Few opposing pitchers have ever been more associated with the Yankees than Pedro Martinez, who earlier this week was quite deservedly voted into the Hall of Fame. The Dominican righty was an absolutely dominant force in the '90s and 2000s, and he has a legitimate case as at least one of the 20 greatest pitchers of all-time. In his 1999-2003 peak with the Red Sox, he was almost unhittable, striking out batters left and right while recording ERAs below 2.30 at a time when pitchers would have been lucky to be around 4.00. His absurdity was beautifully detailed by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs the other day. He was ludicrous.
Although the Yankees were one of the few teams capable of beating Pedro, that doesn't mean they had his number or anything like that ("Who's your daddy" quotes aside). He could steamroll over them just like they were the Devil Rays' Double-A affiliate, even when they were in heat of their dynasty years. In perhaps his greatest game, he struck out 17 Yankees and only allowed a hit once, when DH Chili Davis just guessed correctly. Just look at this silliness:
However, in the middle of the 2001 season, the Yankees unwittingly acquired their so-called "little secret weapon" against Pedro. He wasn't an accomplished hitter or any means. By some measures, he was even the worst position player in franchise history. Despite these odds, this was the man destined to become Pedro's nemesis:
The oddly-shaped man with the strange batting stance and a similarly poor -5.2 career WAR is Enrique Wilson, an infielder on the Yankees for about three and a half years. Like Pedro, Wilson hailed from the Dominican Republic, though he did not come to majors with nearly the promise of Pedro. He was merely a role player who, up until the 2003 season, was known only for two things. One was nearly faceplanting around the bases for the Indians while scoring the go-ahead run in Game 2 of the 1998 ALCS, when the Yankees' Chuck Knoblauch infamously argued a call rather than continuing the play. The other was embarrassingly misplaying a ball while starting out of position in right field during a game in 2002, en error that enraged owner George Steinbrenner and led to him trading for the unpopular Raul Mondesi. Super.
With a loaded infield that featured established players like Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Robin Ventura, and later Aaron Boone, Wilson was inevitably going to struggle for playing time. He got his shot though in a July 7th matchup against Pedro and the Red Sox. Yankees fans who followed the intense rivalry in 2003 probably recall this game as the one where Pedro went up and in on both Soriano and Jeter at the very start of the game. Soriano subsequently was forced from the game, and Wilson entered for him. Against prime Pedro, he improbably smacked a pair of doubles in the eventual 2-1 victory, earning himself another start when the Yankees faced Pedro later that month, when he continued his hot streak. It's almost unfathomable to consider what Wilson did in the regular season against Pedro that year:
Amazing. For his career, Wilson hit .364/.382/.485 against Pedro in 35 plate appearances, and in 2003, he was 7-for-8. It was absolutely an example of the magic of small sample size, but it was still fun to watch this shoddy hitter owning one of the best pitchers in baseball. Wilson just as amused by his success as we were:
Now everybody is talking about it, and there are some people ticked off in the Dominican because I always hit Pedro. They love Pedro over there, in the Dominican. I don't think there's anyone who wants me to get a hit. Some of them hate me... You got to say, "I'm going to be aggressive and make contact. He's going to try and intimidate you and come in on you. You've got to be ready..." Nobody has ever given me that kind of respect. No pitcher. To see the best pitcher in the game do that to me is very special.
Some explanations were suggested for why Wilson played so well against Pedro. Chief among them was the idea that Wilson did not feel as intimidated by the threat of getting beaned as others when facing Pedro because he was his countryman and a friend of Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. Of course there were several other players who fit that bill in the past who didn't have Wilson's success. It was almost certainly a mere fluke. As entertaining as it was, the success unsurprisingly didn't continue when Joe Torre gambled and started him in the playoffs and again in 2004 against Pedro. At the time though, it seemed just crazy enough to work considering how difficult it was for the Yankees to hit with Pedro on the mound anyway.
So here's to you, Enrique Wilson, wherever you are. Whenever I see Pedro, I'll always think of Wilson's weirdo batting stance and unlikely dominance.