As a baseball-obsessed kid, I used to look at the career and peak numbers of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and wonder what it must’ve been like to watch them play. I always assumed it’d be obvious – that you could tell which one was the all-time great from the moment he jogged out from the dugout. Maybe he’d subtly glow, like a nimbate icon or a video game character. Failing that, I was sure you’d see it in their play. Every out would be lined right at someone. Every routine play would demonstrate freakish athleticism and the smoothness borne of instinct and hours of practice.
I thought about Mays and Ruth, and then I watched/listened to the Mariners of the 1980s. It seems like more of a juxtaposition now than it felt like at the time. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t see any obvious hall of famers when I headed to the Kingdome – it’s that I saw them *everywhere.* Mickey Brantley hit .300 in 90+ games in 1987. All he needed to do was keep it up, and boom, Hall of Fame. Phil Bradley had the look of a Hall of Famer, too. Alvin Davis and Mark Langston were obvious HOFs-in-waiting. What was frustrating wasn’t that the M’s couldn’t build a great team, but that the M’s had assembled all of this greatness and couldn’t quite out gun their rivals. This was understandable, given that every road trip was a walk down multiple muderer’s rows. The Blue Jays had Jorge Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby 4-5-6 with Tony Fernandez leading off. Kelly Gruber, a potential Hall of Famer, batted *8th*. The Yankees had Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly. The Red Sox had Mike Greenwell, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs and Ellis Burks, and the A’s had Carney Lansford ahead of Canseco and McGwire. We were awash in greatness.
So you’d expect given the standard my youthful brain set for greatness that Randy Johnson, a man who actually seemed to BE larger than life, would seem like the greatest of all. Instead, he seemed like some kind of carnival freak. Johnson’s walk totals were staggering, and for his first few years, they kept going up. Worse, the walks seemed like the natural product of a 6’10″ man hurling a ball with a motion that looked stiff, disjointed and unathletic. Grant Brisbee’s excellent article on RJ includes this description of young RJ’s mechanics: “It wasn’t like watching a pitcher. It was more like watching a gigantic pitcher costume being manipulated by three smaller pitchers inside.” As a kid, I wanted to believe Johnson would put it all together, but then I wanted to believe Manute Bol would turn into a true NBA weapon, too, and I think I gave Bol slightly better odds.
For the first year or so, RJ just didn’t *look* like a Hall of Famer. Erik Hanson had a plus curve and actually knew where it was going. Brian Holman seemed like the safest part of the Langston return, and both he and Hanson were younger. Johnson was the same age as Scott Bankhead, who was what passed for the M’s best starter with Langston gone, and who put together his best year in 1989. RJ took a step forward in 1990, but then again, so did Hanson – Hanson not only looked better in the old-school stats of the day, he actually had a better strikeout rate than Johnson that year. In 1991, Johnson’s stuff had developed to the point where he was reliably getting strikeouts, but his walk rate wasn’t improving – it was getting worse. RJ walked 152 batters that year, good for a walk rate of 17% and by far the most in baseball. Sure, Nolan Ryan had walked over 200 a year in the 70s, but that’s because he pitched so many innings – on a rate basis, RJ was walking more than Ryan ever had.
At the time, the best comparison wasn’t Nolan Ryan, but rather Bobby Witt, a highly-touted fireballer who the Rangers kept nurturing despite two years of walk rates around 20%. But in 1990-92, Witt looked like a control artist in comparison with RJ, and he was a year younger, too. At the time, I thought it was possible that RJ would get eventually fight his control problems to a draw and become someone with average-to-mediocre walk rates. But I thought that any process that would allow RJ to throw strikes would have to sap his bat-missing abilities in the process, and at any rate would come too late to make him any kind of Hall candidate.
In 1996, Johnson suffered a bulging disc in his back, and ultimately had it surgically repaired, putting an end to his first season as the defending Cy Young winner. When he went under the knife, he was a few weeks away from his 32nd birthday. 1997 was Johnson’s best year for the M’s, and the team rode their ace to the AL West title and the first in a series of playoff disappointments. It was thrilling to watch – every game felt like a potential no-hitter. My friend and I were home for the summer, and before we headed back to college (and Europe), we both decided to catch an RJ start. 5 days later, we did it again. Throughout the summer, if we didn’t have to work, we’d grab an OF seat and see the most unique athlete a Seattle team had ever produced. We watched because he was clearly in that “you’ll tell your grandkids about this” class, but also because every game felt like it could be his last. Tommy John surgery was becoming routine back then, though it wasn’t (and still isn’t) a sure thing. Back surgery on nearly 7′ pitchers whose mechanics now looked smoother, but also like they’d put a lot of pressure on the spine? That was terrifying.
If he was healthy, he was always going to be in the conversation as the league’s best pitcher, but how long would a surgically-repaired back hold out? The M’s weren’t so sure, and their unwillingness to give Johnson a long-term contract set off a simmering feud that destroyed any chance of Johnson staying in Seattle after 1998. The off-season between 1997 and 1998 was filled with rumors about potential trade partners and rumors, with both New York clubs interested (Mariano Rivera was part of a rumored Yankee return at one point). Johnson was never good with the press, and a string of un-Randy like results in 1998 meant that much of Seattle wasn’t *too* upset about losing their ace. 9 months of debating about returns meant that most M’s fans (and I sheepishly include myself here) wanted to maximize the return and move on – you have to get SOMEthing for him, and in any event, the team was building around A-Rod and a still-only-28 year old Ken Griffey, Jr.
Freed from a team whose management he despised, RJ became the best deadline acquisition of all-time, helping the Houston Astros to the playoffs. To a segment of the M’s fanbase, this proved it – he’d been sandbagging it in Seattle, pitching poorly on purpose to force a trade. He’d been amazing, but he wasn’t a team player, and anyway, that spine is a time bomb.
Randy Johnson went into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback thanks to a mind-blowing first four seasons in the desert. He pitched 1,030 innings from 1999-2002, striking out 1,420 batters along the way. His walk rate had settled down to around 7%, but his stuff was better than ever. He’d been snubbed in Cy Young races before, but won 4 in a row for Arizona, the final one unanimously. In that 2002 season, RJ was 38. There were a lot of odd career arcs around that time, from Omar Vizquel’s development and slow decline (playing over 800 games after the M’s deemed him unable to play in 2004) to Jamie Moyer’s rebirth in Seattle. Still, there’s really never been a pitcher who’s aged like RJ did. A perfect game and a 9.5 WAR campaign at age 40. 5 Cy Young wins and 235 of his 303 wins *after* turning 30.
He was Seattle’s greatest pitcher ever, and for a variety of justifiable reasons, we missed out on the best part of his career. M’s fans got to watch RJ’s remarkable development, and we saw the perennial losers turn into an AL force thanks in part to that development. We watched him come back not just from crippling control problems and then almost-actually-crippling back problems. We watched as he turned his slider from an experiment to one of the best pitches in the game, and we watched as that pitch caused left-handers to take sick days instead of facing him. He became a dominant force, but he never became the real focus of most of the fanbase. There’s no way to overestimate Griffey’s appeal in the 90s, and A-Rod’s emergence came right after Edgar Martinez fashioned himself into one of the best hitters in baseball. That’s an attempt at giving us M’s fans something of a pass, but it’s also a reminder: teams and fans often fail to recognize how non-linear greatness is, and how unique talent like RJ’s can be.
M’s fans always used to wonder how much production they could’ve gotten from Edgar Martinez if someone had simply realized that he was a great hitter before the age of 27. Why would professional scouts watch him pummel the ball in Calgary and focus on his glove, power stroke or whatever the excuse of the day was. More recently, Paul Goldschmidt was killing the ball at every stop in the minors, and no one knew what it meant. No top-100 rankings. Hell, most (very good) prospect writers didn’t include him in the TEAM’S top 10 lists. This happens more than I’d think. RJ’s just the opposite. For as much grief as the M’s get – and they deserve it – for missing Edgar, they should get credit for sticking with RJ. Edgar was one of the best hitters on the planet slamming doubles around a small Alberta stadium, but RJ was just velocity and risk. Velocity earned him a shot, but no one would’ve blamed the M’s in 1992 if they’d decided to make him someone else’s pet project.
RJ’s greatness had a kind of momentum. Once the first light bulb went on for him between 1992 and 1993, it didn’t just make him a better pitcher – it made it more likely that other light bulbs might go on, too. This is essentially the process we’ve watched with Felix, where he’s gone from talented underachiever to consistent dominance by refining, by making adjustments. Baseball is always regressing things to the mean, pulling non-Trout players back toward their career averages after a big year, or sapping power as hitters age. On the population as a whole, this process is continuous and unrelenting. But individuals can get a kind of escape velocity, and RJ managed it. RJ had the longest improvement phase in a career we’ll ever see, and watching him head into Cooperstown takes some of the sting out of the fact that M’s fans missed the peak of one of the most unique great ballplayer ever.