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. Read the rest of this entry »

Mariano Rivera is a unique player: like Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson, Nolan Ryan

19 09 2011

The major league players most like Mariano Rivera are Babe Ruth, Rickey Henderson and Nolan Ryan.

Some players stand so far above the field that no one is even close.

Rivera today passed Trevor Hoffman to become the all-time career saves leader with 602. But it’s not even close who’s the best relief pitcher ever. Just like it’s not even close who was the best base stealer ever or the best strikeout pitcher or most unhittable pitcher ever.

Look at how these players blew away the field:

Nolan Ryan. He struck out 5,714 batters, 839 strikeouts more than Randy Johnson, who’s second with 4,875. That’s 17 percent more than anyone ever. Give Johnson his best two seasons each one more time, and that’s not enough to catch Ryan. And it’s not just strikeouts. Ryan had seven career no-hitters, 75 percent more than Sandy Koufax, who is second with four. Ryan had as many no-hitters as Koufax and Bob Feller combined. For good measure, Ryan also holds the single season strikeout record, though that one is by a single K over Koufax.

Rickey Henderson was similarly dominant as a base-stealer, finishing with 1,406 for his career, half again (actually 49.89 percent more, if you want to be precise) as many as Lou Brock‘s 938. After breaking Brock’s record, Henderson stole as many bases as Willie Mays stole in his entire career. Then he stole another 130, as many as he stole in setting the single-season record. That record was 12 more (9 percent more) than Brock’s record of 118. Henderson also holds the all-time records for runs and homers leading off a game, and held the walks record until Barry Bonds blew past him.

Babe Ruth‘s all-time homer records have long since fallen: Roger Maris got his single-season record, Hank Aaron his career record, Mickey Mantle his World Series record. But when Ruth retired, he was hundreds of career homers ahead of the field. He still is way ahead of everyone in one category: 12 league homer titles, way ahead of Mike Schmidt, second with eight. And, oh, yeah, Ruth was a hell of a pitcher, too. Of the few major leaguers who pitched and played a position, no one was close to as good as Ruth as a pitcher, let alone as a hitter.

Rivera is similarly unique in baseball history. Don’t compare him to Hoffman, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Lee Smith or any other great reliever. It’s just not close. OK, it’s close in career saves with Hoffman, and Rivera doesn’t hold the single-season saves record (Francisco Rodriguez saved 62 in 2008).

Here’s where it’s not close: Hoffman had a 2.87 career ERA and only two seasons with an ERA under 2.00. Rivera has an ERA of 2.22, with 10 seasons under 2.00. (Smith had one season under 2.00, Gossage three, Eck three, Fingers three, Wilhelm six, Sutter two.) Rivera has more seasons under 2.00 than the last three relievers elected to the Hall of Fame combined. 

And we haven’t even gotten to post-season yet. But let’s do that: Rivera’s 42 saves in the post-season are more than double the next-closest pitcher, Brad Lidge at 18. OK, but he pitched his whole career in the era of three rounds of the post-season. So let’s just look at his World Series performance: 11 saves, nearly twice the six saves by Fingers, who’s second. With four pitchers tied at third with four saves, you can’t choose two relievers who can combine to match Rivera’s World Series save total. (Here’s a fun fact: One of those guys with four saves was John Wetteland. Rivera set up three of those saves.)

How about post-season ERA: Rivera is under 1.00 in career ERA for the World Series, League Championship Series, Division Series and, of course, total post-season. He’s had 21 post-season series (out of 31) when he didn’t give up an earned run and only two series with an ERA higher than 2. In 94 post-season games, he lost once (Game 7 in the 2001 World Series, on a bloop single).

Sabermetricians like to pretend they can prove that there’s no such thing as clutch performance (they can’t). Here’s the proof that Rivera has been the greatest clutch performer in baseball history: In 139 post-season innings (two seasons’ worth for Rivera, so that’s plenty of data), facing the best teams in his league or the very best team in the other league, Rivera has a lower ERA by more than a run and a half than his spectacular regular-season ERA.

Ron Guidry compares well to three Hall-of-Fame Dodger pitchers

10 10 2009

To understand why Ron Guidry should be a no-doubt Hall of Famer, compare his career to three Dodgers in the Hall of Fame: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton.

Longevity is a huge factor in Hall of Fame voting and Sandy Koufax is one of the rare pitchers elected without a long career. In any discussion of greatest pitchers ever, Koufax will be one of the first names mentioned. And rightly so. His performance from 1963 to 1966 was perhaps the most brilliant stretch of pitching in major league history.

I’m not going to suggest that Ron Guidry was as great as Koufax. But I’ll show you that he was surprisingly close. Read the rest of this entry »


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