Refuting the Randy Johnson quit on us canard

DMZ · January 15, 2007 at 12:13 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Part one of what will inevitably be a series of chunks o’knowledge to be cited in the constantly arising arguments. Suggestions, thoughts welcome.

Contention to be examined: that Randy Johnson intentionally sabotaged his last year in Seattle so that he would be traded.

This contention is used as support for other follow-ups, particularly that Johnson is a [selfish person/not a team player/ungrateful jerk].

This larger contention is not as simple as it might at first seem. It makes a number of assertions that need to be proven.

Did Randy Johnson suck in Seattle, and was he better after the trade?
Is there evidence that he intentionally sabotaged his team in service of his goal?
What do we know about possible causes for a difference in performance?
Did he want to get out of Seattle? Is the why relevant?

We can fairly examine these and make determinations. The answer, I hope you’ll agree, is much more complicated than is generally believed.

Did Randy Johnson suck in Seattle, and was he better after the trade?

A simple examination of his season lines would seem to indicate so.

Seattle: 23 starts, 160 IP, 146 H, 19 HR, 60 BB, 213 K for a 4.33 ERA and a 9-10 record
Houston: 11 starts, 84.3 IP, 57 H, 4 HR, 26 BB, 116 K for a 1.28 ERA and a 10-1 record.

The argument about Johnson is too-frequently reduced to the last, least relevant stats:
Seattle: 9-10, 4.33 ERA. Houston: 10-1, 1.28 ERA

ERA and wins, of course, are pretty poor ways to measure a pitcher’s performance. We’re better off looking at what he did, and we’ll see here that it’s particularly deceptive.

While the difference in parks is not huge, it is important to recognize that at the time, Seattle played in the hitter-friendly Kingdome, while the Astros played in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. Further, in discussing his record, it’s important to note that the Astros scored nearly as many runs a game as the Mariners despite the difference in home parks and the fact that the Astros played in the NL. Johnson did not lack for run support in Houston.

Rate-wise, let’s compare the two parts of his season as outcome/batters faced
Seattle: 8.8% walks, 31% strikeouts
Houston: 7.9% walks, 35% strikeouts

Despite moving to a league where he got to face a pitcher or a pinch-hitter every third inning, Johnson’s strikeouts were barely up, though his walk rate went down.

He saw two things he had far less control over dive – hits and home runs

Seattle: 21.3% hit rate, 2.7% HR rate
Houston: 17.3% hit rate, 1.2% HR rate

Why, then, if Johnson’s performances weren’t on the whole much worse, does this perception exist? I think there are two reasons.

First:Seattle: 9-10, 4.33 ERA. Houston: 10-1, 1.28 ERA

Hard to get past that. If you believe wins or ERA are a worthwhile measure of a pitcher’s performance, or if you aren’t willing to do the digging and look at the K or BB numbers, that’s pretty damning.

Second: Johnson did suck. For reasons we’ll get into, his last season in Seattle was a terrible roller coaster. Let’s use Bill James’ Game Score as a rough yardstick for how well a game went and look at Johnson’s starts in Seattle:

90-100 (2) – his 90 was a complete-game shutout in Anaheim where he struck out 15, walking 2
80-89 (3)
70-79 (2)
60-69 (3) – for a 68, take a 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 9 K, 0 HR game
50-59 (3)
40-49 (4)
30-39 (4) – a 34 was a 7 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 6 BB, 7 K, 1 HR start
20-29 (2) – it’s really hard to get this low

It’s clear Johnson wasn’t intentionally sucking all the time, at least. The most damning thing we can say is that Johnson’s time in Seattle was wildly erratic.

The next contention then is that Johnson only pitched well when he wanted, which an unprovable and meaningless assertion. No one except Johnson could tell us whether he wanted to win a particular start or not. If you place any value on his statements, he was quite frustrated by his losses, but presumably, the counterargument is that of course he’d say that.

If he only pitched well in order to get traded, there’s very little evidence to support that, either: there’s no pattern of excellence or sucky starts, and the two really great starts he put up back to back in July (the complete-game shutouts on the 11th and 16th) when you might argue he was trying to showcase himself before the deadline were followed up by a July 22nd start where the Devil Rays roughed him up for seven runs (2 earned) on 10 hits, and the July 28th start he went nine innings, struck out 12, but also gave up two home runs and walked six.

Why, then, is there a perception that he tanked?

Johnson entered the season with speculation about his future with the team, his feud with management, his contract negotiations, and trade rumors around him, and he came out of the gates with two terrible starts. He got rocked on Opening Day and then again in his next start, and the media frenzy went overboard.

That horrible start defined the season for many people. Johnson wasn’t content, and he was sucking it up. Then he goes to Houston and really only has one start that’s not good (the August 17th loss). Using game score for a rough comparison, he had *7* starts in Seattle that were worse than that one in Houston. But he also games in Seattle that were better than any he put up in Houston. And why would it help Johnson to pitch badly sometimes and then well? It’s a huge gamble that opposing teams would scout him and think “we throw away the bad starts and only look at the good ones, because he’s unhappy and we can make him happy”. From a trade-value perspective, he’d be much better off pitching well consistently.

On the other hand, if he was really unhappy and didn’t want to pitch for the Mariners, forcing a trade as soon as possible, he should have tanked every time, requiring the team to move him immediately.

He didn’t do either of those things, though. So either he kept switching back between strategies for some reason, which itself would make for a poor strategy, or something else was afoot.

This brings us around to two of the original assertions:

What do we know about possible causes for a difference in performance?
Did he want to get out of Seattle? Is the why relevant?

It wasn’t only the contract extension talks, which by all accounts went horribly. To summarize: Randy wanted a contract worthy of a top starter and the team, having limped through 1996 with him injured, were concerned his back might give out again, and didn’t want to give him the deal. Randy was incensed at the implication that he couldn’t hold up or that after eight full seasons with the team that they seemed unwilling to make the effort.

He also had not forgiven the team for what he saw as insensitivity over his father’s death, which deeply affected Johnson. In a frequently-cited incident, president Chuck Armstrong asked Randy how his dad was doing.

But as much as he was disappointed by the front office, there’s no doubt that he enjoyed the frenzied adulation of the fans and the city, liked being part of the community and doing charity and church events, and he was deeply conflicted about leaving. In off-season events where he was constantly pestered about what he thought would happen, if he’d stay in Seattle, he was often embarrassed and would sometimes say that while he’d like to continue playing in Seattle, he didn’t know what would happen.

He entered 1998 surrounded by speculation on his contract and whether he’d be traded, and when he got off to that lousy start, it all got even worse. It was a constant distraction for him, and he was already torn up about what the future held for him.

Whether or not his position was right, or you agree that he should have been affected, it’s clear that he was. If you want to fault him for not being able to lock outside distractions, that’s an entirely different argument than “he quit”

So we can see:
Randy Johnson did not intentionally tank the 1998 season
His performances don’t fit any strategy for getting traded
He did perform erratically
There were reasons for him to stay, and for his unhappiness with the team

Therefore, I propose an alternate explanation:
Randy Johnson was particularly susceptible to having his performances affected by the problems he was having with the team, and so 1998 was really bad for him.

I don’t believe Randy ever went out and said “Screw these guys, I’m grooving fastballs all game”. There’s no evidence he did anything like that.

But Johnson’s a weird dude. You might find him kind and friendly, or, on game days, angry, focused, and unwilling to acknowledge other people. He is, and has always been, a demonstrative, fiery pitcher who uses his emotions to fuel his performance. And in 1998, he had trouble focusing. When he could pull himself together – either because Piniella said the right things to him the day before, or he’d heard good news on the trade rumor front, or whatever – he was entirely the ace. But when he could not, he walked guys and got hit hard.

If he’d given up trying to keep focused and perform well, you’d have seen horrible game after game. But reading the game accounts, reading Randy’s quotes, you see that he kept struggling, trying to find a way to pitch while emotionally off-balance, and he was more frustrated than anyone that he couldn’t consistently find success.

You can fault Johnson for not being able to keep his focus, or for letting the many off-field distractions affect him on the mound, but that’s short-sighted. That pitcher wouldn’t have been Randy Johnson. The same qualities that made his time in Seattle so hard in 1998 were the ones that made him put up one of the best seasons ever in 1997.

Even if you discard Johnson’s own words, there’s no evidence that Randy Johnson tanked in order to get traded, and there’s a preponderance of evidence that he was trying to pitch well but could not manage to do it consistently.


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