Total Command With an unprecedented April in which he was all but unhittable, the Diamondbacks' majestic Randy Johnson made his case for the title of the game's best pitcher

May 07, 2000

The tall tale of Randy Johnson grows. The man who rewrote the
record books of Guinness as well as Cooperstown--Tallest Pitcher!
Fiercest Fastball! Highest Strikeout Rate! Scariest Scowl!--is
bigger than ever. To his mythic career Johnson has added the best
April by a pitcher in the history of baseball: six wins, 64
strikeouts and a 0.91 ERA in six games, in which he was on the
mound for all but 15 of a possible 162 outs. That, ladies and
gentlemen and children of all ages, is only the half of it.

What Johnson did in April is obliterate the actuarial tables of
baseball. After he pitched more innings last season while turning
36 than every other non-knuckleball pitcher but one in the past
quarter century; while he spends time between innings flat on his
back in dugout runways to pamper a surgically repaired back; and
after having struck out more batters than all but 15 pitchers in
history--after all those miles on his odometer--this is what is
most astounding about Johnson: The Big Unit is better than he has
ever been.

"Oh, yeah, I like to think I'm better than ever," Johnson, last
year's National League Cy Young Award winner, said three days
before closing April with seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts
against the Chicago Cubs in a 6-0 Arizona Diamondbacks victory on
Sunday. "I know some people wondered if I could do it again. But
my location is much better, and when I need to reach back and
turn it up a notch, I can."

The lefthanded Johnson has always had the mentality and mien of a
gunslinger, having never taken kindly to razor and scissors, and
featuring a cool glint in his blue eyes that matches the hard
angularity of his 6'10" frame. He shot, sometimes wildly, with
his fastball and asked questions later. Today, though, Johnson,
is better armed: He has refined a sinker, which was three years
in the making. Johnson, who pitches inside more than anybody else
in baseball, now has a weapon to make righthanded hitters
conscious of the outside corner. "It used to be he went out there
when his fastball got away from him," says Philadelphia Phillies
catcher Mike Lieberthal. "Now he's running that two-seamer down
and away with great control."

Early in counts hitters often bite at the two-seamer, which
Johnson throws at about 91 mph, because it appears more hittable
than his 98-mph, four-seam fastball. That has helped Johnson
maintain reasonable pitch counts; his April mark of 115.2 per
start was below his '99 average of 120.2. "It's happened by
accident," Johnson says of keeping his counts down. "The last
thing I want to do is throw 135 pitches every game. I'm not
worried about strikeouts and I've never tried for them. I'm just
worried about outs."

Johnson has also gained such mastery of his hard slider that
Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor says, "He can throw it
for a strike whenever he wants. Because of that, he's never in an
obvious fastball count. Three and 1, 3 and 2, he's just as likely
to throw a slider as a fastball." Of course, the Big Unit can
still blow heat whenever he wants. On his 109th and final pitch
of a complete-game, 3-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on
April 14, Johnson clocked in at 101 mph.

"I was very impressed," Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said on Sunday,
after his first encounter with Johnson, not including the
get-acquainted fastball Johnson delivered to Girardi's hip in
spring training. "I heard all about how overpowering his stuff
can be. But he pitches. He's not a thrower. He sank the ball, ran
it away from hitters, took a little bit off his fastball and
still reached back for something extra when he needed to."

On Sunday, Girardi got one of only two hits that Johnson has
surrendered in 26 at bats this season with runners in scoring
position--a single off Johnson's glove to fill the bases with two
outs in the seventh inning. Johnson then fell behind Shane
Andrews, 2 and 0. "You get maybe one chance in a game to mount an
attack against him," Chicago manager Don Baylor says.

This was it. Three pitches later--a fastball blown past a swinging
Andrews and a slider and fastball he could only admire--the window
was slammed shut. Johnson's body convulsed, as if in contact with
a high-tension wire, as he unleashed a triumphant scream.

Dave Stewart of the 1988 Oakland Athletics is the only other
pitcher to go 6-0 in April, but Stewart did so with a more
pedestrian 2.98 ERA. What Johnson did belongs with Hack Wilson's
54-RBI August in '30, Orel Hershiser's scoreless September in '88
and Sammy Sosa's 20-home run June in '98 as one of the most
phenomenal months ever by an individual. "If he keeps this up,"
Connor says, "we're going to have to look in his locker for the
cape."

Sunday's victory left Johnson (166-88) and Koufax (165-87) with
nearly identical lifetime records covering a nearly identical
number of innings. Koufax threw 25 more innings than Johnson's
2,299 1/3, but Johnson has 361 more whiffs. More impressively,
Johnson has in many ways matched Koufax's 1961-66 prime,
considered to be perhaps the most extraordinary extended run of
pitching brilliance in the game's history. If Johnson's feat
hasn't reverberated as loudly as Koufax's, it's because Johnson's
encompasses two strike-shortened seasons, back surgery that
limited to him to eight starts in 1996 and the rise of Boston Red
Sox righthander Pedro Martinez.

Johnson is a fiercely proud warrior. Last season, for instance,
he quietly bristled when he read that Brian Giles of the
Pittsburgh Pirates, a lefthanded hitter who had recently arrived
from the Cleveland Indians, brashly welcomed the challenge of
facing Johnson. The Big Unit introduced himself with a 99-mph
heater that whistled past Giles's earflap. He proceeded to whiff
Giles three times in succession. Similarly, the ascent of
Martinez as the game's King of the Hill hasn't passed without
Johnson stating his own case for the throne. Neither Johnson nor
Martinez has lost a game since last August (chart, above). With
Martinez pitching the Red Sox to a 2-1 victory over the Indians,
Sunday marked the fourth time already this season that they had
won on the same day, and each did so with seven shutout innings.
Quietly and improbably, against the backdrop of home run bombs
bursting in midair, Johnson and Martinez have begun a pitching
reprise of the Sosa-Mark McGwire home run races of the past two
seasons.

It's another compare-and-contrast essay question in which the
differences between them are as obvious as the arms with which
they throw. Martinez floats with a boyish charm, even dismissing
four successive rainouts last month as terrific weather "to
cuddle in." Johnson is the grim reaper of strikeouts. Once a
cutup who kept spools of crime-scene tape in his locker, Johnson
carries himself with such gravity that one official of the
Seattle Mariners, for whom Johnson pitched from 1989 to '98, gave
this advice to the Diamondbacks when they signed him as a free
agent after the '98 season: "You'll love him every fifth day. But
those other four days..."

"I don't necessarily enjoy the four days in between starts,"
Johnson concedes. "It's become more of a grind. I'm as serious
about the game as I've ever been--probably too serious. I had a
long conversation last year with Steve Carlton. He told me that
on the days he pitched, he felt it was his responsibility to make
everyone around him better, to lift his teammates. That's what I
try to do."

The Johnson-Martinez byplay would be the same classic theater as
Koufax-Marichal, Hunter-Palmer or Carlton-Seaver but for the
happenstance of their playing in different leagues. They excel in
parallel universes that they share with no one else. Johnson has
no interest in adding any rhetoric to the arrangement either. On
rare occasions, though, his pride emerges. "Pedro is a great
pitcher. I take absolutely nothing away from him," he says. "But
how old is Pedro? He's 28. I'm going to be 37."

Johnson threw 271 2/3 innings last year, or 58 1/3 more than
Martinez. With the exceptions of knuckleballers Charlie Hough and
Phil Niekro, whose feature pitch put little strain on their arms,
only one other pitcher in the past quarter century worked that
many innings at such an advanced age: Carlton, in 1980, '82 and
'83. After his 31st birthday Nolan Ryan, acknowledged as one of
the great physical marvels of pitching, never came within 20
innings of Johnson's '99 total.

"When I got here last year, I admit I thought Randy Johnson was a
guy who got by on god-given stuff," says Arizona lefty reliever
Dan Plesac, who was traded from the Toronto Blue Jays last June.
"Boy, was I wrong. This guy works as hard as anybody. He spends a
lot of time in the weight room, he studies hitters, and he
reviews every start to make sure he never pitches in a pattern."

Last year, when he won the Cy Young (his second) by finishing
17-9 with a major league-leading 364 strikeouts, Johnson held up
well under the workload--he was 8-2 with a 1.89 ERA after the
All-Star break--though he often resorted to shadow pitching
without a baseball between starts to conserve energy. By the
time he lost 8-4 to the New York Mets in a National League
Division Series, Johnson had dropped about eight pounds from his
preferred playing weight of 228. It was his sixth straight
postseason defeat. "Other than the game against Baltimore [a 9-3
loss to the Orioles in Game 1 of a 1997 American League
Divisional Series] and the game last year, I've really pitched
pretty well but things haven't gone my way," he says.

This spring at the Diamondbacks' camp in Tucson, Johnson tried
throwing a forkball but shelved it after Connor told him it took
the bite out of his slider. Connor told Johnson, "You know, this
is ridiculous. You're throwing this pitch to give you an
advantage against what, the two, maybe three hitters who are
comfortable hitting against you? It probably will give you that
advantage. But it's going to be at the expense of your real good
breaking ball. I don't think you need it."

So nasty is Johnson's slider that last year righthanded-hitting
Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds swung at one that whizzed
between his legs. This season Brian Hunter of the Colorado
Rockies, another righthanded hitter, swung at one while lifting
his back foot off the ground; after deciding to swing, he
realized the pitch was about to give his right foot a pedicure.

"When I was with the Yankees," says Connor, a coach with New York
from 1990 through '93, "our approach against him was to stay
close and wait for him to make mistakes--maybe lose his mechanics,
walk a couple of guys, a wild pitch, a bloop hit, anything.
What's happened over the last couple of years is that he's gotten
extraordinary balance in his delivery. It clicked in. That's made
him consistent with his command. He's not going to beat himself
anymore."

Johnson isn't just an author of history, he's a student of it. He
knows that Kid Nichols dominated the game in the 1890s by
throwing as many as 453 innings in a season. He knows that
Carlton threw 30 complete games in 1972 (last year Johnson had a
career-high 12). "They say [Phillies righthander] Curt Schilling
and I are throwbacks," he says. "Combined we aren't throwbacks."
He has the home phone numbers of Carlton, Koufax, Ryan and Warren
Spahn programmed into his cell phone.

He's a worthy member of the pantheon. So let the fable grow. Let
it begin with Sept. 10, 1963. That's the day Koufax, while
beating the Pirates 4-2, with a six-hitter, broke what was then
the National League single-season strikeout record of 275. That's
the same day a legend, Randall David Johnson, was born.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER The Best He's Ever Been Arizona's Randy Johnson COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER WHIFF OF SUCCESS Mixing a newly mastered sinker with blazing heat and sneaky sliders, Johnson mowed down 11 Cubs on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER

Randy, Meet Sandy

With his 6-0 victory over the Cubs on Sunday, Randy Johnson
moved to 166-88 lifetime--virtually equaling the 165-87 lifetime
record of Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. The statistical
similarities between the lefties don't end there. The last six
seasons of Koufax's career constituted one of the most brilliant
runs of pitching in baseball history. Since 1993 Johnson has
been on a run of his own, during which he has been nearly as
unhittable as Koufax in his prime and even more difficult to beat.

G W-L PCT IP BB K ERA H/9INN K/9INN
Koufax 223 129-47 .733 1,632.2 412 1,713 2.19 6.5 9.4
(1961-66)

Johnson 207 117-40 .745 1,481.1 504 1,939 2.79 6.7 11.8
(1993-April 30, 2000)

Streakers

As of Sunday, Randy Johnson had suffered his last regular-season
defeat on Aug. 31, when he was beaten 2-1 by the Expos. Twelve
days earlier the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez (left) had fallen 6-2
to the Athletics, and he, too, hadn't lost since. Here's how
each pitcher had fared in regular-season games since his last
defeat.

PITCHER G W-L CG ERA OPP. BA K/9 INN.
Johnson 11 9-0 5 1.65 .179 11.7
Martinez 13 11-0 2 0.99 .157 14.5

Fan-dango

On average, the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson has induced more
futility than any pitcher in major league history. As the
numbers below show, among those who have struck out at least
2,000 batters, the Big Unit is the leader in strikeouts per nine
innings. --David Sabino

CAREER GAMES STRIKEOUTS STRIKEOUTS/9 INN

Randy Johnson 1988- 337 2,757 10.79
Nolan Ryan 1966-93 807 5,714 9.55
Sandy Koufax 1955-66 397 2,396 9.28
Sam McDowell 1961-75 425 2,453 8.86
Roger Clemens 1984- 486 3,352 8.62
David Cone 1986- 395 2,437 8.39
John Smoltz 1988- 356 2,098 7.82
Mark Langston 1984-99 457 2,464 7.49
Dwight Gooden 1984- 407 2,246 7.45
Chuck Finley 1986- 441 2,193 7.28

Statistics through Sunday

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)