Monday, June 08, 2009

Randy Johnson joined the 300-win club: Now let us never speak of it again

(It would be a good idea to get this post up before Randy Johnson pitches again. — Ed.)

Judging a pitcher on his win total is like judging a marriage solely on its longevity.

It's a nice milestone, nothing more. It has taken a few days to make order of some half-thoughts, but there was no joy in Sageritaville after watching and reading the coverage of Randy Johnson's 300th career win. All the fuss played into the useless fetish baseball broadcasters and writers have with arbitrary round numbers.

It's long past time to get weaned off that dependency. The media has a job to increase understanding or stimulate thought, not just say what happened. They punt on that responsibility when they use 300 wins, a .300 career batting average or 3,000 hits for a hitter or 500 home runs (pre-Steroids Era) as a crutch. A player should be judged on what he did in his peak seasons, not on the final totals.

The irony here is that the same mindset that leads to Randy Johnson being feted has worked against Bert Blyleven taking his rightful spot in the Hall of Fame since he won only 287 games (but pitched 60 shutouts, struck out 3,771 batters and was nails in post-season for World Series-winning teams in Minnesota and Pittsburgh).

Another irony is that it has sunk the candidacy of the man who tagged Johnson with the nickname "The Big Unit," former Montreal Expos leadoff hitter Tim Raines. Raines hit only .294. He had only 2,679 hits (but he on-based .385, 16 points higher than Paul Molitor, and scored 1,500 runs. Almost every player who's done that has been elected to Cooperstown, nice contradiction, eh).

Besides, we no longer need a pitcher's win total to know what we need to know about him. There are better tools. It is understood that earned-run average, thanks to the work done by Voros McCracken (the creator of DIPS, defence-independent pitching statistics), is not even a tell-all. Baseball broadcasts now include on-base percentage for batters and WHIP for pitchers. Yet here we are, in 2009, putting emphasis on a statistic that's less a reflection on the man and more on how the game is played. It's mind-blowing.

Batting averages and pitchers' win-loss records still have value as conversational shorthand, since it's easily understood. Saying the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay is the majors' first 10-game winner this season will not die out. Nor will saying, "the guy's only hittin' .245," not, "he's on-basin' .285."

However, wins are mostly a function of how the game was played during a particular timeframe, like all baseball statistics. It's why you don't see anyone bat .420 anymore as was commonplace before 1930. No one is belting 36 triples in a season, like Owen Wilson did for the 1912 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Johnson unwittingly pointed out as much when he joked to Yahoo! Sports that he had, "Two-hundred-and-eleven more (wins), to catch Cy Young," who pitched 100 years ago.

It seems somewhat illuminating that another 300-game winner, Greg Maddux, is said to have been pretty blasé about getting to the milestone. One of the beat reporters who covered Johnson's so-called milestone win also covered Maddux's, related:
"When Greg Maddux won his 300th in San Francisco, it was one of the most anticlimactic events I've ever witnessed. Maddux didn't even come out on the field to shake hands with his Cubs teammates.

At least Johnson really embraced the significance of the accomplishment, tipped his cap to the few hundred fans in the ballpark, celebrated on the field and offered plenty of thoughtful things to say to the media. It felt like an important day, and that sensation was lacking when Maddux joined the club." (Emphasis mine.)
Far be it to suggest that a 300th win isn't a big a deal if Greg Maddux didn't think it was a big deal when he was the guy getting his 300th win. Maddux is pretty smart, probably smarter than a lot of journalists who covered his career. (His brother, Mike Maddux, is also a very intelligent baseball mind, having made over the Texas Rangers pitching staff despite the difficulties posed by their home ballpark.)

Perhaps that is one of those instances where the journos need to use a little more intelligence. That probably is the frustrating part, admittedly. Everyone ought to know better. Winning 300 is more of a footnote to Johnson's career. Resetting the bar for Hall of Fame induction at 275 or 250 is no better It still amounts to putting emphasis on an almost meaningless statistic. You might as well say a NFL quarterback must complete 60% of his passes to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A better question than, "Will we ever see another 300-game winner?" is, "Will we continue to care about winning 300 games?" Besides, as Joe Posnanski pointed out Sunday in a much better-written post, all of us seem to have forgotten Mike Mussina retired with 270 wins last fall.

Point being, the sooner those round-number milestones are jettisoned, the better. People have the ability to make a reasoned decision about how good someone was. The crux of it is that focusing on 300, .300, 500 or 3,000 means a a career is being evaluated based on someone's willingness to stretch out the crummy, wind-down portion of his career, the way Craig Biggio did in 2007 so he could get to 3,000 hits. (Three thousand hits is something that really has to go, since it completely ignores the value of the base on balls as an offensive weapon.)

Mussina left on his own terms when he was still capable of pitching for 2-3 more seasons. It seems like Mussina did a cost-benefit and decided leaving the game on his own terms trumped pitching with diminished skills for the sake of giving sports media drones something to write about.

That's completely understandable, especially if an athlete is a perfectionist. Blue Jays fans adore Roy Halladay not just because he's nails, but because of what he does to be so nails — the dedication, the focus. Halladay, who's at 141 wins at age 32, has an outside shot at 300. There will come a day though when he won't be able to pitch as effectively. Picture a 44-year-old Doc chucking for some mediocre West Coast National League team in 2021, trying to get his 300th win (although you can't assume that's what he would want). Now does it seem so special?

Besides, last Thursday is not even among the top 10 Randy Johnson moments, for Pete Toms' sake.
  1. His first career no-hitter with the Mariners (June 2, 1990, Seattle). It established him as a pitcher to look out for. You know the joke, too: His father was upset that he walked six batters.

  2. Striking out Rickey Henderson three times in one game (May 16, 1993, Oakland). Mariners fans might remember this since Johnson took a no-hit bid into the ninth inning before Lance Blankenship broke it up with a single to shallow right field. In the long run, it might be more noteworthy that he struck out Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson three times on his way to a 14-strikeout night.

    Now, quickly, do you know what Floyd Bannister, Jim Clancy, Roger Clemens and Mike Flanagan have in common? The correct answer is not, "They all pitched for the Blue Jays," because Bannister didn't, nor is it, "Who are four people who have never been in my kitchen?" Those are the only other pitchers who ever whiffed Rickey Henderson three times in one game when the greatest leadoff hitter of all time was in his prime. That's a great trivia question.

    Clancy did it Sept. 23, 1981, Bannister on Aug. 11, 1982, Flanagan on (Sept. 30, 1985) and Clemens did it twice on Sept. 9, 1987 and Sept. 15, 1988.

    For all intents and purposes, Henderson's prime is assumed to have ended some time before May 31, 1995, when the immortal Erik Hanson turned the trick.

  3. Scaring the poop out of John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game (July 12, 1993, Baltimore). Give a rare chance to deal to a left-handed hitter, Johnson took full advantage when John Kruk came up to bat. The video is priceless. The first pitch was over Kruk's head. Second pitch, fastball down the middle. Kruk waved helplessly at the next two, just to get out of there.

  4. Pitching the Seattle Mariners into the 1995 playoffs (Oct. 2, 1995, Seattle). Johnson fired a complete-game three-hitter to help the Mariners beat the California Angels 9-1 in a one-game AL West playoff, capping one of the great late-season comebacks in . The Mariners overtook the Angels after being 12½ games out as late as Aug. 20, winning the last 11 games Johnson started.

  5. Coming out of the bullpen on one day's rest in the Mariners' series-deciding win vs. the Yankees in the '95 playoffs (Oct. 8, 1995). It might as well have been the point where the term "nails" was coined. The Mariners were playoff first-timers going up against the Yankees, who were in the post-season for the first time since 1981. New York won the first two games at Yankee Stadium. Johnson, on three days' rest, won Game 3 and the Mariners won the next night to force the decider. Tied 4-4 in the ninth in the Game 5, manager Lou Piniella summoned him out of the bullpen and he went three innings until Edgar Martinez hit the winning two-run double. Piniella later said he'd asked Johnson if he would be available to pitch to one batter, "just as a gentleman's way of getting him in there."

  6. Striking out 19 batters in a game twice in one season (June 24 and Aug. 8, 1997, both at Seattle). He lost the first time he did it, so it was almost like he had to do it a second time.

  7. Striking out 20 batters in a game (May 8, 2001, Arizona). It's cool to a Seamhead because it required a special ruling before it was clear it would count as tying the record for a nine-inning game. Johnson came out after the ninth with the score tied, having struck out eight of his last nine hitters to get to 20. Since the game went to extras and since baseball takes its record book so damn seriousl, it wasn't clear if he would be considered to have tied Clemens' and Kerry Wood's record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game. A couple days later, the powers-that-be did the right thing.

  8. Winning three games in a single World Series (Nov. 4, 2001, Arizona). A great feat since it reaches across time to the days when pitchers would start three games in a World Series, to Bob Gibson in 1967 or Christy Mathewson in 1905. Johnson won games 2 and 6, and then came back to win Game 7 in relief of Curt Schilling, with whom he shared Series MVP honours.

  9. Pitching a perfect game (May 18, 2004, Atlanta). Struck out 13 of 27 Braves hitters, including future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones all three times.

  10. If it has to be included... That time he killed the bird.


Ottawa Sports Guy said...

Sageritaville. Love it!

And yes, Sager, it did need to be included. :)

slightlyusedrookie said...

Way off about Biggio man, almost every number (except stolen bases) increase offensively for Bigg in that time near when he retired.

sager said...

Here's his baseball-reference page. Please show where Biggio's numbers increased in 2006 and 2007.

Biggio played 20 years, so here are his seasons sorted by park-adjusted OPS:

Best 5: 1997, 1995, 1998, 1994, 1993.

Second-best 5: 1996, 1992, 1989, 1991, 1999

Second-worst 5: 2001, 2005, 2004, 2003, 1990.

Worst 5: 2000, 2002, 2006, 1988 (when he played only 50 games), 2007.

His last two seasons were his worst two as an everyday player. He had 26 homers (career high) in '05, but he also recorded a weak .325 on-base percentage, which was the lowest of his career to that point.

His walk rates dropped badly, his strikeout rates soared in his final years.

I rest your case.