Tim Marchman
Wednesday January 6th, 2010

Was there ever a more memorable player than Randy Johnson? Think of the Hall of Fame plaque you could write up for him without reference to a single baseball statistic:

Randall David Johnson. First 6-foot-10 player in major league history, once killed bird in midflight with fastball. Came out of bullpen day after starting Game 6 of 2001 World Series to cement victory for team. Left-handed hitters were not allowed to face him. Fearsome slider, which to hitter appeared to be coming from the first base coach, broke from eye level to shoetops; none could resist swinging at it. Had most obscene name this side Peter O'Toole; none dared laugh at him over it, afraid of him. Smited batters unto an entire generation.

When you add in the statistics, the plaque becomes still more overwhelming. Five Cy Young Awards, 4,875 strikeouts, the fifth-highest winning percentage among 300-game winners ... you can go on. People will look back at the nineties and aughts a generation from now and marvel not so much at the home run records as at the fact that Johnson was the third- or fourth-best pitcher of his era.

However he ranks relative to Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, though, Johnson's single claim is that he was the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. Admirers of Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton will blanch, but his case is almost indisputable. Consider how he rates against the man most people would probably name as the best-ever southpaw: Sandy Koufax made his reputation with his 1962-1966 run; it wasn't even clearly better than Johnson's prime.

During his five-year peak, Koufax ran up a 111-34 record with a 1.95 ERA, striking out 1,444 in 1,377 innings. From 1998-2002, Johnson's record was 100-38, with a 2.63 ERA and 1,746 strikeouts in 1,274 1/3 innings. Koufax won five straight ERA titles, leading in strikeouts and wins three times and innings twice. Johnson won three ERA titles and four strikeout crowns while leading in innings twice and wins once.

Taking these numbers at face value, you'd say that as marvelous as Johnson was at his best, Koufax was that much better. But then Koufax pitched in a great pitcher's park in a great pitcher's era, while Johnson pitched in good hitter's parks in a great hitter's era. Going by ERA+, which adjusts for park and league effects and indexes them on a scale where 100 is average, Johnson actually has the better of it over their five-year primes, 175-167. Perhaps more impressively, he led his leagues in ERA+ four times during his best five year run. Koufax did that twice.

What makes Johnson so special isn't that he had a five-year run to rate with Koufax's prime, though; it's what he did outside of it. Leave aside that run from 1998 through 2002 and Johnson's career record is 203-128 with a 3.28 ERA --essentially Curt Schilling's entire career, Hall-worthy in its own right. Add Koufax's prime to that and you have something unfathomable, something that I'd say rates as the best career any left-hander has ever had.

There are arguments for other pitchers, but they aren't convincing. Spahn wasn't nearly as effective as Johnson per inning and had probably one year that would rate among Johnson's ten best, though he pitched over than 1,000 more innings and lost another three seasons to World War II. Carlton was essentially Spahn with a higher peak and more merely average seasons. Grove had a better ERA+ in a similar number of innings and won more ERA titles, but that should be discounted because black and Latino ballplayers weren't allowed to play in the majors during his career. There isn't another left-hander who can touch Johnson's peak, let alone his career value. Judged dispassionately, he stands alone.

What we'll remember, though, isn't his statistical ranking -- it's just how terrifying Johnson was. By the time his career had reached its apex, baseball was too polite a game for intimidation to really play much of a role, but there were five players who truly scared people. The others were Clemens, Martinez, Mariano Rivera and Barry Bonds. That's terrific company. He deserved to keep it.

Even today, as he announces his retirement, Johnson is out of the public consciousness in some sense, lagging behind tomorrow's Hall of Fame announcements and Matt Holliday's rich new deal. That's fitting for someone who spent the bulk of one of the game's great careers behind three other ridiculously great pitchers, and sometimes sat behind the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez as the most famous player on his own teams. It's also irrelevant. Thirty years from now, people will be talking about the frightening things they saw him do. The legend that grows with time might be the rarest of all.

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