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Talkin' Randy Johnson, 300 wins and history, with Bill James

The following is an experiment -- it's a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James. For a few years now, Bill and I have exchanged e-mails about everything from sports to politics to religion to crime to the qualities of Marlon Brando as an actor (Bill thinks he's overrated). So we have talked about bringing those e-mails to the stage. This is not a pure e-mail exchange ... it is rewritten to come out as a column. Anyway, we hope so. We'll just see how it works.

Bill James: Just as a starting point, do you think we should take a minute to ridicule those people who always say, whenever any pitcher wins his 300th game, that he will be the last pitcher ever to do it?

Joe Posnanski: Let's start there. The big topic lately is the big lefty, Randy Johnson, who at some point soon will win his 300th game. He is two victories short now. And when he does it, he will become the fourth guy this decade to win his 300th. And each time someone has done it in recent years, there has seemed to be a barrage of stories proclaiming that we would never again hear a band as good as The Beatles, watch a basketball player as good as Michael Jordan or see another 300-game winner.

For the record, this has been a banner decade for 300-game winners.

1940s (1): Lefty Grove1950s (0)1960s (2): Warren Spahn and Early Wynn1970s (0)1980s (5): Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton1990s (1): Nolan Ryan2000s (4): Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and, presumably, Randy Johnson

This hints at a larger point, which we'll get to in a moment. First: This has been a painful slog to 300 for Johnson. He went into the 2007 season needing 20 victories to get to the big number, but he was hurt for most of that year and only won four games. He won 11 last year with Arizona, though he deserved better: He had 10 quality starts that turned into losses or no-decisions. The Diamondbacks could have helped him out.

And this year with the Giants he has three victories ... but he also has a 6.86 ERA. When he's been good -- like his seven-inning, one-hit performance against Arizona or his seven-inning, nine-strikeout game against Colorado -- he's been vintage Johnson. The other six times out he's been hard-to-watch bad, as in WillieMays falling in the outfield bad, as in 1-4 with a 10.46 ERA bad.

Bill: Yeah ... but I don't really think he is absolutely finished, do you? It seems to me that there are about 40 pitchers in the majors who are still worse than Randy, but is anybody telling Sidney Ponson that HE should hang it up now?

Joe: The thing that is amazing about Johnson is ... well, actually, there are any number of amazing things about Big Unit. The first time I saw him pitch was 1987 in Jacksonville, and the only reason I have any memory of this is because someone in the Jacksonville press box pointed out that the guy pitching was the tallest player in the history of professional baseball.

So I watched him closely. And he was a freak -- and I don't mean that in the current, sporting, "freak of nature" sort of way. No, he was a freak, as in circus freak; he had this crazy, daddy-longlegs-trying-to-get-out-of-the-sink sort of wind-up, and he seemed to have only passing interest where the pitch was going.

He did not have his first 200-inning season in the big leagues until he was 26 (and he turned 27 before the end of that season). He led the league in walks that year, as he would in each of his first three seasons. He did not have his first really good year until 1993, the season when he turned 30.

And then he just kept getting better. That's the amazing part. He has struck out more than 4,000 batters -- and won 249 games -- since the season when he turned 30. His ERA+ (which measures his ERA against the league average) is a ludicrous 147. If he's not the greatest old pitcher in baseball history, he's right there with Lefty Grove and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Bill: Part of what's amazing about Johnson is the sustained improvement. Entering this season he had a 21-year career in the majors, or, if you throw out the late-season call-up in 1988, 20.

His first four years his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.5 to 1.

The second four years it was 3.4 to 1.

The third four years it was 4.3 to 1.

In the fourth four years it was 5.3 to 1.

Joe: That gets us to the larger point. Seems to me that Randy Johnson has in some ways been overshadowed in his own generation. It isn't that people missed the point that the Unit has been a great pitcher -- the guy has won five Cy Young Awards -- it's that I'm not sure people realize just HOW great he has been.

Why? It's funny: I think it's because while everyone will talk and talk about all the steroids and home runs during the Selig Era, and everyone will talk about how offense dominated the last 15 to 20 years, the truth is that the last 15 to 20 years have given us four of the best pitchers in the history of baseball.

And I just find that richly ironic: I don't believe there has ever been an era in baseball history that gave us four pitchers as good as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. So while Johnson has been Nolan Ryan with control (the Unit's 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings is the best ever), while he had a longer Koufax-like peak*, while he's about to win his 300th game, he's still widely viewed as the fourth-best pitcher of his time.

*Koufax from 1963 to 1966 famously went 97-27 (.782 winning percentage) with a 1.86 ERA (a 172 ERA+ -- meaning his ERA was 72 percent better than the average pitcher of his time) and he averaged 307 strikeouts per year.

Johnson from 1995 to 2002 went 143-44 (.765 winning percentage) with a 2.61 ERA (a 177 ERA+ -- meaning his ERA was 77 percent better than the average pitcher of his time) and he averaged 302 strikeouts per year (despite missing most of the 1996 season).

Bill: I'm always leery about debating the historical standing of active players, because there are so many things that you won't see now that will be obvious to everybody in five years. In 30 years of writing stupid stuff I've made more comments that looked stupid five years later about rating active players historically than about anything else. And I've been trying to avoid it for the last 29 years.

But yes, if you're going to argue that Clemens or Pedro or Maddux is the greatest ever, I think you kind of have to include Randy.

I have a system of "ranking" seasons by pitchers. It's not a perfect system, I suppose -- my point system considers: wins, losses and saves; strikeouts and walks; innings pitched and ERA -- but one of its virtues is that it is not made up to make Randy Johnson look good, or to make Roger Clemens look good, or anything like that ... it's just made up to compare seasons.

By this system the best season by any of these four pitchers (Randy, Clemens, Maddux and Martinez) was Pedro's in 1999 (23-4, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts, 37 walks).

However, the second-best season by any of the pitchers was Johnson's in 2002, the third-best is Johnson's in 2001, and, of the 10 best seasons by these four pitchers, Randy has six. (Pedro and Clemens have two each.)

Then I looked at every two-year stretch by any of these pitchers, every three-year stretch, every four-year stretch, etc., up to 15 years.

The best two-year stretch by any of these pitchers, by my method, is Randy's in 2001-2002 (45-11, 2.31 ERA, 706 strikeouts).

The best three-year stretch by any of these pitchers was Randy's from 2000-2002 (64-18, 2.39 ERA, 1,053 strikeouts).

The best four-year stretch was Johnson's from 1999 to 2002 (81-27, 2.39 ERA, 1,417 strikeouts). This is the only four-year stretch by any of these pitchers in which he won 80 games. Clemens won 100 games over a stretch of five years (as did Johnson), but never won 80 over a stretch of four years.

The best five-year stretch was Johnson's from 1998 to 2002 (100-38, 2.54 ERA, 1,746 strikeouts). Clemens also won 100 games from 1986 to 1990, but his winning percentage was lower (100-42), his ERA higher and he had 500 fewer strikeouts.

The best six-year stretch was Johnson's from 1997 to 2002 (120-42, 2.49 ERA, 2,037 strikeouts). Johnson was the only pitcher in the group to win 120 games over a stretch of six years, and this was the longest stretch of seasons averaging 20 or more wins by any of these pitchers.

Joe: It just makes me hope that Johnson gets his 300th victory soon, and with a nice performance. He has been one of the best ever. It would be rotten for people to remember him as the guy who wobbled to the finish line.

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