On March 10, 2009, the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic squad lost its second game to the unheralded Netherlands, knocking the Dominicans out of the tournament. But all is not lost for the DR, as this week Richard looks back at the best pitchers to come from the country.
Earlier this year I wrote a column outlining the best position players to come from the Dominican Republic. I probably erred by putting Sammy Sosa in right field over Vladimir Guerrero, but otherwise it is a pretty good list.
This week, I follow through on my promise to produce a similar list for those Dominicans who found their success on the mound, rather than in the batter’s box. Like the hitters, there is a pretty good selection to choose from, so I will give a “playoff ready” staff. That means three starters, a closer, and two other bullpen arms.
That’s a bit of an arbitrary ruling, but one that I believe creates the proper level of exclusivity for the team. As with last time, the players must have been born in the Dominican Republic to qualify for the squad—no one allowed just because his great-grandparents stopped by the island for a piña colada once—and players are considered starters or relievers based on how they made a majority of their appearances.
Starter: Pedro Martinez
There are a lot of really great Dominican pitchers, as you will see. But Pedro Martinez is in a class of his own. Though he is not all the all-time Dominican leader in wins, ERA, shutouts, or All-Star Game appearances, there can be no doubt he is the best. For his career, Martinez won 219 games against just 100 losses, the sixth-best winning percentage (.687) of all time. Though he led the league in ERA “only” five times, it was often by a comical amount. In 2000 Martinez was almost two runs better than second-place Roger Clemens, who was closer to league average than he was to Pedro.
Perhaps no pitcher was ever better than Martinez from 1997 through 2000, when he went a total of 77-25 with a 2.16 ERA (219 ERA+) across more than 900 innings. That is a jaw-dropping performance in its own right, surrounded by the rest of his career; Pedro takes the top spot on this staff.
Starter: Juan Marichal
And here is the reason Pedro Martinez isn’t atop many Dominican leader boards. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983, Marichal is the all-time Dominican leader in wins (243), All-Star Games (10), complete games (244, or just 10 fewer than Nos. 2 through 6 combined), shutouts (54), and innings pitched (3,507). He is famously the winner of 20 or more games four years in a row, and six out of seven years 1963 through 1969.
During that seven-year period, Sandy Koufax (who threw more than 800 fewer innings) had a better ERA from the National League and only Bob Gibson had more strikeouts. No one had more shutouts or complete games than “Manito.” There aren’t many pitchers who could relegate Marichal to the second spot in a rotation, a testament to the quality at the top of the Dominican pitching staff.
Starter: Bartolo Colon
Like Martinez, Colon is a Cy Young winner, albeit coming to his award less deservedly than the ace of this staff. Nonetheless, the hefty righty, twice a 20-game winner, has easily earned his place on this team. At his best, Colon was a solidly above-average pitcher capable of providing his team more than 200 innings. The large inning total evidently took its toll on Colon, who essentially fell apart after 32, posting an ERA over 5 without managing to average 75 innings a season. But his early-career success puts him on this team.
Closer: Francisco Cordero
Relief pitching is a surprising spot for the Dominican team. While I would not call it a weakness—there have been seven Dominican players with at least 100 saves—there is no single dominant arm in the group. This goes a long way toward explaining why I went back and forth on this spot several times; at least three different players were penciled in here at one point or another.
|Armando Benitez, celebrating a save (Icon/SMI)|
But one has to make a choice sometime, and I’m picking Cordero. Though massively overpaid by the Reds, Cordero is a solid performer. Since his return to the majors after a 2001 season marred by injury, he has posted five seasons with an ERA under 3. Currently Cordero sits third all-time in Dominican saves with 250; a healthy season this year might propel him past Armando Benitez for second (he needs 40), though reaching Jose Mesa, who has 321, might be too much for Coco to do.
Reliever: Armando Benitez
I suspect Dominican fans might not be terribly happy about seeing Armando—who I have, perhaps unfairly, always regarded as kind of a head case—in their team’s bullpen. But Benitez put together a surprisingly effective career. A strikeout-oriented pitcher, Benitez topped double-digit K/9 in all but four seasons of his 15-year career, and managed an ERA under 3 six times.
Perhaps the general image of Benitez, though, is reflected in this story: In 2003, he was named to his first All-Star team. Not long after, the Mets dealt him to the Yankees in exchange for a trio of non-prospects. Apparently unimpressed with their new acquisition, the Yankees waited less than three weeks before sending Benitez to Seattle for Jeff Nelson. He became the first All-Star to be traded twice in the same season he made the team. Even at his best, the man was underappreciated.
Reliever: Alejandro Pena
Perhaps like a lot of people, I associate Pena primarily with the Atlanta Braves. He was the losing pitcher in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series and later also appeared for the Braves in their 1995 triumph. But Pena actually pitched in just 70 games for the Braves, fewer than both the Mets and Dodgers.
Wherever he was pitching, Pena was often effective. As a starter he led the league in ERA in 1984, but he spent most of his career in a relief role. Pitching out of the pen for the Dodgers, Mets and Braves in the early ’90s, Pena was outstanding (2.38 ERA in 328 innings over four years), and that, combined with his starter experience, earns him this spot over contenders Jose Valverde, Elias Sosa and Rafael Soriano.
That is not, on the whole, as great a group of players as the offensive team. On the other hand, at the peak of their talents, you figure they could at least win a game from the Netherlands. So that’s something.