The Big Unit Gets Loose

Randy Johnson won his 300th game on Thursday, waiting out an outburst of ark-building weather before getting down to business. Though he entered the game with a 5.71 ERA, the highest of any pitcher going into his 300th win start, he dominated the Nationals for six innings, throwing just 78 pitches and allowing two hits and an unearned run. He depart in part because he bruised his shoulder making a fantastic defensive play. Impressive.

On the local front, Johnson didn’t fare tremendously well during his two years in Yankee pinstripes. Though he won 34 games in 2005-2006, his 4.37 ERA was right at the park-adjusted league average, and his 6.92 postseason ERA during that time was a big reason the Yanks didn’t make it out of the first round in either year.

The irony, of course, is that the pinnacles of Johnson’s career prior to reaching 300 came at the Yankees’ expense. The combined tally, as I noted years ago: 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 27.1 innings facing them in two postseason series. First, he came out of the bullpen on a day’s rest to close out the thrilling 1995 Division Series for the Mariners. “To this day,” I wrote back in 2003 of rooting against the Yanks in that series, “the hair on the back of my neck rises when I recall the cameras panning to the Seattle bullpen as one of the announcers excitedly exclaimed, ‘The Big Unit is getting loose!'” Any Yankee fan bitter about that one need only recall that it was the series loss which triggered the firing of Buck Showalter and the hiring of Joe Torre. Things didn’t work out too badly over the next few years.

At least until the heartbreaking 2001 World Series, where pitching for the Diamondbacks in the godawfulest purple-and-teal atrocity of a horseshit uniform ever devised by man, he collected three wins, two as a starter and one in relief, the latter on zero days’ rest in Game Seven. That one wasn’t so fun from where I sat, but that it was Johnson delivering the coup de grâce makes it slightly more bearable, at least in retrospect. As Cooter and Spud — the Simpsons’ carny folks who might pass for Johnson’s kin — would say, “We were beaten by the best.”

In any event, the ugly 6’10” goober with the mullet and the meanest goddamn slider you ever saw has stuck around into his 46th year, doggedly fighting his way through multiple back surgeries since leaving the Yankees, generally effective when he could get to the mound, which wasn’t especially often (51 starts in 2 1/3 seasons). Take note, because it’s going to be a long time before we see another 300-game winner. That’s the subject of one of my pieces up today at ESPN and Baseball Prospectus:

At this writing, the only pitcher within 80 wins of the magic 300 is 46-year-old Jamie Moyer (250), whose own 7.62 ERA suggests that he’s on his last legs. Of the three other active pitchers above 200 wins, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte (220) has annually threatened retirement since 2006, 37-year-old Pedro Martinez (214) is currently unemployed after three injury-filled seasons, and 42-year-old John Smoltz (210) is rehabbing his way back for a final go-round in Boston. Just three other active players are even halfway to the milestone: 42-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (184), 36-year-old perpetual rehab case Bartolo Colon (153, but just 14 since 2005), and 34-year-old palooka Livan Hernandez (151), the game’s most hittable pitcher.

Of course, not everybody does care these days, as pitcher wins ain’t what they used to be thanks to the rising offensive levels, deeper lineups, longer at-bats, and increased reliever specialization which have made the complete game a relic from the increasingly distant past. In 1972, the year before the designated hitter’s introduction, starters completed games 27.1 percent of the time, collected decisions 78.5 percent of the time, and lasted an average of 6.7 innings in their starts. In contrast, last year they went the distance 2.8 percent the time, collected decisions 69 percent of the time, and averaged 5.8 innings. Against this backdrop, the win has come to be understood less as the product of an individual pitcher’s brilliance or intestinal fortitude on a given day, and more as the confluence of the right amounts of support from the offense, the defense, and the bullpen. That’s true both in sabermetric circles, where pitcher value is preferably measured in isolation of such factors, and in the dugout, where a manager cares less about who collects the W and more about bridging the gap from starter to closer, inning by inning or batter by batter.

Down by the old mainstream, however, the attachment lingers. The Baseball Writers Association of America hasn’t elected a starting pitcher to the Hall of Fame since 1999 (Nolan Ryan), and hasn’t elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since 1990 (Fergie Jenkins). With the disappearance of the 300 clubbers on the ballot, the writers have barred the door for the eminently worthy Bert Blyleven, almost solely due to his missing the mark by 13 wins, and they never came close to inducting Tommy John (288 wins) or Jim Kaat (283), pitchers with shakier credentials. Though Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine have reached 300 this decade, the Rocket’s raging steroid-related controversy suggests that it will take until 2014, when Maddux is eligible, for another starter to earn election to the Hall.

As for the Big Unit’s successors, the current field’s distance from 300 wins leaves us lacking a rigorous methodology for forecasting. PECOTA, which looks “only” seven years into the future, foresees just 81 wins for both Johan Santana and CC Sabathia from 2009-2015. The annual totals, which dwindle into single digits, put Santana at 190 through his age-36 season, and Sabathia at 198 through his age-34 season. Less scientifically, Bill James’ aptly named Favorite Toy method identifies nine pitchers with at least a 10 percent chance at 300 wins in The Bill James Handbook 2009, estimates that are based upon weighted three-year averages of each hurler’s win totals. James’ notion of an “established win level” is rather dicey because of the teammate-dependent nature of the stats — pitcher wins don’t predict future pitcher wins very well.

I took a look at the field of contenders who are at least one quarter of the way there, using James’ toy as well as what I called the Jaffe Blind Optimism Method, which “generously assumes each pitcher will average 15 wins annually through his age-42 season, unfettered by injury or bad luck, and with the bonus of not having his 2009 total to date counted against this year’s allotment.” Uh-huh. The three pitchers who emerge looking as though they have some kind of shot are Sabathia, Santana, and Roy Halladay, with the latter possibly reaching the halfway mark by year’s end.

Meanwhile, in this week’s Hit List, I noted of Johnson, “[C]onsider that with a JAWS score of 89.0 (110.5 career, 67.5 peak), he’s in the mix with Warren Spahn (122.4/62.7/92.6) and Lefty Grove (110.6/68.7/89.7) as the top lefty hurler of all time.” Here’s a few more tastes:

[#1 Dodgers] Opening Day starter Hiroki Kuroda makes a solid return to the rotation after missing nearly two months due to an oblique strain, and while the Dodgers fall in that game, they continue to hold the majors’ widest division lead. That the Dodgers are where they are despite Kuroda’s injury is a surprise; they’re 14-5 in games started by Eric Stults, James McDonald, Jeff Weaver, and Eric Milton despite a .490 combined Support Neutral Winning Percentage and a 4.83 ERA because they’ve supported those hurlers with 6.8 runs per game of offense.

[#11 Brewers] Hoff Time: The Brewers share the top spot in the NL Central, and their bullpen (save for a meltdown-and-out by Jorge Julio) is a major reason why, as they’re third in WXRL and first in reliever Fair Run Average. Trevor Hoffman is 14-for-14 in saves while tossing 16 scoreless innings and allowing just seven baserunners. He’s fourth in WXRL, while free-talent pickups Todd Coffey and Mark DiFelice are also in the top 25.

[#26 Astros] Breaking the Wandy? After allowing just one homer in his first 70 1/3 innings, Wandy Rodriguez is blitzed for four over his next 2 1/3 frames, including two by Garrett Atkins, who hadn’t hit one since Colorado attained statehood. After yielding a 1.83 ERA and 6.6 hits per nine through his first nine starts, Rodriguez has been lit for 29 hits and 18 runs (12 earned) over his last three turns (13 2/3 innings). The loss snaps Houston’s season-high four game winning streak and quashes their hopes of an undefeated June, but they can still root for the Tooth Fairy to show up.

[#27 Diamondbacks] In a performance that surely confuses senile Angelenos, Billy Buckner blanks the Dodgers for six innings en route to one of the team’s two victories on the week. Demoted during the season’s first week with a 15.75 ERA compiled in relief, Buckner’s put up a 2.95 ERA over three starts since being recalled…

I don’t know why, but at 1 AM on Friday morning I was especially proud of that opening line in the latter entry; those confused need look no further.

In any event, I write this while watching Jamie Moyer befuddle the Dodgers through his first six innings, perhaps on his way to 251. I won’t be happy if he adds this particular notch to his belt, but at this rate, he may get there yet. [Late note: nope, as the Dodgers rally in the ninth at the expense of a Pedro Feliz error and the none-too-perfect Brad Lidge. See how hard 300 is?]

Meanwhile, because Alex Belth didn’t get to it today, I’ll link Pat Jordan’s excellent New York Times magazine profile of Johnson and Curt Schilling, “The Odd Couple.” It’s a doozy mainly for what it says about the latter, but it’s also a teling portrait of the man of the hour, and one of the best lefties of all time. Enjoy.

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