Perhaps it’s cliche to say “we might never see another one like him” on Hall of Fame weekend, but there is an extreme possibility that we’ve seen the last of pitchers that are the makeup and caliber of Randy Johnson.
The left-handed starter was enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday along with Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio. He delivered a quiet, humble and emotional speech, presenting a side much different than the one we saw throughout his playing career. He said himself that his fastball, bad mullet and scowl are long gone.
So are the times of ever seeing a Randy Johnson again.
I suppose you could say it for any Hall of Famer taking the stage at Cooperstown. After all, it’s the best of the best we are talking about. For instance, look at this year’s inductees.
Craig Biggio started as an All-Star catcher out of Seton Hall before developing into a Gold Glove second baseman and even spent time as an everyday center fielder. But he only reached 200 hits in a season once while hitting .300 just four times in his 20-year career. His candidacy and career were built on longevity as much as anything else. That’s not to be taken as a negative, as playing well for 20 seasons is a unique and rare accomplishment. But Biggio had a window of five seasons making consecutive All-Star Games. Besides that, he wasn’t dominating. With the athletes in the game now, players are moving off of the catcher position and succeeding more often than before.
Smoltz was dominant as well and set the standard for Tommy John pitchers. But as normal as it is anymore, would it surprise anyone to see another “Smoltz”–a pitcher enshrined into the Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John surgery?
And then there’s Pedro, who might have the highest peak of them all. There won’t be a baby born in Boston in the next 20 years that doesn’t hear about that 2000 season that saw Martinez lead the league in ERA (1.74), strikeouts (284) and WHIP (0.737). But as great and as high as Pedro’s peak was, it was a nine-year stretch from 1997 to 2005–with one clunker in his last year in Boston–where Pedro was at his best.
Johnson was at that level–and often higher–for an astounding stretch of 13 seasons. He was an All-Star before that stretch began in 1993 and he was good after it ended in 2004, but those 13 years were Johnson’s best.
Johnson never had a season like Pedro’s 2000, but his four-year stretch of consecutive Cy Young’s with the Diamondbacks were even better. He led the league in strikeouts for all four seasons, ERA and complete games in three of four, and Fielding Independent Pitching in three of four years.
Then again, when Johnson pitched, there usually wasn’t a whole lot of fielding needed.
Look at his strikeouts. In 2002, at age 38, he led the league with 334 strikeouts. Second place was Pedro Martinez. With 239. The year before that, at 37, he struck out 372 batters. Second place that year was Curt Schilling with 293 followed by Hideo Nomo. With 220. In total, he had five seasons over 300 strikeouts and led the league nine times.
In 2002, he led the majors in Wins Above Replacement with 10.9. The next closest was Curt Schilling (8.7) followed by Roy Halladay (7.4). It was similar in 2001, when Johnson (10.0) topped Schilling (8.8) and Mike Musina (7.1).
His story isn’t all about numbers, but they sure do shine nicely.
Since Johnson struck out 290 batters in 2004, no one has matched or eclipsed that number. That same season, Johnson probably should’ve won his sixth Cy Young award. Roger Clemens took home the award after going 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA and a 5.4 WAR.
Meanwhile, Johnson went 16-14 that season with a 2.60 ERA, 72 more strikeouts than Clemens and an 8.5 WAR. Compare that to Clayton Kershaw’s Cy Young and MVP season, and Johnson’s numbers are still better than Kershaw’s 7.5 WAR, 58 fewer strikeouts and eight more walks in fewer innings.
Kershaw was 25. Johnson was 40.
Mind you, Johnson pitched in the heart of the steroid era. His four straight Cy Youngs began the year after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run race of 1998.
No one’s Baseball-Reference page will look like someone fell asleep on the ‘bold’ button like Johnson’s, but there’s more to this story than stats.
There won’t be another pitcher that even gets the opportunity to accomplish what Johnson did.
It starts from the beginning. Rather than signing with the Atlanta Braves out of high school, Johnson elected to attend USC, where he pitched and learned his craft of photography. After four minor-league seasons, Johnson broke into the big leagues at age 24, which might seem old compared to the 21- and 22-year olds breaking through these days.
But Johnson didn’t achieve instant success. Not even close. He was traded from Montreal to Seattle after posting a 6.67 ERA after six starts in 1989. It wasn’t much better with the Mariners that year, as he finished with a 4.40 ERA after the trade.
He led the majors in walks for three straight seasons after that. Drop Randy Johnson into the year 2015 and he’d be moved to a bullpen, where big arms go when they walk too many hitters. That’s if he even got the chance to reach the majors.
His minor league numbers? How about 7.9, 7.1, 8.2, 5.7 and 4.5, which were his walks per nine innings. Not too many minor leaguers reach the big leagues with those numbers. Johnson said in his conference call prior to Hall of Fame Weekend that it took him six years to develop, four in the minors and two in the majors. That’s a long leash in today’s game.
Say 2015 Randy Johnson does reach the majors with those numbers and finds a way to stick like he did in Seattle. He’s not throwing 150 pitches. He’s not doing it six times, as he said Tom Verducci once told him was his number. We would’ve never had the chance to see how good Johnson was. And if you ask Johnson, maybe he wouldn’t have even reached that level.
“I think pitchers today are great, but I don’t know if they’re ever going to know how good they can be because organizations don’t let them go out and pitch themselves through trouble or go deeper into the game,” he said.
“For me, I became a better pitcher and understood what it took to be a good pitcher when I was in a situation when I was tired out there and the game was on the line. And I had 125 pitches now, and I’m on – I’m sucking on fumes and I don’t have much left in the tank but now I have to get out of this inning.”
Of course Johnson had the no-hitter in 1990 and the perfect game in 2004 (at 40 years old). There was the 20-strikeout game in 2001. There were plenty of memorable highlights, which had former manager Bob Brenly saying he expected something great every time Johnson took the mound.
Even the smallest glimpse into Randy Johnson the person – whether it be through a conference call or a Hall of Fame speech – and you see just how special he was. There are numbers and hardware, but there’s more than that.
You see beyond the scowl and into the person that chose the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks over the more-established teams with bigger wallets like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the then-California Angels.
And when you look at it all, you see something that probably won’t happen again.