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Showing his age

Johnson's woes reveal his best days are behind him

Posted: Tuesday May 16, 2006 10:56AM; Updated: Tuesday May 16, 2006 12:10PM
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For $16 million this season, the Yankees hoped to get more out of Randy Johnson than a 5-4 record and 5.13 ERA.
For $16 million this season, the Yankees hoped to get more out of Randy Johnson than a 5-4 record and 5.13 ERA.
Chuck Solomon/SI
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For much of the last two seasons the Yankees have excused the decline of Randy Johnson with some creative thinking. See, it never could be just that Johnson was getting hit and getting old. It had to be, in relative order, that he was readjusting to the American League; that he was enduring the typical break-in period of all new high-profile Yankees; that he was having trouble pitching to Jorge Posada; that he was tipping his pitches; that he developed a mechanical flaw in his delivery; and, given the MRI the Yankees ordered for him last week, that he must be suffering from some mysterious physical ailment.

Now that Johnson is getting slapped around regularly by AL hitters and that his once-masterful command has slipped noticeably, can we stop with the excuses and acknowledge the reality that is smacking the Yankees upside their heads? Johnson is an aging power pitcher with diminished stuff. Yes, given his strong work habits and molten-hot competitive streak, Johnson can still be an important part of a championship rotation. But a true, dominating ace who regularly reaches the seventh inning and beyond? Those days may be done.

"Want to know what's wrong?'' said one AL scout who has seen Johnson and the Yankees this month. "He's 42. He's older. That's it. The guy can't repeat his delivery anymore, and he's stubborn. He's still basically a two-pitch pitcher [fastball and slider], but he's not throwing 97 [mph] anymore. Now when you're throwing 92 instead of 97 and you miss location, you're not going to get away with it. He's going to have to adjust.''

What made Johnson so devastating was the bite on his slider, in addition to the velocity on his fastball. But, dating to last season, Johnson cannot consistently repeat his release point, and when his arm angle is lower and the ball spins out of his hand with his hand more toward the side of the ball than "getting on top,'' the pitch tends to roll more than it bites. When Johnson is on, you will see right-handed hitters miss sliders that nearly hit their back foot. When he is off, those pitches hang on the inner half of the plate.

The Yankees may like to think of that kind of trouble as a mechanical flaw, but it's more related to physiology and age. Johnson knows he has to stay on top of the ball -- just as he knows he has to keep his front shoulder closed and not let it fly open toward third base, as happens often now. It's not a secret. But his body isn't allowing him to do it consistently. Think of a senior golfer. Same basic swing, but because of age, the repeatability of the swing is diminished. The ability to repeat mechanics is the key to a pitcher's command.

This is not a matter of a few bad starts. Johnson and the Yankees are staring at a trend, just as Tom Glavine was last year when he reinvented himself by throwing more curveballs and by throwing his changeup on the inside corner to right-handers. Both developments allowed Glavine to reestablish his money pitches, the sinking fastball and changeup off the outside corner. Here is a look at some of the symptoms of Johnson's decline: