Young Randy Johnson never projected as a Hall of Famer

7 01 2015

Next time you read a statistical projection of a player’s chances of making the Hall of Fame, think of Randy Johnson, especially if a young player projects as having no chance.

Johnson made it to Cooperstown on the first ballot, leading the 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame class announced Tuesday. And when Johnson was age 28, two years older than Clayton Kershaw is now and the same age as Félix Hernández is today, the Big Unit was just a Big Bust. No one would have projected him for the Hall of Fame.

Kershaw and Hernández have combined for four Cy Young Awards. By age 28, Johnson didn’t have a career winning record yet or a season of 15 wins. His power was always frightening, but he had led the league in walks three times and strikeouts only once. The most optimistic computer projection or pitching coach couldn’t possibly have forecast him as a five-time Cy Young winner and first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Johnson didn’t make it to the majors until he was 24, and the first five years of his career he was mostly an oddity, a skinny 6-foot-10 freak with more potential than performance.

The Expos gave up on him after three wins, scattered over 10 starts and two seasons. He made an All-Star team for the Mariners in 1990, at age 26, but his 14-11 record that year wasn’t as notable as his league-leading 120 walks.

The walk total grew worse, to a peak of 152 in 1991 and improving only to 144 in 1992. That year, he actually led the league in strikeouts for the first time, too, with 241. And in hit batters, 18.

The Mariners didn’t have a bull mascot for The Big Unit to hit, but at age 28, Johnson was still basically Nuke LaLoosh, but hurling his wild pitches at the big-league level.

Two other power pitchers remembered for their slow starts, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax, bloomed notably younger than Johnson. Both broke into the big leagues at age 19 and were in full-stride by their mid-20s.

Ryan didn’t reach 10 wins in any of his first four seasons, but he had three strikeout titles, two 20-win seasons and three no-hitters by the end of the 1974 season, when he was 27.

Koufax, whose first six years were unremarkable, won his first strikeout title at age 25 and his first Cy Young Award and two no-hitters by the time he was 27.

Both were on their way to Cooperstown at an age when Johnson was still trying to find home plate.

Of more than 60 starting pitchers honored in Cooperstown, only Dazzy VanceHerb Pennock, Phil Niekro and Joe McGinnity started pitching at Hall of Fame levels as late in their careers as Johnson, and none of them reached the career peaks that he did.

What Johnson did was blossom into the best as suddenly as anyone and then stay there as long as anyone. In his decade from age 29 to 38, he was as consistently dominant as anyone has ever been, winning seven more strikeout crowns and four ERA titles. He won 20 games three times and 19 three times, leading his league with 24 wins at age 38. And he didn’t top 100 walks again.

He won all five of his Cy Young Awards in that stretch, including four in a row for the Diamondbacks from 1999 to 2002. He also was a Cy Young runner-up twice and third once. He didn’t contend for the award in 1998, but he still was probably the National League’s best pitcher. After a lackluster 9-10 start for the Mariners, Johnson was traded to the Astros. His 11 NL starts yielded a 10-1 record, a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts. That season doesn’t count as one of Johnson’s strikeout titles because he didn’t lead either league. But his 329 K’s led the majors.

Though he would pitch later in pinstripes, his career pinnacle came against the Yankees, winning two starts and a Game 7 relief appearance in the 2001 World Series. He also confounded the 1995 Yankees with wins in Games 3 and 5 (again in relief) of a five-game playoff series. I don’t remember anyone ever hurting the Yankees more in the post-season (Curt Schilling, if you’re wondering, was 2-1 against New York in the post-season).

That 24-win season in 2002 was Johnson’s last dominant year. But he sealed his baseball immortality by pitching pretty well (including his Yankee years) into his mid-40s. He led the National League one more year in strikeouts with 290 at age 40, then won 17 games twice for the Yankees in his 40s and 11 for the Diamondbacks at age 44. He was pretty spent by his final year, 2009 with the Giants, but his incredible run had brought him to the magical 300-win threshold, and he reached it that year and retired with 303. He also had 4,875 strikeouts, second only to Ryan.

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Johnson’s first-ballot election was certain. The only question was who would join him. He will lead a class of four Hall of Famers, including three pitchers chosen on the first ballot.

John Smoltz

John Smoltz‘s career path to Cooperstown was unique, too: a dominant decade as a starter, a year lost to injury, then a three-year stretch as a dominant closer, followed by a return to starting excellence. In the Hall of Fame, Dennis Eckersley is the only other pitcher who excelled as both a starter and a reliever. But Eck changed roles just once. Smoltz topped him by returning to the starting role.

Smoltz had an awesome 15-4 post-season record, but went only 1-2 against New York in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. He beat Andy Pettitte in Game 1 in ’96 with a dominant 12-1 performance, but Pettitte outdueled Smoltz, 1-0 (with the run unearned) to win Game 5. Three years later, Smoltz lost Game 4 of a Yankee sweep to Roger Clemens.

Pedro Martinez

Pedro Martinez, the third pitcher elected this year on the first ballot, had a more traditional arc to career greatness, showing off his talent early and winning his first of three Cy Young Awards at age 25. For the next decade, he was consistently one of baseball’s best pitchers, before starting his decline at age 34.

Martinez was 11-11 against the Yankees in regular-season play, but only 1-4 against New York in the post-season. He beat Clemens in a 13-1 rout in 1999, but never beat the Yankees in the post-season again.

In the 2003 American League Championship Series, Clemens prevailed 4-3 in a Game 3 matchup. In Game Seven, Martinez took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning, with a chance to pitch the Red Sox to the World Series. Derek Jeter doubled, Bernie Williams singled, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada doubled, and Martinez finally left with the game tied. Three innings later, Aaron Boone’s homer sent the Yankees to the World Series. Red Sox fans berated Manager Grady Little for not pulling Martinez from the game earlier.

In the 2004 ALCS, Martinez lost Game 2 as the Yankees were taking their 3-0 series lead. In Game 5, Martinez left after six innings, trailing 4-2. But the Red Sox came back to win in 15 innings and eventually to win the series. Martinez gave up two runs in relief in the Red Sox’ 10-3 Game 7 win.

In his last post-season facing the Yankees, Martinez pitched well but lost 3-1 for the Phillies in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, then lasted only four innings, giving up four runs and the loss as the Yankees wrapped up the series victory in Game 6.

And one of Pedro’s most memorable moments against the Yankees wasn’t even about pitching, but his dust-up with Don Zimmer during a 2003 brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox.

Craig Biggio

The only position player elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers this year, Craig Biggio, had a more traditional statistical career arc, consistently grinding out hits for 20 years and retiring with 3,000, an automatic ticket if you’ve stayed away from gambling and performance-enhancing drugs.

Biggio does stand out among Hall of Famers for his position changes. Lots of Hall of Fame catchers rested weary legs in the outfield or a corner infield position or designated hitter at times late in their careers. And several Hall of Famers switched between outfield and infield positions (Stan Musial, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr., to name a few). But Biggio stands out for his early-career move from catcher (three seasons with 100+ games behind the plate) to second base. Other catchers moved to outfield or corner positions. Even from there, Biggio’s progression was unusual, moving to the outfield after 11 years, then back to second based after three years in the outfield. Who else has moved from the outfield back to a middle infield position at 39. Biggio had three more seasons with 100+ games at second base before retiring.

Biggio faced the Yankees in only three games, going 5 for 13 with a homer. His strongest Yankee connection was the three years that Pettitte and Clemens spent as his Astro teammates, 2004-6.

All four of this year’s Hall of Fame choices are deserving. I noted last month that some deserving ex-Yankees would get overlooked again this year, and they did. But this is an excellent Hall of Fame class.

Don Mattingly

This was Don Mattingly’s final year on the baseball writers’ ballot. He received only 50 votes, 9.1 percent. As I’ve noted, Mattingly is the victim of the two strongest biases in Hall of Fame voting, against the Yankees and in favor of longevity.

Mattingly outperformed most of his contemporaries who are in the Hall of Fame by measures of peak performance and some career measures had nearly identical career achievements to Kirby Puckett, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Longevity exceptions are made for sudden health developments such as Puckett’s glaucoma, but not for wear-and-tear injuries such as Mattingly’s bad back.)

Source note: Unless noted otherwise, all statistics and game details cited here come from



14 responses

6 04 2015
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[…] I blogged in January about my observations on all four members of this year’s Hall of Fame class: […]


24 09 2015
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[…] Johnson won 34 games in his two Yankee seasons. Like Perry and Clemens, he won Cy Youngs in both leagues. He got most of his 303 wins pitching for the Mariners (130) and Diamondbacks (118). He won four of his five Cy Youngs for Arizona and won his only World Series there (against the Yankees). I consider him a Diamondback. […]


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[…] 1990s have already produced six Hall of Fame starting pitchers: Ryan, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Clemens makes seven pitchers from the era who were clearly better […]


1 10 2015
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[…] to Clemens, Randy Johnson is the Yankee with the most Cy Young awards, winning one for the Mariners and four for the […]


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[…] Bullet Joe Bush (more on him in the next post in this series), John Candelaria, Wes Ferrell, Randy Johnson, Derek Lowe, Bill Monboquette, Phil Niekro and Gaylord […]


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[…] Bonham, Randy Johnson‘s name did reflect his size, […]


18 10 2015
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[…] Sox before that series turned around. I didn’t want to trade him (at age 27) for 40-year-old Randy Johnson. He did have more good years left in him than Johnson, but I’m not sure he ever got as good […]


19 10 2015
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[…] seasons. Randy Johnson had two 17-win seasons for the Yankees and Phil Niekro had two 16-win seasons (and each of them […]


20 10 2015
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[…] teams combined: Eight World Series championships, three Hall of Fame starters: Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Nolan […]


29 11 2015
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[…] pitcher might be the toughest position for which to project Hall of Famers. As I noted when Randy Johnson was elected, no one would have projected him for Cooperstown at 29, Cueto‘s age this year. Cueto also is […]


30 11 2015
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[…] Arizona Diamondbacks. Hall of Famer: Randy Johnson. Curt Schilling will certainly join him. He got 39 percent of the writers’ vote last year, […]


10 01 2016
Yankees have more borderline Hall of Fame contenders than any other team | Hated Yankees

[…] a Cy Young Award and Schilling never did. Schilling finished second three times, twice to teammate Randy Johnson. Drysdale also pitched in tandem with a much greater […]


19 07 2016
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[…] is in the top 10 starting pitchers among his contemporaries. His early career overlapped with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, all substantially better, […]


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