Remembering Randy


The Big Unit

Over 21 years ago, a tall and lanky lefthander from Northern California with a University of Southern California education made his Major League debut as a member of the now defunct Montreal Expos, throwing five innings of two run ball against the Pirates to earn his first Major League win. The next season he made 28 starts and walked 96 batters in 160.2 innings, getting traded to Seattle in the process. He would go on to lead the big leagues in walks in 1990 (120 BB), 1991 (152), and 1992 (140), and it wasn’t until his age-29 season that he broke through and established himself as an elite starting pitcher.

That pitcher walked away from the game yesterday, having led the league in strikeouts nine times and being named the Cy Young Award winner five times. He would finish in the top three of the voting on four other occasions. Randy Johnson hangs ‘em up as one of the game’s very best, though his time in New York is largely remembered as a disappointment.

George Steinbrenner had long desired to bring The Big Unit to the Bronx, and he made no secret of it. “God, who wouldn’t love to have Randy Johnson?” Steinbrenner told ESPN Radio in 2004. “He’s a dominator and we’d love to have him. Anybody would love to have him.” The Boss’ wish came true following the ’04 season, when he masterminded a deal that sent Javy Vazquez plus two prospects and cash to Arizona for Johnson. Before he even had a chance to put on his jersey during the introductory press conference, the team gave Johnson a two-year contract extension worth $32M, and he responded by roughing up a CBS cameraman on a midtown sidewalk.

Expectations were high heading into 2005, after all Johnson was coming off a season in which he struck out 290 and allowed just 221 baserunners in 245.2 innings. Unfortunately, Randy was rather ordinary out of the gate. After allowing one run in six innings to earn the win against the Red Sox on Opening Day, Johnson posted a 4.39 ERA and a .751 OPS against in his next 16 starts. His record stood at 6-6 on July 1st, and he had lost a full mile an hour off his fastball from the year before.

Johnson settled in and was very good down the stretch, pitching to a 3.32 ERA with a .648 OPS against in his final 17 starts. The Yankees won five of his six starts against Boston, which proved to be the difference in the AL East race. The two clubs finished with identical 95-67 records, but the Yanks were crowned division champs because they had won the season series 10-9.

Lined up to start Game Three of the ALDS against the Angels, Johnson lasted just three innings and allowed five runs as the Yanks got creamed on their own turf. By the time he came out of the bullpen in relief of Mike Mussina in Game Five, the Yankees’ fate was all but sealed. RJ had been the team’s best starter by a considerable margin all season, however the blame for their early playoff exit was hoisted squarely onto his shoulders.

Heading into the 2006 season, many expected big things out of The Big Unit since he had a season to acclimate himself to New York under his belt. “I think it will be more comfortable for him,” said manager Joe Torre. “I think that’s been from Spring Training all the way through. It’s been less hectic than last year.”

Johnson dominated the A’s on Opening Day, though his ERA stood at 5.25 on July 1st. He lost even more giddy-up off his fastball and battled lower back soreness the rest of the season, though it wasn’t until the end of the year that he decided to get it checked out. It was revealed that Johnson had a herniated disc in his back, and he needed an epidural before being cleared to take the mound in the ALDS. Against the Tigers, Johnson tossed another postseason dud in pinstripes, allowing five runs in just over five innings in Game Three as the Yanks were again sent home prematurely.

At 43-years-old and with a bad back, GM Brian Cashman traded Johnson back to the Diamondbacks for a reliever and three prospects after the 2006 campaign. In two years with the Yankees, Randy had a more than respectable 34-19 record with a 4.39 ERA, though his 6.92 ERA in three postseason appearances remain his Yankee legacy. His time in pinstripes had no effect on his status as a future first ballot Hall of Famer, though he’s viewed as just another mercenary – a grumpy mercenary, nonetheless – that failed to do the job he was brought in to do. He failed not because he was soft or because he didn’t care, but because he was unable to maintain his historical dominance into his 40′s.

Unfortunately for Yankee fans, Johnson will perhaps be better remembered for the damage he did against the Yanks than he did for them. He allowed just five hits in ten innings against the Bombers during the 1995 ALDS, winning Game Three before coming out of the bullpen to win the deciding Game Five. During the 2001 World Series, he beat the Yanks in Games Two, Six, and Seven, clinching the World Championship in relief after throwing seven innings the night before.

Randy Johnson announced his retirement from baseball last night, and it closed the book on perhaps the most dominant starting pitching career we’ll ever see. He retired with 739 more strikeouts than any other lefthanded pitcher in the history of baseball, and his career mark of 10.61 strikeouts per nine innings is the best by any pitcher ever. He’s the oldest pitcher in history to throw a perfect game (40), and this past season he joined the exclusive 300 win club.

The Big Unit may have been a big disappointment in New York because of his failure to deliver a World Championship, but the game said goodbye to one of it’s all-time greats yesterday.

Photo Credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP

Categories : Days of Yore


  1. Short Porch says:

    Not nearly randy enough.

  2. JGS says:

    Best left handed pitcher of all time?

  3. Tampa Yankee says:

    it wasn’t until his age-29 season that he broke through and established himself as an elite starting pitcher.
    So we shouldn’t give up on Joba and Hughes quite yet?

    In all seriousness, Randy’s performance in the 2001 WS vs. was both amazing and heartbreaking at the same time. Being able to watch Maddux and RJ pitch the last 20+ years was great.

  4. pat says:

    One of the all time greats. He was one of those guys who pretty much had you struck out before you even got to the plate. Career .199/.278/.294 vs LHB. This is one of the things I’ll remember most about him, something we’ll probably never ever ever see in baseball again. Besides throwing one over Krukie’s head in the All Star game.


    The bird literally exploded.

  5. “Over 21 years ago, a tall and lanky lefthander from Northern California with a University of Southern California education made his Major League debut as a member of the now defunct bygone Montreal Expos…”

    /connotative nitpick’d

  6. JGS says:

    and after 22 years, he still finished 839 strikeouts shy of Ryan

    Don’t think that record is ever going to be broken, but will anyone else even get to 5,000?

  7. CT Yankee says:

    Most Dominant lefty? I always thought Steve Carleton was the best lefty I saw. But plowing through the stats the Unit was probably better. Damn I hate myself for even typing that. He was (is) a putz.

  8. the artist formerly known as (sic) says:

    take THAT, pearlman!

  9. JohnC says:

    “roughing up a cameraman” . Geez. All he did was out his hand in front of the camera and push it away. Thesse guys act like he beat the guy up.

  10. “He failed not because he was soft or because he didn’t care, but because he was unable to maintain his historical dominance into his 40’s.”

    He should have just used more good ol’ American hard work and a maniacal training regimen to keep his aging body in the stunning, peak physical condition of a 25-year old without the use of any performance enhancing substances whatsoever.

    Roger Clemens

  11. pete says:

    Probably the scariest pitcher to face of all time. 6’10, 97+mph fastball with a filthy 90mph slider, and a 3/4 arm action? yikes. Ironically, I’d probably put at #2 on that list the 5’10, over-the-top-er Pedro Martinez, circa ’97-’00

  12. YankFanDave says:

    As a self-proclaimed spoiled New Yorker, Randy had 34 wins in 2 seasons in the Bronx — not bad, actually pretty good.

    Thanks Randy and best of luck.

    • whozat says:

      Thanks to playing in front of a world-beating offense, yes. He won 17 games with a 5.00 ERA his second year.

      But man, in 1995 he threw 215 innings, K’d over TWELVE per 9 and walked fewer than THREE per nine. 6.7 hits per nine, and one homer every 18.

      Good lord that’s incredible.

      • You remember the much-ridiculed 2005 AL Cy Young award balloting, where Bartolo Colon beat out Mariano Rivera for the trophy even though Johan Santana should have won it easily?

        You can easily make the argument that Randy should have come in second behind Santana for that award. His 2005 Yankees campaign was probably better than the years of Colon, Buerhle, Lee, Millwood, Garland, etc. He was quite good.

  13. Mike Pop says:

    He was a great pickup for Houston in 1998 at the trade deadline. 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA, 116 strikeouts in 84.1 innings. Wow.

    Got them into the playoffs.

  14. Rose says:

    Imagine if Robinson Cano was actually included in the Randy Johnson trade as initially proposed? We’d presumably have ANOTHER catcher (Navarro) and one less 2B…

    It essentially could have changed so many things. Who would we have at 2B? Would we still have drafted so many catchers and would we even be in the same place to do so?

    The world may never know…

  15. Steve H says:

    Not that I care, as it was the norm, but why has Johnson never been suggested as a steroid user? Plenty of people have thrown claims out there about guys who were doing things that just weren’t normal, and Johnson in his 40′s sported a 116 ERA+, and that includes a season with a 5.00 ERA. That’s just not normal, nor was it normal for Clemens. Clemens was also whispered about as a juicer, and of course it was spot on. Why not Unit?

    • Zack says:

      Body type?

      • Steve H says:

        That might be some of it, though I’d consider it completely unjustified. There are so many types of steroids, they don’t all just bulk you up Sosa style. Look at Pettitte/Knoblauch/Grimsley etc, those guys didn’t have the “look” of juicers. I mean the 1st player ever suspended for juicing was Alex Sanchez, who makes Gritner look like Lou Ferrigno.

        • Zack says:

          Yeah, didnt say it was a good reason but that’s usually how people look at things, 6’10 230lbs, not exactly Clemens and his “tree trunks” for legs of Bonds/Giambi/etc. I know there are different kinds of PEDs, but if you’re going to look at it that way then every player from the 70s til forever (cheaters are always ahead of rules) is guilty.
          IMO just because hes successful its not really fair to him to attach his name to PEDs just because of his age, but again I recognize fans no longer trust the players.

          • Steve H says:

            I agree it’s not fair to attach his name because he’s been successful, but it’s been done with so many other players I wonder why not him. There have been plenty of people, who by boring over stats, have questioned people as juicers. Randy’s stats are among the most questionable. If I were to tell you that in the middle of the steroid era, a 40 year old pitcher led the league in K’s, ERA+, WHIP, H/9 and games started, would you have any questions. Then what if I told you this was coming of an injury plagued 39 year old season (makes sense, that’s old) in which his era was 1.66 runs higher. No questions about juice, really? Raul Ibanez has 2 good months at 37 and he’s questioned as a juicer, despite going from a pitchers park in the AL to a hitters park in the NL where he should have been expected to see an increase in his numbers. Oh, and of course steroids didn’t exist in the 70′s (rolls eyes), the lack of steroids in the 70′s (despite Hank Aaron’s teammate’s noted use) helped Jim Rice get info the HOF>

            • A.D. says:

              Raul Ibanez has 2 good months at 37 and he’s questioned as a juicer

              His questioning as a juicer is now on par with RJ, thrown out there without any physical proof.

            • Zack says:

              Well for his 39 year old season he had a knee injury I believe right? Think people look at that differently than say a hitter who lost bat speed and cant catch up to a FB, then suddenly the next year he can.
              But I do see your argument, for this era where anyone who does anything better than anyone else they get labeled a user, but he hasnt.

              And you made a good point about Ibanez- position players will always be accused more than pitchers, it’s just people’s perception. I think it’s easier to hear whispers when someone is 37 having career high in HRs compared to a pitcher that is 37 and dominating- again think people just look at the body types- or they say- well the pitchers is just a freak of nature because his shoulder/elbow hasnt blown out yet- and can PEDs really prevent that?

              • Ed says:

                For pitching, there’s the perception that to a certain extent, improved control and more pitching experience can compensate for loss of velocity.

                For hitting, the perception is strictly that the skill is based on reflexes, which decline over time.

    • A.D. says:

      Well when you’re ERA + was in the 180s for a stretch, and 130+ for 10 straight years, 116 is slowing down. On top of that unlike Clemens he did diminish, he wasn’t throwing that hard at the end, and he could always throw hard, it was control that was his issue, which generally won’t be helped by steroids.

      • Steve H says:

        Greg Maddux put up ERA+’s in the 180′s as well, and despite not relying on velocity was a league average pitcher after 37 in the NL only, Pedro fell off a cliff. Johnson’s aging was not normal, even though he regressed, it wasn’t a normal progress. And, who says he wasn’t juicing when he put up the 180 ERA+’s?

        • Ed says:

          Pedro fell off a cliff because he tore his rotator cuff at the age of 29. He pitched for years with a torn rotator cuff, gradually losing effectiveness and pitching on extra rest whenever possible. After the injury, Pedro was also completely done after 100 pitches.

          Without the injury, Pedro probably would have continued improving for a few years, or at least maintained his peak several years longer.

          Maddux didn’t rely on velocity, but he still had (slightly) above average velocity during his peak. His decline corresponded with his velocity falling to below average levels.

      • Thomas says:

        You could argue his control could be helped by steroids, if steroids did one or both of two things.
        First if steroids helped strengthen some of his muscles allowing him to create a more repeatable delivery, then steroids could help his control.

        Another way steroids could help him is if steroids strengthened his arm muscles allowing him to throw harder. Randy Johnson always threw hard, but he may try to over-throw before he tried steroids (in this hypothetical situation). Let say pre-steroids if Johnson threw at his maximum strength he would hit 99, but when doing so he may have done so at risk of his mechanics and control resulting in inaccuracy. When Johnson toned down his velocity and threw say 95, he could greatly improve his control. Then post-steroids, if Johnson at max strength could hit say 102, he could tone it down and throw it 98. Thus, at 98 he could still throw very hard, but have improved control at this level.

        How likely either of these scenarios are is beyond me (probably not very), but they could theoretically help him succeed.

        Additionally, steroids and HGH could be used by Johnson to improve his health and back strength, which he had throughout his career.

    • Ed says:

      If doing something that isn’t normal implies someone is a steroid user, then doesn’t that mean we should just assume everyone in the All Star Game or the Hall of Fame used steroids? After all, those two things are all about singling about the abnormal players.

      Clemens was singled out because he bulked up as he got older. This came after he had a few down years which lead to the Red Sox proclaiming him washed up.

      Johnson blossomed late and maintained an elite level until he started a decline upon reaching the Yankees. His decline corresponded with moving to a stronger league and mounting injuries, which should be expected.

      Also, Johnson’s peak velocity was higher than Clemens, meaning if they declined at similar rates, it would take longer for Johnson’s velocity to fall to average, allowing him to remain effective for longer.

      Clemens personally hiring a major drug distributor probably also helped rumors spread. Of course, for all we know Johnson could have too, but, if he didn’t, he wasn’t so public about it.

  16. Luca10 says:

    University of Southern California education? They have some type of education at u$c*? I highly doubt it!

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