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Arizona Diamondbacks All-Time Top 50: #1, Randy Johnson

You were expecting, perhaps, someone else?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 1.27 (1/4/1)
  • Seasons: 1999-2004, 2007-08
  • Stats: 233 games, 1630.1 IP, 2.83 ERA, 164 ERA+, 53.0 bWAR
  • Best season: 2002 - 35 games, 260.0 IP, 2.32 ERA, 195 ERA+, 10.9 bWAR

I learned a lot from not having success, and realizing when you do have success, how hard it is to maintain it, and what you have to do to maintain it.
Randy Johnson

There are so many statistics which could be used to prove why Randy Johnson undoubtedly deserves the #1 spot here, and we’ll get to some more later. But here are a couple which perhaps sum it up. He struck out 13+ batters for Arizona on 35 occasions. All 113 other starting pitchers used by the franchise have combined for only 12 such games (Brandon Webb has one, Curt Schilling eight, Robbie Ray three). Randy doesn’t just sit #1 on the franchise list for strikeouts in a single season. Johnson is also #2, #3 and #4. And since even that last of those was a year with 334 K’s, he’s likely not going anywhere (no other pitcher has struck out that many in the majors since Nolan Ryan in 1977).

It wasn’t always like that. Over Johnson’s first five years in the majors, with Montreal and Seattle, he was very much a work in progress. The raw stuff was undeniably there - he struck out exactly a batter per inning, in an era where that was rare, especially for a starting pitcher. But he was incredibly wild, walking 5.7 per nine innings: the 152 bases on balls Johnson handed out in 1991 remains the most by any pitcher since 1977. As a result, through age 28, his ERA was only 101, which gives us an opportunity to play the fun “Pitcher A/Pitcher B” game. Here are two career stats lines by pitchers until the end of their age 28 season. Can you guess who they are?

Pitcher A: 832.1 IP, 850 H, 388 R, 365 ER, 260 BB, 646 SO, 3.95 ERA, 101 ERA+, 3.80 FIP
Pitcher B: 818.0 IP, 649 H, 411 R, 359 ER, 519 BB, 818 SO, 3.95 ERA, 101 ERA+, 3.96 FIP

If you’ve read the paragraph above, you will easily have figured out that Pitcher B is Randy Johnson. But Pitcher A - throwing more innings, and with a better FIP - was none other than former Diamondback... Wade Miley. Yes, through age 28, Miley was more valuable than Johnson, putting up 8.1 bWAR compared to Randy’s 7.6. There’s a lesson for us all in here about not giving up on young pitchers with obvious talent, who have control problems earlier in their career. But then, in 1993, Johnson finally figured it out. He finished second in the Cy Young that season, beginning an unparalleled spell of 11 years which would include five wins, three runners-up spots and a third place. It also gave us RJ striking the fear of god into John Kruk during the All-Star Game:

1998 was a key year. Johnson was still with Seattle, but they refused to extend his contract, which was up after that season, despite Johnson’s obvious interest. He told the LA Times (“his voice hinting of bitterness and resignation”), “It’s over and done with. They told me they have no intention of giving me an extension. That’s like me telling my wife I want a divorce and not leaving. I’m here, I’ll do my job to the best of my ability, but if I’m not here, it’s not because of something I’ve done... I have all the reasons to want to stay in Seattle. My wife’s family is from there, the fans have been great. I don’t want to be traded. I’m just disappointed with everything that’s happened here.”

After a mediocre three months, a clearly unhappy Johnson was dealt to the Astros, where he turned in a blistering second-half, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. It made him one of the most sought-after free-agents that winter, pursued by the Rangers, Angels and Dodgers. But it was the upstart Diamondbacks, just finished their inaugural season, who won the contest, signing Johnson to a four-year $52.4 million deal, with an option for a fifth year. It made him the second-highest paid player in baseball behind Mo Vaughn. Johnson had just completed having a custom house built in Paradise Valley, and rejected suggestions the ease of playing at home helped him accept being on a team who had lost 98 games.

“A lot of people in the last couple of days have been wondering why I would choose the Diamondbacks when all I’ve ever talked about is wanting to win. Well, I feel that I’m not going to lose anything by coming here. This team is not the same team that lost last year. Had Jerry not done what he’s done in the last couple of weeks [signing Todd Stottlemyre, Armando Reynoso, Greg Swindell and Greg Colbrunn], I wouldn’t have felt this team was as good on paper as some of the other teams I was interested in going to. So if those things hadn’t been done, I’d probably be holding a press conference some place else.”

Johnson wasn’t wrong. In the next four years, he would go 81-27, be a four-time All-Star, win the Cy Young award each season, and lead the Diamondbacks to three division titles. That peaked with the 2001 World Series victory, in which Johnson went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA, being named co-MVP with Curt Schilling. Over that time, he led the league in just about every meaningful pitching category, and it typically wasn’t even very close. Here’s a selection of some of them, together with who was second and how far back they were for that category (min. 750 IP for rate categories like ERA)

  • bWAR: 38.3 (Pedro Martinez, 33.0, the only pitcher within ten WAR!)
  • Wins: 81 (Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling, 71)
  • Innings: 1,030 (Tom Glavine: 919)
  • Complete games: 31 (Schilling 27)
  • Shutouts: 11 (four tied with six)
  • ERA: 2.48 (Maddux, 3.07)
  • ERA+: 187 (Maddux, 145 - closer to Jeff Suppan in 24th place)
  • Strikeouts: 1.417 (Martinez, 999 - closer to Freddy Garcia in 23rd)

As discussed last week, when coupled with Curt Schilling, the two drove each other on to almost unparalleled heights. The pair were among, if not the best 1-2 starting pitchers the game has seen in the integrated era. I wish I could go back in time and truly appreciate the greatness which was peak Big Unit. I only moved here in 2000, and didn’t really know what I was watching at the time. I knew he was good, of course, but was not aware of the next-level dominance he brought to the mound, virtually each and every fifth day. Any Randy Johnson start had the potential to be something special. Something really special. But here are my most memorable Johnson moments.

6. Johnson goes deep - September 19, 2003

Randy was not exactly the forefather of #PitchersWhoRake. A career .125 hitter, he struck out in 43% of his plate-appearances. But even blind squirrels... Coming off future D-back Doug Davis, it made Johnson the only player in major-league history to hit his first home-run after the age of forty. [I presume, anyway!] Recalled Davis, “It was a 2-0 cut fastball that went from out to in, pretty much right over the plate. I think he was just as surprised as everybody else... When he touched home plate, I could tell he wanted to smile, but he didn’t want to show me up out there on the mound.” Fun fact: Davis also gave up the first career home run of Yovani Gallardo, who is the only pitcher ever to homer off Johnson.

5. 17 strikeouts... in relief - July 19, 2001

The game in San Diego had started the previous night, with Curt Schilling on the mound, but a power-outage led to its suspension. The following day, with the Padres having loaded their line-up with left-handers to face Schilling, Bob Brenly turned to Johnson, who promptly set a major-league record for strikeouts by a reliever. The previous mark had stood for 88 years, having been set by Walter Johnson in 1913: the new one may never be beaten. Said Johnson, “By no means do I try to go out and strike people out, but I got in a groove.” He and Schilling came within four outs of a combined no-hitter before Wiki Gonzalez’s opposite-field single with two outs in the eighth, the Padres’ sole hit.

4. Everybody heard, about the bird - March 24, 2001

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Randy says when he chats with fans, “outside of the ‘01 World Series, it’s the dead bird they ask about the most frequently.” The incident above happened during spring training in Tucson, but appears to remain an unprecedented incident in play for a major-league team during the pre- or regular season. While Johnson didn’t think it was funny at the time, his attitude appears to have softened, and he used it at various times both for his photography company logo and his Twitter avatar. According to ornithologists, the cloud of feathers is actually a defense mechanism “akin to a lizard leaving its tail behind.” Didn’t really help the bird in this case though. [See also: Fabio being hit in the face by a goose.]

3. This one goes to... 20. May 8, 2001

“They told us to lay off his slider and hit his fastball, but, man, you couldn’t tell the difference until it was on top of you, and then it was too late. He was throwing 97 mph fastballs and 88 mph sliders and all you could do was say, ‘Oh, God.’”
Alex Ochoa, Cincinnati Reds

While there was no SnakePit at the time, we wrote about this game in more detail when it was screened by the MLB Network in 2009. Johnson was never more dominant, racking up a major-league tying record of 20 strikeouts - in 18 of them, the batters went down swinging. But despite his dominance, Johnson didn’t get the victory here, as Arizona could only tie the game into extras, eventually winning on a walk-off walk. Randy was asked if he wanted to go out for the 10th [he had reached 124 pitches, but would throw 21 more his next outing]: “I surely could have went out there and done it, but what was the point in going out there and throwing 10 innings? I really didn’t see it.”

2. Sheer perfection - May 18, 2004

In the midst of what was, let’s be honest, one of the crappiest seasons ever suffered by fans of any team, Johnson provided a startling highlight: the only perfect game ever thrown by a Diamondback, and just the 17th in major-league history. At 40, Johnson became the oldest pitcher to execute the feat, breaking a century-old mark set by Cy Young himself, and took just 2:13 for the complete game. He struck out 13 Braves, include future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones all three times he came up. Only one Atlanta at-bat reached three balls, and the closest they came to a hit was snuffed out by an Alex Cintron running grab and throw to first.

1. Top of the World - November 4, 2001

“When people got wind that maybe I would be in the bullpen today, they said, ‘Are you kidding?’ But this is the World Series... Now I know what it takes to win the World Series. And to get to the postseason, you’ve got to push the limits.”
Randy Johnson

He pitched a complete-game for the win in Game 2. He’d thrown seven innings the previous night in Game 6. But when the need arose, after 7.1 innings of Game 7, Randy Johnson made his second career relief appearance for the Diamondbacks. I remember to this day, the literal chills I got seeing him come in from the bullpen that night. He retired all five batters he faced, as Arizona came back, becoming the first pitcher in 55 years to win both Games 6 and 7 in the World Series. There had been questions about whether Johnson was a post-season “choker” coming into 2001 with a 2-6 playoff record. He went 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA. Question no more.

There is a good argument to be made that Johnson should have been awarded a fifth Cy Young award, playing for Arizona in 2004. As well as his perfect games, he threw 31.1 more innings than winner Roger Clemens, with an ERA 0.38 lower - he was worth a full three bWAR more. But playing on a team that was victorious only 51 times sunk his chances, despite Johnson personally winning 16 of those games, and he finished second. That winter, as the D-backs shed salary, he was dealt to New York for Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey, Dioner Navarro and about $9 million in cash. But he never seemed happy there, beginning just a few days later when he got into a street dispute with the press.

Two years later, Johnson returned to Arizona, for Alberto Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf and Luis Vizcaino, signing a $26 million, two-year contract here. He had struggled with back issues during his time in New York, but professed himself back to health. Needing only 20 wins to reach the magical 300 mark, it seemed a shoo-in that he’d do it for Arizona. But a herniated disk in Johnson’s back ended his 2007 campaign in July, with only four wins under his belt. Though he did pitch close to a full year in 2008, making thirty starts, his 11-10 record left him still five wins short, and at the age of 45, very much in the twilight of his career.

There was furious discussion over whether he should or should not be resigned. In the end, the team made barely a token offer to Johnson, in the $2-3 million range: he ended up signing with the Giants for $8 million. With cold hindsight, the D-backs weren’t wrong, as Johnson managed only 96 innings at an 87 ERA+. Johnson did pick up the 300th win of his career in a Giants uniform on June 4th. But he still became the only player to enter the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback, being inducted into Cooperstown in July 2015, after receiving 97.3% of the BBWAA votes on his first attempt. It will likely be a while until there’s another, and we may never see anyone like the Big Unit ever again.

Time has smoothed over the fractures which led to Johnson’s departure from Arizona. He’s still around, becoming a special assistant to Derrick Hall in January 2015, and having his #51 retired by the team in August (above). Now, we get a far more relaxed Big Unit, who has taken to photography as a pastime in his retirement. The famous, fearsome intensity - it was reported that on the days he pitched, even Randy’s wife Lisa was afraid to speak to him - is no more. He said, with some apparent degree of regret: “22 years and the expectations that came along with it as I came into my own, I enjoyed moments. And I wish I would have shared more moments outwardly. I guess that just wasn’t me.”