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September 15, 2004

Breaking Balls

More on Greatness

by Derek Zumsteg

The worst team in the major leagues is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who lost their 101st game Monday night. On those same Diamondbacks, Randy Johnson is having the best season by a National League pitcher. He leads the league in Value Over Replacement Player with 63.5 runs, compared to Ben Sheets at 57.9 and Carl Pavano at 57.5

Author/recluse Rany Jazayerli noted that Johnson's having a ridiculous season. Check this out: Johnson has 257 strikeouts in his 31 starts so far, and has allowed just 41 walks. Fully 30% of the batters who step up to the plate against him whiff. One in 20 gets a free pass to first base. One in 50 hits a home run, and they better put their head down and run the bases, because while he's allowed 16 home runs, he's also hit ten batters.

What is most impressive is that Johnson has allowed 149 hits and 41 walks in 215 innings. With the ten hit batters, that's 200 baserunners allowed by Johnson. On average, Johnson allows less than a baserunner an inning.

As Rany put it: "I dare say that Johnson, as much as Barry Bonds, is redefining what a player can do in his 40s. There is not only no reason whatsoever to think Johnson is slipping, there's reason to believe he's actually getting better. In particular, his control has improved markedly, much as Nolan Ryan's did at around the same age. The difference is that Johnson had better control to begin with, and now he's actually one of the best control pitchers in the league. Since the start of last season, Johnson has walked 68 batters in 329 2/3 innings, or 1.86 walks per nine."

This will add another great season to Johnson's resumé. Keith Woolner pulled the 10 best performances by starting pitchers, as determined as (H+BB)/IP, since 1992.


YEAR NAME                     IP    H   BB   BR   BR_IP

2000 Martinez,Pedro        217.0  128   32  160   .7373
1995 Maddux,Greg           209.7  147   23  170   .8108
1994 Maddux,Greg           202.0  150   31  181   .8960
1999 Martinez,Pedro        213.3  160   37  197   .9234
1997 Martinez,Pedro        241.3  158   67  225   .9323
1996 Brown,Kevin           233.0  187   33  220   .9442
1997 Maddux,Greg           232.7  200   20  220   .9456
2003 Schmidt,Jason         207.7  152   46  198   .9535
2002 Schilling,Curt        259.3  218   33  251   .9679
2002 Lowe,Derek            219.7  166   48  214   .9742
1998 Maddux,Greg           251.0  201   45  246   .9801
2002 Perez,Odalis          222.3  182   38  220   .9895
1992 Schilling,Curt        226.3  165   59  224   .9897
2000 Brown,Kevin           230.0  181   47  228   .9913
1999 Millwood,Kevin        228.0  168   59  227   .9956
1996 Smoltz,John           253.7  199   55  254  1.0013
2001 Johnson,Randy         249.7  181   71  252  1.0093
1992 Maddux,Greg           268.0  201   70  271  1.0112
1992 Tewksbury,Bob         233.0  217   20  237  1.0172
1999 Johnson,Randy         271.7  207   70  277  1.0196
While we fairly believe that the 1990s were the dominion of the hitter, we have witnessed some truly amazing performances. Johnson's season, if he stopped right now, would give him the third-best.

What about post-WWII? Since 1945:


YEAR NAME                     IP    H   BB   BR   BR_IP

2000 Martinez,Pedro        217.0  128   32  160   .7373
1995 Maddux,Greg           209.7  147   23  170   .8108
1968 McNally,Dave          273.0  175   55  230   .8425
1968 Gibson,Bob            304.7  198   62  260   .8534
1965 Koufax,Sandy          335.7  216   71  287   .8550
1966 Marichal,Juan         307.3  228   36  264   .8590
1968 Tiant,Luis            258.3  152   73  225   .8710
1963 Koufax,Sandy          311.0  214   58  272   .8746
1994 Maddux,Greg           202.0  150   31  181   .8960
1968 McLain,Denny          336.0  241   63  304   .9048
1972 Sutton,Don            272.7  186   63  249   .9132
1972 Hunter,Catfish        295.3  200   70  270   .9142
1965 Marichal,Juan         295.3  224   46  270   .9142
1986 Scott,Mike            275.3  182   72  254   .9225
1999 Martinez,Pedro        213.3  160   37  197   .9234
1964 Koufax,Sandy          223.0  154   53  207   .9283
1997 Martinez,Pedro        241.3  158   67  225   .9323
1964 Horlen,Joe            210.7  142   55  197   .9351
1985 Tudor,John            275.0  209   49  258   .9382
1996 Brown,Kevin           233.0  187   33  220   .9442
This season by Johnson would rank as the ninth-best since the boys came home.

One of the great things about getting into the stats of baseball, and particularly Baseball Prospectus' quest to allow comparisons of players across eras, has been that it has opened my eyes to historical greatness. In admiring Johnson's work, I'm reminded of Rany's point that training, better doctors, and even mundane advancements in areas like nutrition have made it possible for players to perform at this level later in their careers than ever. I also see something else: as I have been lucky to witness the career of Barry Bonds, greatest hitter ever, and Alex Rodriguez, formerly the greatest shortstop ever, I have also been lucky enough to see Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux during sustained runs of greatness. Martinez, pitching in Fenway, has thrown up seasons that run with those of Sandy Koufax at his most dominant in Dodger Stadium. Greg Maddux shows up ahead of Bob Gibson's amazing 1968 season, when he had an ERA of 1.12 and struck out 268 batters.

Johnson pitches tonight against the Rockies. Take a few hours and watch history in the making.

Related Content:  Greg Maddux,  Pedro Martinez,  Sandy Koufax

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