The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Randy Johnson dealt in intimidation. Towering at 6-foot-10, with a get-off-my-property scowl and a wingspan approximating that of a Boeing 747, he cut an imposing figure that provided him with both physical and psychological advantages against opposing hitters. Given his reach — not to mention an unconventionally low arm slot — his release point left batters almost no time to distinguish between a sizzling fastball that could reach 100 mph and a wipeout slider that some consider the best in the game's history.
Over the course of his 21-year career, Johnson struck out 4,875 hitters, more than any pitcher this side of Nolan Ryan, but he was no overnight sensation. Given the difficulty of keeping his long levers in sync, he didn't even establish himself as a league-average hurler until his mid-20s, and didn't become an elite one until age 29. Nonetheless, he maintained his dominance into his 40s and stuck around in the majors past his 46th birthday, racking up two no-hitters (including a perfect game), five Cy Young awards, 10 All-Star appearances and 303 wins, not to mention 739 more whiffs than the No. 2 all-time southpaw, Steve Carlton.
Even on a ballot chock-full of deserving holdovers — as well as newcomer Pedro Martinez, a three-time Cy Young winner himself — Johnson is the most likely honoree on this year's ballot. Rest assured, he'll stand tall on the Cooperstown stage next summer.
|Avg. HOF SP||73.4||50.2||61.8|
Born in Walnut Creek, Calif., Johnson stood 6-2 by the time he reached seventh grade and 6-9 by the time he was a high school senior. He starred in both baseball and basketball at Livermore High, but despite leading his league in scoring in the latter sport, he quickly grew uncomfortable with the attention that came with his height. He was chosen by the Braves in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, but bypassed their $50,000 bonus offer to attend the University of Southern California, where he continued to play both sports, joining fellow ballotmate Mark McGwire on the diamond.
At USC, Johnson struggled with both his control and his focus. In a 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, Hank Hersch told the story of Johnson's collegiate debut as a reliever, in which he vowed to pitch out of the stretch to hold a runner at first base — except it wasn't a runner, but Stanford's first-base coach. Still, he showed enough promise that the Expos drafted him in the second round in 1985, following his junior year, and signed him for a $60,000 bonus.
Johnson's control problems continued in the minors, but he offset a walk rate in excess of 7.0 per nine with much lower hit rates and higher strikeout rates. His emotions proved more difficult to manage. Nearing a promotion to the majors from Triple A in 1988, he was hit on the left wrist by a line drive, and after being pulled from the game, he responded by punching a bat rack, fracturing a metacarpal in his right hand. Johnson recovered in time to make his major league debut on Sept. 15 of that year, throwing five innings of two-run ball against the Pirates and overcoming a pair of home runs by Glenn Wilson.
In all, Johnson posted a 2.42 ERA and struck out 25 in 26 innings spread over four late-season starts for Montreal in 1988. In addition to setting a record as the tallest player in major league history (since eclipsed by 6-11 Jon Rauch), he gained an enduring nickname, when a headfirst collision with 5-9 teammate Tim Raines during batting practice prompted the speedy outfielder to marvel, "You're a big unit." Raines continued to provide color when Hersch caught up with the Expos during spring training the following year:
"With his long limbs flailing and his sky-high release, Johnson is a paralyzing sight for hitters, particularly lefthanded ones. Says Raines, 'He doesn't look that big up there. Just about nine feet tall.'"
Alas, Johnson wouldn't remain Raines' teammate for long. Rocked for a 6.67 ERA in six starts and one relief appearance, he was dealt to the Mariners in late May as part of a five-player deal headlined by starting pitcher Mark Langston. He spent the remainder of that season and the next three showing considerable promise, no-hitting the Tigers on June 2, 1990 and earning All-Star honors that year, going 14-11 with a 3.65 ERA — but oh, those bases on balls. As a byproduct of a violent, inconsistent delivery that boosted both his velocity and intimidation factor, Johnson led the AL in walks in three straight seasons (1990-92), passing a total of 416 hitters in 631 1/3 innings (5.9 per nine). But thanks to a 9.5 per nine strikeout rate, his 3.79 ERA (105 ERA+) remained respectable.
In late 1992, Johnson began working with Ryan and pitching coach Tom House, the result of which was a key mechanical change: He began landing on the ball of his foot instead of his heel. The sessions paid quick dividends, and his control improved markedly. On Sept. 27, 1992, facing Ryan's Rangers, Johnson struck out 18 batters in eight innings, a total that would help him lead his league for the first of four straight times.
Thanks to the adjustment, Johnson broke out in 1993, going 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA and 308 strikeouts, the highest total in the majors since 1979. His strikeout-to-walk ratio nearly doubled from the year before, from 1.7 to 3.1. He finished second in the AL Cy Young voting behind Jack McDowell, and his 6.8 WAR ranked ninth. After a similarly strong showing in strike-shortened 1994, he took another step forward in 1995, going 18-2 while leading the league in ERA (2.48), strikeouts (294), homer rate (0.5 per nine), strikeout rate (12.5) and even strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.5) as well as WAR (8.6) en route to his first Cy Young.
What's more, Johnson carried the Mariners — who by that point featured a in-his-prime Ken Griffey Jr. as well as Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Tino Martinez — to their first postseason berth in franchise history. Seattle trailed the Angels by 10 1/2 games as late as Aug. 25, but took over first place amid a 14-2 run. The two teams ended the 144-game regular season tied, and in the tiebreaker, Johnson spun a complete-game three-hitter, striking out 12, to help the Mariners win their first AL West title.
That performance left Johnson unavailable until Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees, by which point Seattle was facing elimination in the best-of-of-five, but he nonetheless maximized his impact. After whiffing 10 in his seven innings of two-run ball to help the Mariners stave off elimination, he came out of the bullpen on one day of rest, with two on and nobody out in the ninth, throwing three innings of relief in the deadlocked Game 5. He allowed a run in the top of the 11th inning, but Edgar Martinez's double — The Double, in Mariners lore — off McDowell in the bottom of the frame brought home both the tying and series-winning runs. Though Johnson made two strong starts against the Indians in the ALCS, the second of which came on three days' rest, Seattle was eliminated.
Johnson's 1996 season was a near-total loss due to a herniated disc that limited him to 61 1/3 innings, but he was as good as ever in 1997: 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA, 291 strikeouts (the latter two figures both second-best in the league) and 8.0 WAR (third). That helped the Mariners to another division title, but he wound up on the short end of his two Division Series starts against Baltimore, the latter of which featured 13 strikeouts.
That year marked the completion of a four-year, $20.25 million deal that Johnson had signed in December 1993, but while Seattle picked up his $6 million option for 1998, the Big Unit took issue with not being offered an extension. Though he continued to miss bats, he was roughed up for a 4.33 ERA in 23 starts for the M's, and the team was similarly lackluster; on July 31, mired at 48-59, the Mariners dealt him to the Astros for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and a player to be named later (who turned out to be John Halama). Johnson sizzled down the stretch, going 10-1 with a microscopic 1.28 ERA to help Houston win the NL Central, but despite striking out 17 and allowing just four runs in 14 innings against the Padres, his new team lost in the Division Series.
Having found NL hitters easy prey, the first-time free agent signed a four-year, $53.4 million deal with the Diamondbacks, an expansion team fresh off a 97-loss inaugural season. Buoyed by his arrival, as well as the additions of outfielders Steve Finley (via free agency) and Luis Gonzalez (via trade), Arizona shot to the top of the NL West, winning 102 games. In the desert, wearing an unsightly teal-and-purple combination, the Big Unit led the league with a 2.48 ERA and set new personal highs with 364 strikeouts and 9.2 WAR, both tops in the NL.
Fueled by continued refinements in his delivery — and particularly his release point distance — Johnson embarked on one of the most dominant stretches in major league history. From 1999 to 2002, he went a combined 81-27 with a 2.48 ERA (187 ERA+), averaging 354 strikeouts (12.4 per nine) and 9.6 WAR per year. He led the NL in both strikeouts and WAR in all four seasons and claimed three ERA crowns and four straight Cy Youngs, matching Greg Maddux (1992-95) as the only other pitcher to achieve the latter feat. His back-to-back 10-WAR seasons in 2001 and '02 (10.0 and 10.9, respectively) are just the third such stretch since World War II, after Bob Gibson (1968-69) and Wilbur Wood (1971-72).
On Sept. 10, 2000, Johnson whiffed the Marlins' Mike Lowell to become the 12th pitcher to reach the 3,000-strikeout plateau and the fastest in terms of innings (2,470 2/3). On March 24, 2001, he gained notoriety for unintentionally vaporizing a bird with a pitch during an exhibition game. In 2002, thanks to his league-high 24 wins, he captured the NL Triple Crown for pitchers.
Even amid those milestones, the high point of Johnson's stay in Arizona came in 2001, when he and Hall of Fame ballotmate Curt Schilling, who had been acquired in mid-2000, formed the game's best one-two punch — and most notorious odd couple — and helped the Diamondbacks to 92 wins and another NL West title. Johnson lost his lone Division Series start to the Cardinals, but Schilling was brilliant, throwing a shutout in the series opener and a one-run complete game in the finale. Johnson shut out the Braves on three hits with 11 strikeouts in NLCS Game 1 and threw seven strong innings in the Game 5 clincher, then came back to throw another three-hit, 11-strikeout shutout against the Yankees in Game 2 of the World Series.
With Arizona trailing 3-games-to-2, the series returned to Phoenix. Johnson coasted through seven innings in a 15-2 rout in Game 6, then came out of the bullpen in Game 7 the next night, holding down the fort by throwing 1 1/3 shutout innings before his teammates rallied against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off championship victory. Johnson and Schilling shared World Series MVP honors, and soon Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year accolade as well.
A knee injury cost Johnson nearly three months in 2003, ending his Cy Young reign, but he had one more brilliant season for the Diamondbacks in 2004, leading the league in ERA+ (176), strikeouts (290) and WAR (8.5) — at the age of 40, no less. Due to lousy run support, he went just 16-14, still no small achievement for a 51-111 doormat. On May 18, he became the oldest pitcher in major league history to throw a perfect game, setting down all 27 Braves he faced for the 17th perfecto of alltime. On June 29, he struck out the Padres' Jeff Cirillo to become the fourth pitcher to reach 4,000 strikeouts after Ryan, Carlton and Clemens; again, he was the fastest to do so in terms of innings. After the season, he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting, losing out to Clemens despite much stronger numbers beyond wins and losses; had he prevailed, the two would share the all-time record with six Cys apiece.
Having beaten the Yankees twice in postseason elimination games already in his career, the 41-year-old Johnson then set about joining them. With the Diamondbacks looking to rebuild, he was traded to New York in January 2005 for Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro and Javier Vazquez, agreeing to a two-year, $32 million extension to facilitate the deal. His tenure in the Bronx got off to a rocky start when, en route to his physical examination to finalize the deal, he pushed a television camera out of his way, fueling the tabloids.
Though durable enough to throw a combined 430 2/3 innings and notch 34 wins in his two years in pinstripes, Johnson posted uncharacteristically high ERAs (3.69 in 2005 and a career-worst 5.00 in '06) and came up small in the postseason, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings as the Yankees made a pair of first-round exits. He battled lower back issues throughout 2006, sapping his velocity; his signature slider lost its bite, and he whiffed just 7.6 per nine, his lowest mark since 1989. After the season, he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc, and New York shipped him back to Arizona in exchange for a four-player package.
Johnson made just 10 starts in 2007 before needing another back operation, but he rebounded in 2008, posting a 3.91 ERA (118 ERA+) in 30 starts. His 11 wins in the latter season left him with 295, and while it figured that he would remain with the D-backs as he chased the 300-win milestone, the two sides were unable to reach a deal, and the 45-year-old lefty instead signed an $8 million contract for 2009 with the Giants.
Johnson struggled mightily, carrying a 5.71 ERA into his June 4 start against the Nationals, but by holding them to two hits and one unearned run over six innings — the first four of which were hitless — he became the 24th pitcher to reach 300 wins, and the first to do so on his first attempt since Tom Seaver in 1985. "I'm thinking, 'I only have 211 more to catch Cy Young,'" he joked afterward.
Just over a month later, Johnson suffered a tear in his rotator cuff while batting, the first significant arm injury of his career, remarkably enough. The injury shelved him for 10 weeks, and he made only five appearances out of the bullpen upon returning in September. Just past his 46th birthday, he was finally done.
Johnson finished with 303 wins, good for 22nd all-time, and fifth among southpaws; only Warren Spahn (363), Carlton (329), Eddie Plank (326) and Tom Glavine (305) have more. His 4,875 strikeouts set a record for lefties, and his nine times leading the league ranks third among all pitchers, behind Walter Johnson (12) and Ryan (11). His 10.6 strikeouts per nine stands as the all-time record; Ryan (9.6) is the only other pitcher with more than a strikeout per inning across at least 3,000 innings. Johnson's 135 ERA+ is in a virtual tie for seventh among pitchers with at least 3,000 innings, with Clemens (143) the only other post-World War II pitcher among that group.
Those numbers mark Johnson as an easy choice for the Hall of Fame, and the advanced metrics support his case as well. His 102.1 WAR ranks ninth all-time, and fourth among postwar pitchers behind Clemens (140.3), Seaver (110.5) and Maddux (106.9). His 62.0 peak WAR ranks 15th, with Clemens (66.3) the only other postwar hurler to top him. His 82.0 JAWS is ninth, behind Clemens (103.3) and Seaver (85.0) but ahead of Maddux (81.6) among the postwar set.
He's one of the all-time greats, and he can start polishing his induction speech when he's not working on his photography in Africa or the front row of a KISS concert. Unlike the Rocket, the Big Unit doesn't have any baggage related to performance-enhancing drugs attached to his name, so as Maddux and Glavine did last year, he should easily garner well above 90 percent of the vote, punching his ticket to Cooperstown.