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Was having our Johnson yanked a good thing?

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Baseball trades, rumors and blog coverage - SB Nation MLB Hot Stove

The signing of Randy Johnson to a one-year contract with the Giants has been greeted with a great range of reactions. Generally, San Francisco fans have been wildly enthusiastic, while fans here are unhappy at the prospect of their future Hall of Famer playing for a divisional rival, and possibly even getting his 300th win against them. The horror. The horror. However, it's a move that I'm not particularly upset with. Sure, it'd have been nice to have him get #300 in Sedona, but how much would that possibility be worth?

This piece is certainly, to some extent, my attempt to come to terms with it - I freely admit that, if we'd signed him, there'd probably be a similar article  going the other way, and saying how marvelous it was! I've posted chunks of what follows in various places [here, DBBP, AZ Central, McCC], but this is an effort to pull together all the threads and explain the various reasons why the Big Unit's departure leaves me only slightly-stirred, rather than shaken.

1. Market value
Much has been made in some circles of the Diamondbacks offer to the future Hall of Famer, believed to be about $3m, and how this was "derisory". However, while $8-10m is easily the going rate for a league-average pitcher, that only applies when they are in the prime of their career - not their mid-forties. Here are numbers for three pitchers, with their age the following year, and their output over the previous three seasons

Three-year
Age Starts Innings ERA +
Pitcher A 44 74 455 103
Pitcher B 45 73 445.2 103
Pitcher C 46 99
607 104

Pretty similar numbers, really. Now, I certainly admit there are differences. Pitcher A is David Wells from 2004-2006, who missed much of 2006's first half, coming back from knee surgery. But just like Pitcher B [Johnson from 2006-2008, natch] Wells came back strong in the second half, posting a 3.03 ERA over his ten starts in August and September and a 3.60 playoff ERA for the Padres. The net result was Boomer's tenth consecutive season with an ERA+ above 100. Before the 2007 season, however, Wells signed a one-year deal for only $3m guaranteed [albeit with $4m in potential incentives]. Has the pitching market changed so much, especially given the financial crisis which is unquestionably damping things this off-season?

Meanwhile, Pitcher C is an absolute model of durability, despite his age - which is probably enough alone, to clue you in that it's Jamie Moyer, now the proud possessor of a World Series ring as part of the Phillies rotation. He's had eight consecutive years with 32 or more starts, and an ERA+ in that final season of 118, better than the Big Unit's figure this year of 117. And yet, he just signed a contract where, even if he hits all his incentives, he'll earn a maximum of only $7.75m in 2009 - less than the Giants guaranteed the injury-prone Johnson, with a possible $5m more in incentives.

The problem, I think, with the Diamondbacks' $3m offer is not so much the dollar amount as the unwillingness to add incentive-based elements on top. This has been (and, as far as I know, still is) a long-standing policy, in the interests of providing a solid financial basis, with expenditure known in advance. That makes sense. However, it hampers the team in negotiations with any player coming off injury, or who represents any degree of risk in another way. In a case like Johnson, incentive clauses are sensible risk-mitigators, and I wish the franchise would re-think their position here. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the proverb says.

2. Past Performance
There's no doubt that Johnson had a stellar second-half, posting a superb 2.41 ERA, and holding batters to a .232 average. The general wisdom is that he pitched much better, once he'd recovered from the back surgery that delayed his appearance at the start of the year. However, a closer analysis of his results don't show this to be the case. Johnson actually pitched significantly better right at the start of his season, compared to the second quarter.

Starts 1-9: 51.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, K:BB 56:14, Opp: .262/.318/.441 (.759 OPS)
Starts 10-17: 46.1 IP, 6.80 ERA, K:BB 39:14, Opp: .303/.350/.511 (.861 OPS)

If anything turned around his season, it was the trip to see renowned pitching coach Tom House at the All-Star break. Johnson said. "It was hands on, him showing me what I was doing. For me, it always comes down to mechanics. Being tall, there's a lot that can go wrong." Whatever the cause, the effect was dramatic, even though his quest for #300 fell short, his post-break performances were undeniably impressive, climaxing with his complete-game effort against the Rockies on the last day of the season.

However, I wouldn't rely on that carrying forward into next season. Not with a BABIP of .278 - that's fifty-seven points below the figure from the first half, and significantly below the Diamondbacks' team average in this area, at .303. While Johnson may have been the best starter for Arizona after the break, he was also among the luckiest: contrast the BABIP for Webb (.293), Haren (.375!) and Davis (.339). Overall for the entire year, his figure was within a few points of the mean, but the second-half should probably not be relied upon as any indicator of future performance. I also note a post-break drop in his strikeout rate, from from 8.72 to 7.57 - though let's face it, even the latter figure is pretty damn good for his age!

It's also worth pointing out that, it's far and away the best half-season Johnson has had iin the past three years:

2006:
First half ERA 5.13
Second half ERA 4.85

2007
First half ERA 3.81 [only 56.2 IP]
Second half: did not pitch at all

2008
First half ERA 5.23
Second half: ERA 2.41

I know there were all manner of issues with his back, but still.... The only time since 2005 his ERA was less than double that of the brilliant second-half we saw, was his short 2007 campaign, abruptly terminated with a slide into third-base. Nice for his free-agent campaign the surge was, looking at the bigger picture, and the last three years overall, it's the obvious aberration, not the standard. Regardless of excuses or explanations one may offer, it seems more than a little dangerous to base any decision on thinking otherwise.

3. Future performance
This is, of course, what really matters, and the cold, hard fact is this: Randy Johnson is 45. He shouldn't be pitching in the major-leagues. He certainly shouldn't be pitching with any expectations of success in the major-leagues. Since 1901, do you know how many 45-year old pitchers have given their teams even 150 innings and an ERA+ above 100? Four. In 108 seasons. One spitballer (Jack Quinn, 1929), one knuckleballer (Phil Niekro, 1984), the epitome of the soft-tosser (Jamie Moyer, 2008), and Nolan Ryan. So, what Johnson is trying to do is all but unprecedented by a pitcher of his type.

The attrition rate at this point in a player's life is horrible. Since 1961, seven pitchers have thrown 400+ innings in their age 42-44 years, like Randy. Three of them never came back to play at all in their age 45 season.  The exceptions: Niekro, Moyer, Ryan and another knuckleballer, Charlie Hough. The good news for Johnson is, three of those four actually had better seasons, as measured by ERA+, at age 45 than at age 44. The bad news is, that's the two knuckleballers and the soft-tosser. Nolan Ryan - the obvious nearest mark to Johnson - fared much less well. While still above average, with an ERA+ at 103, that was a thirty-six point drop from his figure the previous year.  A repeat of this decline would send Randy to an ERA around the 5.70 mark, if he were still pitching in Chase.

However, the other side of the balance-sheet has one huge factor on  it. This is Randy Johnson. No, make this bold font and block capitals. THIS IS RANDY JOHNSON. The Big Unit has been through two back surgeries and has osteoarthritis of the knee, which has necessitated shots of an artificial lubricant on a regular basis since 2003. He had a knee brace dipped in liquid titanium. Then there's the whole 'killed a bird with his fastball' thing. If Chuck Norris wears Jack Bauer pajamas, then Jack Bauer wears Randy Johnson pajamas. His will to win is legendary. I think the only effective and permanent way to stop the Big Unit from pitching, is by removing the head, or destroying the brain. If anyone can defy time, it's this man. I wouldn't bet on him pitching like the Cy Young winner he is in 2009. But I'm not stupid enough to bet against it.

The two projection systems to have chipped in so far on Johnson's 2009 season, are Bill James and Marcel, and there's already a wide disparity in the results. The former loves the Big Unit, giving him 170 innings and a stunning 3.40 ERA. Marcel is much less optimistic, predicting 158 innings and a 4.33 ERA. This mirrors their expectations in the season just ended, though they were even further apart then: James, 3.25 ERA; Marcel 4.46 ERA. Marcel ended up being closer to reality, though neither system exactly nailed it, both being out by more than half a run.

Me? I have no idea what will happen. I can see why the Diamondbacks balked at offering Johnson any more money, especially given their limited available resources this off-season - the consensus from most sources is, we had no more than $10m. Given that, and the other holes that needed to be filled, I would be loath to spend (say) $6m of if on a 45-year old with a history of back problems. The risk of it being a write-off, any way you care to estimate it, is just too much, and for Arizona the money is better spent elsewhere. Such as on Lopez, Schoeneweis and a nice contribution towards Snyder's extension.

That said, I can see why a number of other teams - with more money to spare than us -  were prepared to take the risk. The second-half of the season was like a throwback to Johnson v.2004 and, while all the signs are that it was a mirage to a good extent, it is a hell of a beguiling prospect. It is, unquestionably, a roll of the dice, but there are worse deals going to be signed over this winter than the one that will take Johnson to San Francisco. It helps the Giants have a solid enough rotation that if his back were to explode in spring training, they could survive a lot better than many teams.

For Johnson, it may not all have been about money - he might have got more on the East coast - but it clearly was still a significant factor, despite Arizona alone having paid more than a hundred million dollars for his services in the past decade. [If you want to argue this, start with an explanation of the significant difference between earning $170m in your career, and earning $175m] I have to say, his offer  of a 50% pay-cut to us now rings somewhat hollow, when he signed with the Giants for a 47% pay-cut, based on the guaranteed amount and the $15.1m he received from us last season. Not much of a hometown discount.

I still can't bring myself to dislike Johnson. Though I'd never admit it on McCC, I'll be rooting for him to do well, as long as San Francisco remain the sub-.500 team I expect [their offense still blows chunks], and he's not pitching against us. Johnson has been responsible for so many of my best Diamondbacks' memories, most notably him coming in from the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Even now, the mere thought of that sets the hairs on the back of my neck doing a samba. So, for all us forty-somethings, I'm pulling for Johnson to do well - but reserve the right to say, "Told you so," if things get derailed.

And, Giants fans, here is my gift to you. We won't be needing it any more.