Friday, June 30, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #4: Randy Johnson

Randy Johnson's career path was unlike that of any other pitcher. Actually, that's not true, his path was like that of a few others, but his version of that path was a wildly exaggerated version, which is pretty apt for a man six feet and ten inches tall, who played much of his career with a mullet and a mustache, and who once accidentally killed a bird with a pitch. Johnson was a second-round pick by the Expos, and he soon showed why a team would select him so high in the draft, as he struck out ten guys for every nine innings he pitched during his first full season on the farm. The next year his strikeout rate climbed even higher, to 10.4 per 9 innings, but his walk rate was an unsightly 8.2 per 9 innings. That was the worst mark in the Southern League, but the allure of his strikeouts proved difficult to resist, and by the following September, Johnson had made his MLB debut with Montreal. Not long after that he was dealt to Seattle as part of the Mark Langston trade that highlighted the Expos' ill-fated postseason push in 1989. It was with the Mariners that he first made a name for himself, but greatness took a while.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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I see now that Johnson made the AL All-Star team in 1990, but I'm not entirely sure why, because there was nothin eye-popping about his numbers at the break. By season's end the most notable thing was that he'd lead the league in walks, something he would do again in each of the following two years, in which he posted the two highest walk totals by any pitcher in the last three decades. In 1992, Johnson led the league in walks for the last time, and led the league in strikeouts for the first of what would eventually be nine times. Despite all the strikeouts, it still hadn't been a great season for him, and having just turned 29, Johnson ended 1992 with a career record of 49-48, with a 3.95 ERA. His appearance stood out, but his overall performance was very practically the definition of average. From the age of 29 on though, Johnson posted the best numbers of any pitcher ever, winning another 254 games and shaving almost a full run off his ERA, even as offense exploded around baseball.

After the 1998 season, Johnson signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, then coming off their first season as an expansion team. Johnson immediately went on one of the greatest four-year stretches ever. He helped Arizona win 100 games in its second year, and after a small step backwards the following year, in 2001 the Diamondbacks returned to the postseason, and won what I consider the greatest World Series of my lifetime. Johnson pitched a shutout in Game 2, picked up a second win in Game 6, then came back the very next night to pitched the final 1.1 innings of Game 7. From 1999 through 2002, Johnson pitched over 1000 regular season innings, with a 2.48 ERA (187 ERA+) and a staggering 1417 strikeouts. Modern baseball is often considered to have begun in 1901. Since. Johnson's strikeout totals during those four incredible seasons rank 5th, 8th, 3rd, and 10th in modern history. Johnson won the NL Cy Young Award every one of those years (and also won the AL's Cy Young in 1995).

Johnson was a very good pitcher through the age of 44, when he was still good enough to record 173 strikeouts and post a 3.91 ERA. The year after that he won his 300th career game, becoming the most-recent member of that exclusive club. Odds are someone else will get there someday, but it could be a while. The active leader is Bartolo Colon, who's 65 wins away and looking much less capable at the age off 44 than Johnson was. Next is CC Sabathia, who is 72 wins away at the age of 36, and has won only 23 games in the last 3+ seasons. The math for Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, or Madison Bumgarner to get there is plausible, but none of them are within 120 games, so there's a lot of time for the math to change. Wins don't deserve the high standing they have within the world of pitching metrics, but picking up 300 of them will always be an accomplishment of great significance.

It's hard to argue that the 6'10" Johnson was overshadowed, but because his career overlapped so much with those of Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez, and his best seasons coincided with the highest-scoring era in MLB history, even with the five Cy Youngs and 97.3% of the vote in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, it feels like he didn't quite get his due. Randy Johnson is one of the dozen great pitchers ever though, and either the best or second-best lefty. (Lefty Grove is the other candidate for that crown, and one's opinion of baseball before integration is likely to inform their stance on which of those two southpaws was greatest.)

Johnson felt like a mythical figure to me, almost inhuman. He terrified opposing hitters, and probably a few children over the years. Other players took a while to find their way, but no one did it like the Big Unit.

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