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 »