Whatever happens in the end, the return of genius pitcher Pedro Martinez to the Mets is going to be historic stuff.
The Mets have had to make do without their best-known, most exciting player since the middle of the 2006 season.
Now, the prospect of adding arguably the greatest pitcher of this era to a team that already holds the best record in the National League could lead to the Mets’ first world championship in 21 years.
That day isn’t far off. Martinez is scheduled to make his third rehab start in Port St. Lucie on Monday. He’s suggested he’d need five starts, maximum—and has hinted that he might be ready to return after three. It the latest, according to that schedule, he’ll be back with the Mets no later than early September.
The only question now is whether his arm works.
While no one can predict with certainty what level Martinez will return to, a comparison to the pitchers who have returned from rotator cuff surgery shows that for the most part, they return to previous standards of performance. Only pure throwers seem to have difficulty adjusting. And Martinez, with his confounding variety of pitches, speeds and deliveries, is anything but.
In addition, Martinez has shown that he can pitch at less than full health, adjusting to velocity drops without losing the ability to stay among the league’s elite pitchers. And Martinez’s fastball in each of his first two rehab starts, clocked in the high eighties, is well within the range he worked at during his successful period with the Mets.
That is not to say peak-period Pedro is about to rejoin the Mets. Martinez put up earned run averages of 1.90, 2.89, 2.07, 1.74, 2.39, 2.26 and 2.22 in consecutive seasons between 1997 and 2003. Those numbers are extraordinary for a starting pitcher in any era—Martinez did it during the biggest offensive explosion in baseball history.
But as he aged, Martinez pitched through a series of nagging injuries, some more difficult than others. His rotator cuff was reportedly damaged when the Mets signed him after the 2004 season—it was his ability to pitch well despite reduced velocity that helped convince them to do so anyway.
He pitched to a 2.82 ERA in 217 innings for the Mets in 2005. His fastball was limited to the high eighties for most of the year, yet it was still one of the hardest fastballs to hit in the National League, due to his movement and ability to place it.
The combination of hip, toe and rotator cuff became too much for Martinez to weather after two dominant months in 2006. But now, with nearly a full year of rest, recuperation, and a rotator cuff that has been repaired, the toe and hip injuries are no longer issues.
Precedent should give Mets fans reason to hope. In 1995, a Phillies pitcher named Curt Schilling had rotator cuff surgery. At the time, he had a season ERA of 3.57, a good bit better than league average, and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning, with just 26 walks in 116 frames. The surgery was successful, and Schilling returned to the mound for the Phillies in 1996. He pitched 183 innings, with an ERA of 3.19, nearly a strikeout per inning, and just 50 walks in 182 innings. He went on to more than another decade of success.
Of course, Schilling was 28 when he had the surgery—Martinez was 35. But much older pitchers have achieved similar results. Former Yankee and current Mets pitcher Orlando Hernandez had surgery to repair his rotator cuff in 2003, missing the entire season. Prior to the surgery, Hernandez, in what was officially his age-36 season (but might well have been the year he turned 40) pitched 146 innings for the 2002 Yankees, with a 3.64 ERA, well below league average. He struck out 113 in 146 innings, and walked just 36. In 2004, immediately following the surgery, El Duque improved to a 3.30 ERA over 84 innings, lifting his strikeout rate to one per inning exactly, though his walk rate also jumped, with 36 in 84 innings. As Mets fans know, he is still an effective starter.
Certainly, there is no shortage of pitchers who have failed to pitch well following rotator cuff surgery. The Mets faced one of them this past week: Tony Armas Jr. of the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Armas had three of four seasons with ERAs better than league average—since the procedure in May 2003, he’s had season ERAs of 4.88, 4.97, 5.03 and 6.58 this year.)
But like many of the pitchers who flamed out after the surgery, velocity was the key to his former success.
Martinez, needless to say, has much more to offer.
In fact, he won’t need to be at his peak form to help the Mets down the stretch. As an addition to the rotation of Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, Oliver Perez and John Maine, Martinez won’t have to be an ace. He simply has to represent an improvement over fill-in fifth pitcher Brian Lawrence, whose 2007 performance following, yes, rotator cuff surgery has mirrored the below-average results he came up with in 2005, just prior to the procedure.
But Mets fans will be expecting a lot more than that. Odds are they’ll get it.