Friday, June 20, 2014

#416 Denny Martinez

Card thoughts: “Denny” is better known as “Dennis.” And that is a beautiful thick head of hair!

The player: Up until this point, Martinez was an inconsistent starter, whose high win totals were more of a function of his durability (lots of innings pitched, hence lots of decisions) and the Orioles team success, rather than his ERAs (consistently average or below). That all changed later in his career – he was much more effective in his mid-30s once he came to the National League.

The first Nicaraguan to pitch in the majors, Martinez came from a relatively wealthy family (his parents owned a farm). But his father drank, and his son was a “baseball” bum. Baseball was not unknown in the country (there was a winter league there in the 60s), but there were no professional teams by the time Dennis was playing. Instead, he pitched for an amateur league, and was noticed by scouts after going 13-2 and leading the Nicaraguan national team to the title in the 1972 amateur World Series.

Signed (secretly) by the Orioles after the 1973 series (to enable him to continue playing as an “amateur” in Nicaragua), Martinez made it to the States in 1975. Due to his experience pitching under pressure for the Nicaraguan team, Martinez wasn’t cowed by the minors. He excelled at every stop, jumping quickly from Miami (15-6, 2.06 ERA) to Rochester, where he led the league in wins (14), strikeouts (140) and ERA (2.50) in 1976. There were also reports that Martinez  partied a lot, which would nearly derail his career later.

Like most young pitchers in that era, Martinez apprenticed as a “swing man” with the Orioles in 1977, but he managed to win 14 games in that role (13 starts, 29 relief appearances). He was finally made a full time starter in 1978, where he used his curve and change to set up his fastball. But he only achieved modest success that year (16-11), and the next (15-16). Martinez was durable, however. In each of the years, he pitched over 275 innings, leading the league in starts (39), complete games (18), and innings pitched (291.2) in the latter year.

Part of his poor performance in 1979 was that he was tipping his pitches. Apparently, the combination of chewing gum and chaw Martinez routinely used contributed to distinct facial expressions, depending on what pitch was going to be thrown. Whatever the reason, the Orioles had a deep staff that year, and Martinez only started one World Series game, getting knocked out of the box in the second inning.

A sore shoulder limited him in 1980, but he led the league in wins during the strike shortened 1981 season (14). This led to a large contract after the season. However, personal problems began to intrude on Martinez’ baseball life. His father was killed while drunk at the end of 1982 season. And Dennis began drinking more and more as well. An abysmal 1983 season (7-16, and ERA well above 5), followed by a drunk driving arrest in the off season, convinced Martinez to quit drinking. Even so, it would take many years for Martinez to return to form.

Injured for the first part of the 1986 season, Martinez was traded to Expos for Rene Gonzales. But he found it hard to crack the Expos rotation, and he spent part of the year in the minors.  When he pitched in the majors, Dennis was mediocre, and he considered retiring. He was even more down in the dumps in 1987, when he was a free agent, and no one picked him up (of course, this was the height of collusion). Instead, he had to wait until May to resign with the Expos.  But somehow, Martinez was about to begin the best stretch of his career at age 33. In the next six years, he would win 97 games, win the ERA title in 1991, and became to oldest player to debut in an all star game in 1990.

The secret was that old adage: Martinez had become a pitcher, rather than a thrower. Relying on guile rather than speed, he would set up hitters better than he had in his youth, and work on their weaknesses. It helped that Martinez’ command improved: He rarely walked more than 2 batters per 9 innings. That control helped him pitch a perfect game in 1992.

After the 1993 season, despite being 38, he signed a good contract with the Indians, and up and coming team at the time. Martinez’ veteran presence helped stabilize the locker room, and the rotation. Pitching less often, he still won at least 9 games every year he was with the Indians, and never lost more than he won.

A sore elbow led to him pitching sparingly in 1997 (just 9 starts with the Mariners). Martinez ended his career at age 44 for the Braves, where he actually pitched in a career high 53 games. His 245 career wins is the most ever by a Latino pitcher.

In retirement, Martinez worked to promote tourism to Nicaragua and coached in the minors with the Cardinals, Orioles and in the majors with the Astros. 

Rear guard: You wouldn't have known from these stats (.537 winning percentage; 4.15 ERA), that Martinez would soon become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. 

Less than 4,000 fans saw Martinez pitch a starters worth of relief innings (5 2/3), beating the Tigers when the Orioles roared back from an early 6-0 deficit.

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