November 2, 2012
The Good Old Days: Randy Johnson
I remember reading an article as a college student that described how Randy Johnson had made a mechanical adjustment that allowed the large lefty to extend his release point by more than a foot. The sheer thought of the Big Unit getting 12 inches closer to the plate was equal parts terrifying and fascinating, as physics class had taught me about the advantages inherent in decreasing the distance that the ball travels, ranging from increased perceived velocity to a reduced drag effect on the baseball (I would later learn to appreciate the ripple effect on the timing of pitch-break). The story also marked the first time that I heard the name Tom House, as Johnson had mastered his new techniques through Nolan Ryan and his pitching coach with the Texas Rangers, learning from the man who would be my future mentor in my first exposure to real baseball science.
Johnson’s distinguishing characteristic was his exceptional height: at 6’10”, he was one of the tallest pitchers ever to play in the majors. His height gave him an intrinsic advantage on the mound that is often misunderstood in the mainstream. The plot thickens when one watches his delivery, as Johnson's strategy of slinging the ball from an ultra-low arm slot flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which emphasizes downhill plane. His sidewinder approach was decidedly old-school, harkening back to 12-time strikeout king Walter Johnson, who was known as the hardest thrower of his day and a tireless workhorse who personified the true “ace” label. At 6’1”, Walter was a large human for the early 20th century, and his nickname, “The Big Train,” is essentially a century-old analogue of Randy's “Big Unit” epithet.
Randy Johnson's size was a tremendous asset, though the southpaw parlayed that natural advantage into an extremely deep release point, rather than one that was exceptionally high. Johnson essentially relied on just two pitches, a profile that would condemn most hurlers to the bullpen, but his ability to shrink the narrow time-window in which a batter has to recognize an incoming pitch made it nearly impossible to distinguish his slider from his high-90s heat before the hitter had to initiate a swing. Though his career did not take off until his late 20s, the lanky left-hander would end up with 303 wins and the second-most strikeouts of all-time, trailing only Ryan.
The Big Unit was not always a picture of mechanical efficiency. In the early parts of his career, he dealt with the struggles of accommodating his unique frame to a stable pitching delivery. His seasons with the Expos featured a slow delivery, one which theoretically kept his long limbs in line while at the same time opening up the door for his massive issues with timing. Johnson initially had a much higher arm slot, and inconsistent positioning before he adopted his now-trademark sidearm slot created serious control problems. The Montreal team grew tired of his act after just 10 major-league starts, trading him to the Seattle Mariners in 1989 in exchange for All-Star Mark Langston.