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Randy Johnson, 300 Wins and the Diamondbacks

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On August 1st, 2008, Randy Johnson made baseball history when he won his 300th career game as a major-league pitcher, the Diamondbacks defeating the Dodgers 2-1, with Johnson working six innings, and allowing only one unearned run. After Brandon Lyon got Jeff Kent to pop-up to Orlando Hudson for the final out, the Big Unit was warmly congratulated in the dugout by his Arizona team-mates, for the impressive accomplishment.

"Hang on," you are probably thinking. "That wasn't his three hundredth victory. That came last week in Washington." Well, yes and no - because that number excludes the seven wins Johnson picked up in post-season play. It strikes me as completely bizarre that baseball doesn't include playoff numbers. I can see the point of excluding them from single-season records, perhaps: the extra 19 games conceivably played would tilt the playing-field considerably. But these games are at the highest level of competition, against the best opponents, yet in a player's career totals, they count for absolutely nothing.

It is consistent, at least in America - playoff goals in hockey are kept separately from a player's career total. But it just doesn't make any sense to me. In soccer, goals scored in the World Cup Finals count towards a player's career total, and that's the way it should be. If anything, getting a win in the playoffs is more significant than during the regular season. Try telling Johnson his three wins in the 2001 World Series were in any way meaningless. You'd better be wearing some kind of body armor.

There is another obvious way Johnson should have reached 300 wins with the Diamondbacks - if the 2004 team, on which Johnson posted a 2.60 ERA, had not been so woeful as to make him lose fourteen games. No qualifying pitcher since 1930 with such a good ERA+ has lost as often as the Big Unit did that year. Only one since the war has even lost a dozen, and the median number for these men is just seven losses, half the number suffered by Randy. Taking a look at his gamelogs for that season, you perhaps get some idea of why he has the rep of being surly and aggressive.

There's two aspects to this: Johnson's own performance in those 19 defeats and no-decisions, and that of his team-mates on the 111-loss squad. Both of them are equally astonishing, albeit in completely opposite directions. During those games, Randy has fourteen quality starts and a 3.23 ERA. I'll repeat that: nineteen games, a 3.23 ERA, zero wins. Not just him either: the team were 0-19. Of particular note, in July and August, he made twelve starts, posted a 2.28 ERA, struck out 113 in 87 innings, held batters to a line of .193/.228/.291...and went 3-6. Rarely, if ever, has such a dominating pitcher been rewarded with such a feeble W-L record.

The other side of the coin is the non-existent offense which the 2004 team delivered. In those nineteen contests, they scored a total of 36 runs, an average of 1.89 per game. Fourteen times it was two or less runs; only twice did they get past three. Now, the 2004 team was bad - ok, very bad. But they still scored 3.8 runs per game. If they'd done only that to support Johnson in those 19 games, instead of losing every time, as they actually did, the Diamondbacks would have won six. Now, Randy might not have won them all, but since he averaged almost seven innings per game there, five wins would be quite plausible - again, meaning he'd have reached 300 regular-season wins last year, with the Diamondbacks.

It's all completely academic, of course. But you could certainly argue that the reasons why Johnson didn't get win #300 with Arizona, include both a bizarre counting method and the poor excuse for a team sent out at the end of his first stint here, as much as a failure to re-sign him this off-season. However, I'd better not go any further, or the tin-foil hat brigade will accuse me of maligning the memory of the glorious 2004 season. Oh, and if RJ  is seen smiling tonight, don't forget it's because he's laughing at AJ Hinch. :-)

However, while we're discussing Johnson, a very interesting piece in the San Jose Mercury where RJ discusses his first departure from Arizona. "It was that first parting with Arizona, not the second one last winter, that set the stage for frosty relations with the team... The Diamondbacks essentially wanted him to play 2006 for free. He said he had no intention of leaving, but it was obvious the organization wasn’t going to treat him fairly."  Of course, it's only one side of the argument, and Jeff Moorad - at the center of this, but now with the Padres - had no immediate comment.

I do find it odd, if things were so bad, that Johnson was apparently perfectly happy to return to Arizona and Moorad in 2007. But if things did unfold more or less as claimed, it does certainly make his reaction to the low offer initially made last winter understandable. In line with a certain whale-associated bowl of petunias, the Big Unit could be forgiven for thinking, "Oh, no - not again..." But interesting to see the door is open for Johnson to take a front-office position in Arizona when he retires, if he wants to.

Curious to see what kind of reaction Johnson gets tonight. Last time he passed through town, it seemed to be lukewarm: some boos, some cheers but mostly silence. Not sure how the crowd - with fans not exactly inspired by the this season's performance - will react to a tribute to a player who now opposes them, especially one whose best seasons with the team were, to be honest, quite some years ago.