A Small Randy Johnson Retrospective

As you have surely heard, Randy Johnson announced his retirement last night. Matthew took the first look at this, noting that he retires as someone who could be a three-win pitcher next year. Here I am going to take a more backward-facing look. Johnson retires as the career leader in strikeouts per inning, and he did so facing almost entirely right-handed (opposite-handed) batters. In Johnson’s career he faced 14,963 RHBs and just 2,103 LHBs, but over 28% of those RHBs struck out. With the pitchf/x data from the past three years here, we examine how he was able to do this as a small retrospective of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

Over the past three years, those covered by the pitchf/x data, Johnson threw, for the most part, just three pitches: a fastball, which Dave Cameron noted has been losing speed for years and in 2009 averaged less than 90 mph; a slider, which in the same article Dave noted has not lost any speed since 2003; and a split-finger fastball, which functions like a changeup. Over the years covered by the pitchf/x data, since 2007, and against RHBs he thew the fastball half the time, the splitter about 18% of the time and the slider 32%. That he can throw his slider, which typically shows an extreme platoon split, that often to RHBs is incredible.

Against RHBs he threw his slider inside and low in the zone, while his splitter was outside and also low in the zone. Not only did he throw his slider to RHBs often, but he did so effectively. Opponents scored 1.4 runs fewer than average per 100 sliders Johnson threw to RHBS, and it got them (RHBs) to miss on 26% of their swings. This is not that far off the average whiff rate of 29%, which is overwhelmingly generated during same-handed at-bats. His splitter also had a 26% whiff rate against RHBs. That gave Johnson two solid pitches against which RHBs had a tough time making contact, and allowed Johnson to pile up strikeouts.

I tip my figurative cap to Randy Johnson and his amazing 22-year career.




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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.


43 Responses to “A Small Randy Johnson Retrospective”

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  1. NEPP says:

    So…3rd best LHP ever?

    1. Sandy Koufax
    2. Steve Carlton
    3. Randy Johnson
    4. Lefty Grove

    Well, maybe 4th…Grove was ridiculously good.

    Thoughts?

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    • NEPP says:

      I forgot Warren Spahn…he’d have to be in that discussion too.

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    • Dave Allen says:

      Koufax did have the best peak — although Steve Carlton had the best single year — but Johnson had the longest peak, with the most years ahead of the average HOFer (the gray bar).

      Data from CHONE’s Baseball Projection.

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      • Sky Kalkman says:

        Addressing the peak vs. longevity issue from below, this graph shows that Koufax only has the edge on Randy for their two best seasons. Then they’re even for two seasons. Then Randy blow Koufax out of the water by what looks like 2-3 WAR every other season, which is at least that gap that Koufax holds over Randy for those best two seasons.

        I’m a peak guy myself, but peak usually means 5-7 years. Once you start getting down to just two seasons, I can see a valid argument that Randy’s career was more impressive than Koufax’.

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      • NEPP says:

        Awesome graph…thanks!

        More impressive about Carlton’s amazing year was that it was on one of the worst teams of the last half-century.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      It kills me how Koufax gets #1 when one considers …

      [1] The length (lack there of) of his career.
      [2] The pitching-dominated era he pitched in.
      [3] The EXTREME pitcher’s park he played in.

      # of “Dominant Seasons”:

      Koufax: 6
      Spahn: 12
      Carlton: 6
      Johnson: 7
      Grove: 11

      The STANDARD has always been, and remains to be, Warren Spahn. Lefty Grove is right there as well. This serves to caution us NOT to give OVER importance to “peak years” and/or more RECENT events.

      Spahn just isn’t IN the discussion, it’s where the discussion STARTS.

      Dominant seasons was just my unoffical method of going through each players career stats and noting which seasons they were the league leader in key stats or among the league leaders.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Sorry. Johnson should have “10 dominant seasons” (and possibly more with closer exmaination).

        I would place Johnson ahead of Grove, given the dramatic difference in “hittability”.

        1. Spahn
        2. Johnson
        3. Grove
        4. Koufax
        5. Carlton

        It’s kinda tough for me to put Koufax ahead of Carlton, because IMO if you put ANY of these lefties in Koufax’s ERA and PARK, you get “incredible peak”. Carlton pitched in the much more friendly to the hitter 70s. The Big Unit throwing from a high mound in LA during the 60s is so scary it’s almost laughable. As one who supports “Lefty Pitchers Taking Over the World”, I’m all for it. Crank up the time machine.

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  2. longgandhi says:

    Maybe the best? Finishes #2 on your list in career ERA+, 3rd in career FIP, 2nd in career IP and his run from 1999-2002 compares favorably to Koufax’s best stretch. He’s close to the lead both in peak year effectiveness and longevity.

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  3. NEPP says:

    Mayb #2 but not better than Koufax.

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    • Dave Allen says:

      I don’t think there is a definite answer here. If you value the peak more than you go with Koufax, if you value longevity you have to go with Johnson.

      Koufax had seven seasons below league average ERA with the last couple WAY below, while Johnson had seventeen, including thirteen in a row. But none of Johnson’s were as extraordinary as Koufax’s peak years at the end of his career.

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  4. NEPP says:

    I personally value peak more as well as the realization that Koufax’s career was cut short due to major injuries and he pitched hurt at a level higher than any other pitcher in history. The guy couldn’t even work out between starts but he still took the ball every 4th game. I also value that Koufax averaged 272 IP a season at his peak while throwing with a busted shoulder.

    Its not an insult to Randy to say that Koufax was the better pitcher.

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    • Steve says:

      And Randy Johnson has no cartilege in his knees and requires an injection every season to make sure it’s not bone on bone.

      Not saying you are wrong, but this argument is a slippery slope. Johnson had back problems and knee pain. Should we give him credit for that?

      Also, did Koufax pitch off a higher mound?

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  5. Noseeum says:

    Just imagine Randy Johnson pitching from the higher mound that Koufax had. Can’t compare innings as unit had no chance to go as many starts. Different eras.

    I’ll have to dig to form my opinion on who’s better but my iniial gut leans towards unit over Koufax.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Yeah, we’re looking at Koufax’s 1.73 ERA without mentioning that another pitcher put up a 1.12 ERA.

      Koufax played in THE pitcher’s era in THE pitcher’s park.*

      * Please don’t take that as ANY slight toward Koufax. As a former LHP, the Top 5 LHP’s of All-Time are like “Saints” to me. Figuring out which is 1-2-3-4-5 is silly, but fun, but in no way slights one guy.

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  6. NEPP says:

    LOL…I’ll imagine it when he also pitches with a completely bum shoulder that he can’t raise in between starts.

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    • Gabriel says:

      Dude, what’s up? I’ve rarely seen somebody argue that because a player had a shorter career, he was better. Or that a guy who gets injured more is better than a workhorse. You are obviously a huge Koufax fan, that’s great. I am too. However, if Dave’s graph above had ERA+, it would basically show that Johnson had a roughly equal peak to Koufax and a much longer set of years of being great, or at least very good.

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      • NEPP says:

        That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m simply saying that I think Koufax’s peak was slightly better than Johnson’s. Using ERA+ runs into the limitation that you are comparing Koufax to his era and Johnson to his era.

        I wonder how close to a unamious vote Johnson gets in his first shot in 5 years.

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      • Sky says:

        Koufax’ huge innings totals (325ish) give him a significant advantage on Randy (270 career high) in their best couple seasons.

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      • noseeum says:

        NEPP it sounds like you’re misunderstanding ERA+. The whole point of ERA+ is to enable comparisons across eras. That’s why you can’t use ERA to compare pitchers from different eras.

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  7. Randy Johnson is 125 K’s away from 5,000 and is still effective (3.79 xFIP last season). 2009 was all about bad luck with the long ball for Johnson (19.2% HR/FB mark was the second highest of all pitchers throwing 90+ innings last season). At a rate of 8 K/9, johnson would only have to toss 141 innings next year to reach 5000 K. This retirement makes no sense.

    http://gameofinches.blogspot.com/2010/01/why-is-randy-johnson-retiring.html

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    • The Hit Dog says:

      Makes no sense… from a statistical standpoint? From a fan’s standpoint? Retirement is subjective, personal, even private. If Johnson is retiring purely because he thinks he can no longer get ML hitters out, then I agree, it doesn’t make much sense. But who’s to say that’s why he’s retiring? Maybe some of it is because he is like 97 and he wants to spend the final 2 years of his life with his family.

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  8. joser says:

    So, what cap does he wear when he goes into the HOF?

    My vote: none. I want to see that mullet flowing free, forever preserved in bronze.

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    • Steve says:

      Houston.

      In all seriousness, I think it has to be AZ. He had his greatest stretch of dominance there. 4 CY’s in a row plus a ring.

      Let’s pause on that for a minute: 4 CY’s in a row.

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  9. crix says:

    I think Koufax, Grove, and Spahan were great in there day, but they didn’t have to face as many elite hitters as The Big Unit. You have to agree that Randy pitched in the slugging era where the other greats were in a pitching era. If Randy Johnson was a career Yankee or Red Sox pitcher there would be no doubt he would be the best lefty starter of all time. I think so anyways. As for which cap he wears in the Hall, it should either be an M’s cap or D’backs cap.

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    • Yeah. Randy Johnson pitched against some of the best hitters in the steroid era like Barry Bonds (1.003 OPS against), albert pujols (1.708 OPS against), Chipper Jones (1.299 OPS against), alex rodriguez (1.250 OPS against), manny ramirez (1.039 OPS against), frank thomas (1.017 OPS against), Miguel Tejada (1.008 OPS against), Mark McGwire (.842 OPS against), Albter Belle (.847 OPS against), glenallen hill (.928 OPS against), Don Mattingly (.957 OPS against), Larry Walker (1.056 OPS against), Jim Edmonds (.931 OPS against), and Carlos Beltran (1.052 OPS against).

      But hey, he managed a sub-.700 OPS against todd helton.

      I’m not knocking johnson here, but he wasn’t exactly “successful” against the guys you claim make him an even better pitcher

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      IMO, the BIG difference is the quality of the “non-elite” hitters.

      The 6-7-8 hitters of current baseball are much better hitters than the 6-7-8 of previous decades. The elite guys are comparable across decades.

      It’s the non-elite (especially in our “everyone hits 15+ homers” era.

      They also strike out more, which could be viewed as a negative, but most pitchers would rather have a weak stick ground out on the 2nd pitch, instead of having to throw 5 pitches to a weak hitter before they K.

      Be interesting to see a comparative OPS of 6/7/8 hitters of various decades. I’d imagine 3/4/5 are similar.

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  10. NEPP says:

    The counter-argument would be that those players played in an era not diluted by expansion. Both sides have their points.

    Instead of best career, ask yourself this: Who would you pick to win Game 7 (assume any of the 5 is at their absolute peak)

    Me, I’d go with Sandy. I’m sure your answers are different and I dont think any of us are really wrong.

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  11. crix says:

    If you’re going by a game 7 it could be anyone, not just out of the 5. I realize the counter-argument and you are right, u cant go wrong with any of the five, I just beleive Randy had much better compition, expansion or not.

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    • NEPP says:

      Another interesting debate: Who had the best peak of the following two:

      Pedro Martinez
      Randy Johnson

      Since they were contemporaries, there’s much more information to talk about…and its likely everyone here has seen each pitch multiple times.

      I’d give the slight edge to Pedro.

      Peak (best 4 season run) ERA+:
      Pedro (1997-2000): 219
      Johnson (1999-2002): 188

      Though Johnson’s career was, of course, far longer.

      Of course, I’ve also made the argument that Pedro was this generations Koufax.

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  12. coreyjro says:

    I’m sure it can be found somewhere, but I’d be interested to see who has the most career 15K, 16K, 17K, 18K, and 19K games. I’m sure the Unit is up there in all of them.

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  13. noseeum says:

    I don’t think WAR is a good way to compare Koufax and Unit. Koufax pitched so many more innings than Johnson. That’s not Johnson’s fault. It’s just the way the game is now.

    Johnson’s best ERA+ is higher than Koufax’s best season for ERA+. 198 vs. 190. Johnson threw way more complete games than his contemporaries, so in terms of being an innings eater, he was one of the best of his era. 260 IPs in that peak ERA+ year. He led the league, as did Koufax in his peak year.

    I don’t see how you can argue that Koufax’s peak was no doubt higher than Johnson’s. They’re pretty close, and there’s reason to believe Johnson’s peak was better. That combined with his longevity puts him on top of Koufax IMO.

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    • Sky Kalkman says:

      Good point. I do think it’s fair to adjust IP totals to account for era. Not because of how managers choose to use starters (although there’s an argument for that), but because a higher percentage of batters reach base now than in the 60s. Randy would have gotten more outs back then and therefore pitched more innings without having to face any more batters.

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  14. Jimbo says:

    Crazy hypothetical here:
    – Two teams with similar offense and defense, one signs Koufax and the other signs Johnson.
    – They make the same number of starts, all against each other.
    – Who would “win” the most seasons?

    Sure, Koufax will beat RJ in a couple seasons. They’ll have a few more that work out to a draw. But then RJ will outlast Koufax and win 10+ seasons.

    I’ll take consistent longevity every time in this debate.

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