September 7, 2004
Over the course of his career, Randy Johnson has been linked to Nolan Ryan in a number of ways. From similar beginnings as control-challenged flamethrowers, through mid-career development, into stars and late peaks that extended each pitcher's effective career into their 40s, the two look like mirror images of one another.
OK, you need a funhouse mirror to complete the image, but work with me here.
The meeting between the two pitchers in 1993 may be overrated in its effect on Johnson's subsequent success. But even with a realistic view of that conversation, Johnson and Ryan are linked forever in baseball history as examples of hard throwers who learned how to harness their velocity and throw strikes. Both ended up, or will end up, in the Hall of Fame for their trouble.
Now, there's one more similarity. Johnson may be about to join Ryan as having one of the greatest seasons for a pitcher with a sub-.500 record.
Ryan's 1987 season is the stuff of legend. Pitching for an Astros team that went a disappointing 76-86, he led the NL in ERA, strikeouts, strikeout rate and fewest hits per nine innings. He was fourth in the NL in VORP for pitchers, fifth in the league in Support Neutral Wins Above Replacement, second in Adjusted ERA. Maybe he wasn't the best pitcher in the league--you can make cases for Mike Scott and Rick Reuschel, but not for Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian--but he certainly was on the short list for the honor. He actually finished fifth in the voting, and not one ballot had his name on top.
Oh, yeah...and he was second in losses. His record, with all that great pitching? 8-16. Ryan's 1987 was the season that taught me about how won-loss record was nearly useless as a performance metric, and I suppose, in some small way, is responsible for me doing what I do today. It was impossible to reconcile Ryan's pathetic record with the rest of his line, and caused me to question what I'd been taught in 10 years as a baseball fan.
Bill James actually invented a statistic, Tough Losses, in the wake of Ryan's 1987 season. From his 1988 Baseball Abstract:
In closing, I was going to run a list of Ryan's tough losses. In the 11 games, Ryan pitched 69 innings, struck out 89 men, gave up 50 hits and had a 3.16 ERA. Houston's offense, however, scored only 17 runs in the 11 games (1.55 per game), and the bullpen allowed 21 runs in 25 1/3 innings (7.46 per nine innings), so Ryan got stuck with an 0-11 record.As Ryan was in 1987, Johnson is arguably the best pitcher in the National League this season. Only Jason Schmidt is a contender for the honor, and Schmidt's mix of unavailability and ineffectiveness of late makes it an open question whether he can hold off the Big Unit. Just like Ryan, Johnson leads his league in ERA and strikeouts. He's second only to Schmidt in advanced metrics, and unlike Ryan in 1987, is carrying a huge workload: he's second in innings to Livan Hernandez.
Johnson's record? 12-13. Per James' calculation--a Tough Loss is one in which a pitcher is handed a loss despite recording a Game Score of 50 or above--Johnson has 10 tough losses so far. In those games, he has an ERA of 3.23 in 69.2 innings. The D'backs have scored 15 runs in those games, an average of 1.5 per game. And Johnson is 0-10 in those starts. That's what's keeping him from the Cy Young Award; he's pitching about as well as he did for the D'backs in his run of four Cy Young-winning years, from 1999 through 2002. Those teams, however, had major league offenses. This one has Luis Terrero and Jerry Gil
Johnson's season, like Ryan's, is historic. It's hard to find pitchers who pitch this well and don't post a .500 record. (The Diamondbacks have been bad enough to nearly help a staffer turn the trick twice in two seasons: Brandon Webb was second in the NL in SNWAR last year, fourth in ERA, and had some Cy Young support in the Internet Baseball Awards voting. His record: 10-9.) Just 73 pitchers have combined a record below .500 and an ERA below 3.00 since World War II, with many of those coming in the expanded-strike zone, high-mound era that immediately preceded the introduction of the DH.
Since 1973, it's been done just 21 times, most notably by Ryan in the freak-offense year 1987. Joe Magrane, in a forgotten gem, did him even better in '88.
YEAR ERA PCT 1 Joe Magrane 1988 2.18 .357 2 Sammy Stewart 1981 2.32 .333 3 Jon Matlack 1974 2.41 .464 4 Andy Hassler 1974 2.61 .389 5 Ismael Valdes 1997 2.65 .476 6 Jose DeLeon 1991 2.71 .357 7 Nolan Ryan 1987 2.76 .333 8 Jim Abbott 1992 2.77 .318 9 Bill Gullickson 1981 2.80 .438 10 Bill Travers 1976 2.81 .484 11 Bryn Smith 1989 2.84 .476 12 Jerry Koosman 1973 2.84 .483 13 Ed Halicki 1978 2.85 .474 14 Melido Perez 1992 2.87 .448 15 Bert Blyleven 1976 2.87 .448 16 Omar Daal 1998 2.88 .400 17 Randy Jones 1978 2.88 .481 18 Bob Ojeda 1988 2.88 .435 19 Danny Cox 1986 2.90 .480 20 Curt Schilling 2003 2.95 .471 21 Dennis Martinez 1990 2.95 .476It's not easy, in this high-offense era, to pitch well and not get enough run support to have a .500 record. It requires a combination of a bad offensive team and bad luck. Johnson, like Ryan in 1987, has found that combination, and it may cost him a sixth Cy Young Award.