Big Unit has case to be best-ever lefty

After 22 seasons, five Cy Young awards, 303 wins, 166 losses, 4,135.1 innings, 17,067 batters faced, and 66,892 pitches thrown, Randy Johnson is retiring. His dominance, his flair and his legendary slider will all be missed. But it’s the right time.

Johnson, age 46, was hardly an embarrassment last season (96.0 innings, 4.88 ERA), but it’s apparent he’s in steep decline. Wisely, he’s getting out before he defiles our memories of him.

Five years from now, Johnson will be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, with only the willfully ignorant choosing not to vote for him. But calling Johnson "merely" a first-ballot Hall of Famer doesn’t quite capture his legacy. Here’s what he really is: one of the greatest pitchers ever to play the game. Some numbers that help put Johnson’s superlative career in perspective …

  • Only Roger Clemens, with seven, has won more Cy Young Awards;
  • Johnson ranks first all-time in strikeouts-per-nine-innings and second all-time in strikeouts;
  • Nine times he led his league in strikeouts, and four times he won the ERA title;
  • At the time of his retirement, he led all active pitchers in complete games and shutouts;
  • In 2004, Johnson became the oldest pitcher ever to throw a perfect game. He did it against a team (the Braves) that went on to win 96 games that season and for a team (the Diamondbacks) that went on to lose 111 games that season;
  • Johnson also threw a no-hitter in 1990 and four one-hitters throughout his career.
  • Johnson struck out 10 or more batters in a game 212 times Only Nolan Ryan, with 215, did it more often.
  • And he did all this despite not throwing a qualifying number of innings in a season until age 26.

Johnson’s greatness is unassailable, as any fan knows. But what’s the extent of that greatness? Can a case be made that Johnson is the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time?

In baseball, there are two ways to approach this concept of greatness. One is excellence on the career level. The second way is peak — i.e., how great was a given player over the handful of seasons in which he was at his very best?

On the career front, we’ll compare Johnson to other legendary lefties based on park- and league-adjusted career ERA (abbreviated as ERA+), and we’ll also throw innings into the mix. ERA+ is expressed as a whole number, with 100 equaling (roughly) a league-average figure. Anything more than 100 means the pitcher prevented earned runs at a better-than-average clip (after correcting for home park and league environments, of course). See the chart at right for what comes out of the wash for left-handers (minimum 1,500 career innings).

While they didn’t make the top 10 above, you can also throw into the mix Warren Spahn (118 ERA+, 5243.2 IP) and Steve Carlton (115 ERA+, 5217.1 IP) because of the extraordinary number of innings they threw. With that said, the career-value discussion essentially comes down to Grove and Johnson (Santana may one day be involved but not until he racks up more innings and goes through his decline phase). Johnson edges Grove in innings, but Grove, who pitched mostly in the offense-heavy 1930s and toiled in Shibe and Fenway Parks (and thus had almost all conditions working against him), has a substantial advantage in ERA+. Grove gets the nod, and in fact you can make a compelling argument that Grove is the greatest pitcher of all-time, left-hander or right-hander.

In terms of peak value, it’s a bit trickier because there are so many definitions as to what constitutes a peak. Is it a player’s very best season? Is it a player’s handful of best seasons? Is it a player’s best two, three, four, or five consecutive seasons? Or is it something else? For purposes of this inquiry, we’re going to look at a pitcher’s best seasons regardless of whether they fell consecutively or intermittently throughout his career.

What’s a truly great season? We’re going to say it requires 200 or more innings pitched and an ERA+ for the season in question of 175 or better. By that standard, Johnson overwhelms the field. He’s had seven such seasons, while Grove had four, and Koufax, Newhouser, Waddell, and Lefty Gomez are next with two apiece. Again, it seems to be another Grove-Johnson affair. On that point, how many times did those two pitchers lead their league in ERA+? Johnson did so six times, while Grove did so nine times. (Koufax, by comparison, led the NL in ERA+ just twice.) Give Johnson a narrow nod in terms of peak. Grove had more seasons in which he topped the loop in ERA+, but Johnson fared much better in terms of the raw number of truly dominant seasons.

Overall, it’s Grove by a nose (his edge in career value is greater than Johnson’s edge in peak value). But that Johnson is so close behind Grove speaks to the Big Unit’s rare excellence. If you’re reading this, then you probably weren’t around in Grove’s day. So consider Randy Johnson the best left-handed pitcher you’ve ever seen.