Talkin' Randy Johnson, 300 wins and history, with Bill James
Johnson is two wins shy of becoming the fourth 300-game winner in this decade
Part of what's amazing about Johnson's career is his sustained improvement
He has 249 wins and over 4,000 strikeouts since the season when he turned 30
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 Grove
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 Willie Mays 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.
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