Charles Bronfman was desperate. Disillusioned by player salaries zooming past team revenue streams, the heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune had put his Montreal franchise up for sale. But the Expos had gotten off to a hot start in 1989, and Bronfman wanted to seize his chance to go out a winner.
Just a few weeks into the season, the struggling Seattle Mariners offered Bronfman that chance when they started shopping 28-year-old left-hander Mark Langston. At the time, Langston was one of the game’s best pitchers, and arguably the best lefty, having tossed more innings and struck out more batters over the previous three seasons than anyone except Roger Clemens. The Expos had never traded for a high-priced star, let alone one approaching free agency, and they knew it would take multiple prospects to land Langston.
“We knew we’d have to give up a lot, and we didn’t know if we’d be able to re-sign him,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Expos GM at the time. “But we also knew we’d get two draft choices as compensation if we couldn’t keep him. But really it came down to this: Charles wanted to win.”
On May 25, 1989, the Expos beat out the Mets and other suitors to get their man. Langston came as advertised, instantly becoming one of the best pitchers in the National League. After spending 54 days in first place that summer, however, the Expos faded, eventually losing the division to the Chicago Cubs and falling all the way to .500 by season’s end. Bronfman went on to sell the team, a crushing blow for a franchise that would eventually fail and move to Washington, D.C.
The team suffered another crushing blow, too: Though young pitchers Gene Harris and Brian Holman, the main chips sent to Seattle in exchange for Langston, never became the stars many thought they’d be, the Expos grew to severely regret losing the third young pitcher in the deal, a beanpole of a lefty who was the real-life Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. In the first 418.1 innings of his minor league career, he’d walked an unfathomable 327 batters. He threw serious gas, so he’d also racked up lots of strikeouts, but chasing his upside meant trying to harness an unholy mess of arms, legs, and velocity. The odds of that chaos translating into consistency, let alone excellence, at the major league level seemed remote, so the Expos shipped him off to the Mariners.
And now you know the origin story of Randy Johnson, the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.
Not everyone is willing to award the Big Unit that label. For many, Johnson’s reputation is shaped as much by his peers as by his performance, and he pitched in an era that featured some of the most prolific pitchers of all time. Clemens and Greg Maddux, two of the three best right-handed pitchers in the post-war era,1 ranked among Johnson’s contemporaries, as did Hall of Fame–worthy hurlers Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, and Mike Mussina. Hell, Johnson isn’t even the most famous pitcher on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot: That would be Pedro Martinez, an electrifying moundsman with a personality as captivating as his stuff.
Tom Seaver is the other
But some of the greatest sluggers also played in that era, and while Johnson lacked Martinez’s personality and Maddux’s craftsman standing, his résumé reads like something from a damn video game, full of extraordinary achievements that seem nearly impossible given how often he had to face players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and run-of-the-mill second basemen who could jack 30 homers without much trouble. Johnson struck out 4,875 batters in his career, winning 303 games and five Cy Youngs along the way.
Those who challenge the notion that Johnson is the best lefty of all time commonly invoke Sandy Koufax’s name. While even the most ardent Koufax proponents have to concede that their man wasn’t all that great until the final six years of his career, those six seasons have taken on mythic proportions and are often held up as the greatest peak years by any pitcher.
Well, it turns out that Johnson’s best six-year run compares favorably with Koufax’s: The Big Unit won four consecutive Cy Youngs from 1999 through 2002 and added a second-place finish in 2004. Moreover, if we remove the artificial construct of consecutive seasons and simply stack up Koufax’s best six years against Johnson’s best six, here’s what we get:
He posted a 136 ERA+ in 1955, but that was his rookie season, and he only pitched 41 innings.
As you can see, if we take ERA and adjust it for both park factors and league norms, Johnson, who pitched in the height of the PED era and whose six-year numbers came at the hitter-friendly Kingdome and Chase Field, actually tops Koufax, whose raw ERA numbers look incredible but who accomplished those feats at a time when mounds were roughly 80 feet high, middle infielders weighed about a buck-forty, and you needed a rocket launcher to hit the ball out of Dodger Stadium.
You could argue that Koufax deserves extra credit for his higher innings totals, but Johnson averaged more than 257 innings a year from 1999 to 2002 while pitching in a five-man rotation, which isn’t that far off from Koufax topping 300 innings three times in the four-man era against much weaker competition and in ideal pitching conditions. You could also argue that Koufax deserves extra credit for his legendary postseason performances, and that point carries more weight, especially compared to Johnson’s sometimes pedestrian playoff numbers.3 But at worst, we’re talking about six-year samples that point to comparable dominance.
The vast majority of Johnson’s shaky playoff outings came in the League Division Series, while he mostly excelled in the later rounds. To wit, in 72.1 LDS innings, he posted a 4.85 ERA; in 31.1 LCS innings, a 1.72 ERA; in 17.1 World Series innings, a 1.04 ERA.
At best, consider that Koufax had only one other season in which he managed even 200 innings pitched, while Johnson was a top-seven Cy Young finisher four times outside of his six best seasons, and the comparison isn’t particularly close.
Pick your favorite other lefty. Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton won more games, but we all know that wins are a team- and rotation-size-dependent stat, and Spahn (career 119 ERA+) and Carlton (115 ERA+) didn’t prevent runs nearly as well as Johnson did (135 ERA+). Other than Johnson, the southpaw with the best argument for the throne is probably Lefty Grove, who by Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system — which combines career and peak value — tops the Unit by the slimmest of margins. However, if we focus on factors a pitcher can best control, such as strikeouts and walks, defense-independent metrics give Johnson the edge. Johnson pitched in an era when strikeouts were far more prevalent, but he also pitched against far tougher offensive competition than did Grove.
The stat deluge hardly ends there. Thanks to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info and Ryan Spaeder, proprietor of the excellent @AceballStats Twitter feed, here are a bunch more of Johnson’s spectacular achievements.
• Johnson has the second-most strikeouts in MLB history:
|Most Strikeouts in MLB History|
• Johnson is tied for the most 300-strikeout seasons in MLB history:
|Most 300-Strikeout Seasons in MLB History|
• Johnson has the most strikeouts per nine innings in MLB history:
|Most Strikeouts per Nine Innings in MLB History|
|(Minimum 1,000 innings pitched)|
• In 1973, Nolan Ryan struck out a record 383 batters in 326 innings. From July 9, 2000, to September 2, 2001, Johnson struck out 488 batters in 325 innings.
• Johnson struck out 28.56 percent of the batters he faced, best ever by a qualifying pitcher. Had Ryan equaled that mark, he would’ve delivered 6,448 Ks.
• The most recent seasons in which a pitcher struck out at least 300 batters more than he walked are Johnson in 2001, Koufax in 1965, and Matt Kilroy in 1886.
• In 1996, Johnson held opponents to a .088/.200/.211 line with runners in scoring position and a .077/.200/.115 line with two outs and runners in scoring position.
• Johnson came back from a 3-0 count 66 times to strike out an opponent in his career, second behind only Clemens, who managed that 70 times.
• Opponents batted .185 against Johnson when he got ahead 0-1 in the count; their average was .232 when he fell behind 1-0.
• Left-handed hitters batted .199/.278/.294 against Johnson. In 2,104 plate appearances, he managed 598 strikeouts (28.4 percent), 25 home runs allowed (1.2 percent), and 145 walks (6.9 percent).
• In 1999, left-handed batters hit .103/.204/.126 against Johnson.
• Johnson had nine qualified seasons in which he totaled more strikeouts than baserunners allowed. No other pitcher has even five such seasons.
• In 386 plate appearances, members of the 3,000-hit club batted .157/.272/.254 with 103 strikeouts against Johnson.
• Martinez (2000) and Johnson (2001) are the only qualified pitchers with twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed in a season.
• Johnson had 36 career games with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks, most in MLB history.
• Johnson owns numerous records for consecutive games with at least “x” number of strikeouts: five strikeouts (69 games in a row), six (65), seven (34), eight (17).
• Johnson also owns numerous records for the most games with at least “x” number of strikeouts: 11 strikeouts (159 total games), 12 (101), 13 (69), 14 (47), 15 (29).
• Since 1920, the pitchers with the most qualified starts with more than twice as many strikeouts as baserunners allowed are Johnson (57), Martinez (49), Ryan (36), and Schilling (34).
• Johnson also dominated in 15 career relief appearances: 15.9 K/9, 43.8 K%, 9.5 K:BB ratio.
It’s fitting to see Ryan’s name appear over and over alongside Johnson’s on these leaderboards. If the Expos, Mariners, or anyone else had envisioned an absolute best-case scenario for Johnson in 1989, it would have been that he’d become at least a little like Ryan. Before he became The Express, Ryan was an incredibly wild pitcher in his own right, walking so many batters that the Mets shipped him along with three others to the Angels for Jim Fregosi in 1971. Thanks to mechanical adjustments and his legendary work ethic, however, Ryan was able to trim his walks enough for his swing-and-miss stuff to shine through, enabling him to become the all-time leader in strikeouts and no-hitters.
In September 1992, more than three years after the Expos-Mariners trade, Johnson had become a 200-innings-a-year starter but was still struggling with his command on his way to leading the AL in walks for the third consecutive season. It was Ryan, along with pitching guru Tom House, who identified and helped correct a mechanical flaw in Johnson’s delivery, and the next season Johnson broke out with 308 strikeouts and a 3.24 ERA (135 ERA+), earning a second-place Cy Young finish.
In the end, it turned out that the Ryan comparisons were unfair after all, but not for the reasons most expected. From that point on, Johnson grew into the same strikeout machine as the big Texan, but with far better command, and better numbers for his era. Using nothing more than his trademark fastball and arguably the most unhittable slider in baseball history, Johnson eclipsed Ryan … as well as Koufax, Spahn, Grove, and nearly everyone else who ever pitched.
It’s tough to say how exciting the taciturn Johnson’s induction speech will be when Cooperstown opens its doors to him in July. But it’s more than safe to say that few players will have ever been more deserving of standing on that stage.
My Hypothetical Hall of Fame Ballot
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty ImagesOf course, Johnson is just one of many worthy players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, which features 34 candidates, including 17 first-timers. Ballots are due by December 27, and the results will be announced on January 6. A player must appear on 75 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots to be inducted.
Voters are only allowed to put 10 players on their ballots. That’s a real shame, because there are more than 10 worthy players on this year’s ballot, especially if we acknowledge that (a) the Hall is home to a wide range of players, not just Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and (b) trying to parse the worthiness of candidates based on whether or not a substance was banned by a codified Joint Drug Agreement when they played is a fool’s errand. The BBWAA recently voted to raise the ballot limit from 10 to 12, and the next step will be for the association to present that proposal to the Hall of Fame and hope for approval. I’d prefer to have every player on the ballot receive a straight yes or no vote, with no cap on how many players voters could pick each year, but some change is still better than none.
At any rate, we’re still at 10 for now. So in addition to Johnson, here are the nine players I’d tap for Hall of Fame induction if I had a vote this year,4 plus those I’d support if there were no limits on ballot size. For a longer breakdown on most of these players, check out my Hall of Fame primer from last year.
To get a Hall of Fame vote, you must be a BBWAA member for 10 consecutive years. I have nine to go.
1. Barry Bonds: He’s the best baseball player I’ve ever seen, but he won’t come close to getting the votes needed for induction due to the taint of a steroid scandal.
2. Roger Clemens: Twelve years ago, back when I was a rookie writer for Baseball Prospectus, I teamed up with the excellent Keith Woolner5 to write a piece on the greatest living pitcher. We used an evaluation method similar to Jaffe’s JAWS system, which combines a player’s career value with his peak value to gauge his overall excellence. Among those considered for the honor: Spahn, Tom Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Johnson, Martinez, Maddux, and Clemens.
Woolner invented the replacement-level concept that led to VORP, WARP, WAR, and other catchall measures of player value, and he is now director of baseball analytics for the Indians.
The winner? Clemens, with 4,916.2 innings, 4,672 strikeouts, a 3.12 ERA, and 139.4 Wins Above Replacement. He managed that despite largely pitching during an absolutely bonkers era for offensive production, and while his critics can fairly note that Clemens likely benefited from some of the same drugs as the batters he faced, the bottom line is that he excelled during a brutally tough stretch for all pitchers (and not just because some of the hitters were juicing).
3. Pedro Martinez: His counting stats don’t overwhelm, especially if you prefer deeply flawed measures like wins (219). But what made Pedro Pedro was a peak that might be the greatest by any pitcher. Grantland boss Bill Simmons has written many words about Pedro’s 1998-2001 greatness, but here’s the distilled version: From 1999 to 2000, Pedro posted 597 strikeouts (!!!), 69 walks, 288 hits, and a 1.90 ERA in 430.1 innings. And he did that all while pitching in the AL East.
You want a Pedro synopsis in four words? Here it is: rich man’s Sandy Koufax.
4. Jeff Bagwell: I covered Bagwell’s candidacy last year and went even more in depth in 2011, but here’s a summary of those points: If the only criteria you’re willing to use to evaluate a position player’s résumé are home runs and hits, then Bagwell won’t look all that different from Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado, and might appear to be less qualified than McGwire. But once you recognize the career .408 on-base percentage and .540 slugging average he amassed while playing most of his career in the offense-strangling Astrodome; once you appreciate his 202 stolen bases (the most for any post-war first baseman) and excellent defense; once you factor in a peak that featured a .368/.451/.750 demolition of opposing pitchers during his 1994 MVP campaign … you get a player who should be a stone-cold lock for the Hall.
5. Curt Schilling: What I wrote last year still stands:
He posted a park- and league-adjusted ERA 27 percent better than league average, tied with Gibson and Tom Seaver and better than Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, and many other all-time greats. And while I don’t usually go nuts over postseason stats, Schilling was so astoundingly successful in October (2.23 career playoff ERA) over so many appearances (133⅓ career playoff innings) that he might have a case as the greatest starting pitcher in playoff history.
6. Mike Piazza: He batted .308/.377/.545 and cranked 427 home runs in his 16-year career. He’s the greatest offensive catcher of all time, and no amount of obsessing over his defense (which wasn’t quite as bad as the Chernobyl-level performance he gets accused of) or back acne justifies keeping him out.
7. Mike Mussina: TheESPN.com piece I wrote on Mussina in 2008 still ably sums up my feelings: Just because Moose pitched in the same era as Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Martinez, and Schilling doesn’t mean he isn’t also an all-time great. The numbers are there, and the résumé is worthy once you consider the long odds pitchers faced in the PED era. His career is basically the same as Glavine’s, and failing to reach 300 wins should be more or less irrelevant when weighing Moose’s candidacy.
8. John Smoltz: I’ve mentioned Jaffe a couple of times already, and you really should read all of his Hall of Fame columns, since they do such a good job of putting numbers into context and allowing us to reasonably compare players across eras. Jaffe’s insight is especially valuable in the case of Smoltz, a hybrid starter/reliever whose résumé might confuse some. Smoltz’s combination of peak starter years (roughly 1996-99) and his dominant three-year run as a closer (2002-04) give him Eckersley-esque credentials, albeit with more impressive work as a starter than in relief. This year’s jammed ballot could postpone Smoltz’s enshrinement for a year or two, but he’ll get in before long, and deservedly so.
9. Tim Raines: He reached base more times than Roberto Clemente or Tony Gwynn. He’s one of only five players ever to steal 800 bases, and the only one from that group not in the Hall of Fame. He’s the highest percentage basestealer of all time for anyone with nearly as many attempts. If you only remember Raines as a (very good) part-time player on Yankees championship teams, consider this: From 1981 through 1990, the best player in the NL by Wins Above Replacement was … Raines.6
Five Other Worthy Candidates
Full disclosure: I’m a Montreal Expos fan, Raines is my favorite player of all time, I wrote a book about the Expos that includes an impassioned plea for Raines to be inducted, and I co-run a website devoted entirely to Raines’s Hall of Fame candidacy. But none of that changes his credentials, which are decidedly Hall-worthy.
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images
1. Craig Biggio: I had Raines over Biggio last year and maintain that stance this year, because I don’t believe the 3,000-hit milestone constitutes a drop-the-mic moment. That said, Raines and Biggio are incredibly close in career value, and Biggio certainly deserves induction. My hope is that (a) Biggio will get in this time, and (b) the Hall will approve the proposal for an expanded ballot so voters won’t have to face similarly painful decisions on, say, Raines vs. Edgar Martinez or Alan Trammell in the future.
2. Edgar Martinez: He’s a career .312/.418/.515 hitter who kept raking even after moving from the hitter-friendly Kingdome to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Using wRC+, which adjusts offensive numbers for park effects and era, Edgar ranks as the 27th-best hitter of all time, on par with Honus Wagner and Mike Schmidt on a per-at-bat basis.
3. Mark McGwire: Again, what I wrote last year still stands:
Yes, it’s odd that McGwire (583 home runs) and Sosa (609) would be considered borderline candidates to voters who don’t penalize for PED use. But the best we can do is compare players to their contemporaries, and by those standards, both McGwire and Sosa fail to look like all-timers once we get past that insane 1998 season and the couple of peak years surrounding it. I have McGwire in and Sosa just missing the cut because Sosa made outs a lot more frequently than Mac did. Though really, whether you want to vote for both, neither, or just Sosa (McGwire was terribly injury-prone for much of his career, played in just 1,874 games, was a butcher at first base, and ran poorly when he wasn’t able to trot around the bases), each argument is defensible.
4. Alan Trammell: He has pretty much the exact same Hall of Fame argument as Barry Larkin. And it’s a damn travesty that Tigers teammate Lou Whitaker, another worthy candidate, got brushed aside so quickly.
5. Larry Walker: This mostly boils down to an argument for Walker’s 1997 to 1999 peak, during which he hit .314/.410/.592 … away from Coors Field. Walker is just barely on the yes side of the border for me, while Jeff Kent — who after accounting for defense and the era in which he played could be considered an inferior candidate to Whitaker — just misses. That said, there are plenty of anti-Walker arguments and pro-Kent arguments that have plenty of merit.
Hopefully one day we can have those kinds of nuanced debates about great players like Walker and Kent rather than yelling at each other over PEDs and ballot limits and other contentious subjects that tend to overshadow everything that’s great about a really cool museum in a bucolic little town that’s still an amazing place for baseball fans to see.