I can’t say I’m surprised, but it was still an emphatic victory for Randy Johnson, who won a clear majority (60%) of the votes in the first poll, to secure easily the first selection. He nearly secured the second as well, but the academy decided to go for Sandy Koufax, who edged the Big Unit by a 33%-30% margin. Warren Spahn was the only other choice to reach double-digits, getting 10% and 16% respectively.
They say you don’t know you’ll miss something until it’s gone. That’s certainly the case with Johnson, whose golden years were while I was still a relative neophyte in my baseball fandom. Had I known then what I do now, I would have watched his every start with all my attention, absorbing the presence of sheer greatness. Because Johnson is perhaps the last pitcher to possess both dominance and stamina. He led the lead in K-rate nine times, and his career mark of 10.61 is sixth best among those with 1,000 IP, and best among those with 3,000. But he is also the only National League pitcher to have thrown 260 innings in a season since 1998, and his 271.2 IP in 1999 is the most since 1986.
It wasn’t always thus. Early Randy Johnson was a wild beast, with undeniable stuff that he struggled to control. Through age 28, his ERA+ was a moderate 101 (3.95 ERA), mostly due to a walk-rate of 5.7 per nine innings. But in 1993 when pitching for Seattle, something clicked: despite throwing 45 more frames, he walked 45 fewer batters. He went 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA (135 ERA+) plus a league-leading 308 strikeouts, came second in the AL Cy Young voting, and also famously buzzed the tower of John Kruk in the All-Star Game. The legend of the Big Unit was born. Two years later, he’d do better, winning his first Cy Young with a staggering 18-2 record and 8.6 bWAR in only 30 starts, with a 2.48 ERA (193 ERA+).
From 1995-97, Johnson went 43-6, but after a brief spell in Houston, he signed with the Diamondbacks on December 10, 1998, agreeing to a four-year contract, with an option for a fifth year, for $52.4 million. It was, arguably, the best free-agent signing in team history. He won his second Cy Young the next year, and was a key factor in the team’s 35-game improvement from their rookie campaign. He would also win the Cy Young in each of the next three seasons. From 1999-2002. Randy would go 81-27 with a 2.48 ERA (187 ERA+) and be worth a total of 38.1 bWAR. Only colleague Curt Schilling (27.4) was worth even twenty bWAR in the league over that time.
We’re written extensively about Johnson’s feats here over the years, so I don’t want to repeat what we already know. The links above are a selection of them, if you want to read about those in detail. But the undeniable peak was Game 7 of the World Series, where Johnson came out of the bullpen on zero days’ rest, and got the win courtesy of the ninth-inning comeback. He went 3-0 that series with a 1.04 ERA and was co-MVP with Schilling. In 2004, he threw the franchise’s only perfect game, went 16-14 (on a team that went 35-92 when Johnson didn’t start) and should definitely have won another Cy Young, losing to ‘Roiding Roger. despite being worth three bWAR more.
He was traded to New York, winning 17 games each of the two season there, but eventually came back to Arizona in 2007. Father Time was, inevitably beginning to catch up, and the team declined to re-sign him for the 2009 season. While the baseball case for letting Johnson walk was clear - and a 4.88 ERA (87 ERA+) proved it right - there’s no denying it hurt to see the Big Unit get his 300th victory in a Giants uniform. Still, he became the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame wearing a Diamondbacks cap, in 2015. In all likelihood, the game will not see his like again. For instance, Randy Johnson will probably be the final pitcher ever to throw 100 complete games in their career. The current active leader has... 27.
“It’s hopeless. It’s like a hopeless feeling. The first time you face him you feel like he’s going to hit you right in the back of the neck when he throws it, like every pitch is going to hit you in the back of the neck. And it ends up down and away for a strike”
— Adam Dunn, on facing Randy Johnson
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”
— Lao Tzu, Te Tao Ching
Sandy Koufax pitched his final game in the majors at the age of just thirty. In his final season of 1966, he went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA (190 ERA+) and won his third Cy Young award in four years. His last appearance was in the World Series, allowing one earned run over six innings. But just six weeks later, Koufax announced his retirement, due to an arthritic elbow which had been causing him increasing pain since near the end of the 1964 season. One wonders what might have been for Sandy, had he remained healthy. How many more no-hitters than the four he threw? How many more Cy Youngs? How many more wins and strikeouts?
Much like Randy Johnson though, Koufax did not have an obviously Hall of Fame career from the get-go, though Sandy was pitching in the majors when still a teenager. He made his debut in June 1955, barely six months after signing with the Dodgers. Oddly, the rules at the time prohibited players like Koufax, signed for more than $4,000, from being assigned to the minors for two years. He basically had to learn how to play professional ball in the major leagues, and through his age 24 season, had a 4.11 ERA (100 ERA+) - again like Johnson, in part due to a high walk-rate. In 1960, he even contemplated quitting baseball entirely, in favor of an electronics business in which he was an investor.
But after a chance in his mechanics the following spring, Koufax broke out. He went 18–13 in 1961 and broke Christy Mathewson’s 58-year-old league record for strikeouts, by fanning 269 batters. Two seasons later, he won the first of his three Cy Young awards - and, we should note, at this point, there was only one such honor for all of the major leagues (it wasn’t split by league until the year after Koufax retired). Despite that, each of the three times, Sandy was a unanimous choice. All told, from 1963 through 1966, the pitcher had a 1.86 ERA (172 ERA+), was worth 36.3 bWAR and struck out 1,228 batters. No other hitter over that period reached even 950 K’s.
During that time, on September 9th, 1965, Koufax became the sixth pitcher in the modern era to throw a perfect game, doing so against the Cubs as Dodger Stadium, and his 14 strikeouts has never been beaten in a perfecto. It’s reported the Cubs had detected a “tell” in Koufax’s wind-up, but it didn’t help: right fielder Billy Williams reportedly said, “We knew what was coming, and we still couldn’t hit it.” It was one of the best-pitched games ever, over in an hour and forty-three minutes. Opposing starter Bob Hendley threw a complete-game one-hitter, and there were only two base-runners between the teams. But little more than a year later, Koufax’s arm was done, a reminder of how ephemeral even the greatest talent can be.