 253 innings. Martinez threw 213⅓.

True, Martinez (23-4) struck out more than eight times as many batters (313) as he walked (37). He allowed no home runs in the 293 at bats against him with runners on. He gave up two earned runs or fewer in all but five of his starts. He's many wonderful things. A workhorse isn't among them.

In 1985 the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden put up numbers (24-4, 1.53) similar to Martinez's '99 figures, plus he chewed up 276⅔ innings, all for a second-place Mets team that took the National League East-winning St. Louis Cardinals to the last weekend of the season. Yet Gooden finished fourth in the MVP balloting. (Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee, the league batting champion at .353, won the award.) Martinez's numbers actually are closer to those Greg Maddux put up for the first-place Atlanta Braves in the strike-shortened 1995 season (19-2, 1.63, 209⅔ innings). Maddux finished third in the balloting; the award went to a guy with 66 RBIs who didn't lead the league in any offensive category, the Cincinnati Reds' Barry Larkin. "Pedro's been phenomenal," Red Sox first baseman-designated hitter Mike Stanley says, "but there's so much more to the game. You've got to give the MVP to guys who grind it out over 162 games, especially this year, when you've got guys putting up Nintendo numbers. Heck, they've got numbers I can't even get in Nintendo."

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