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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Randy Johnson: Last of His Kind

When Randy Johnson wins his 300th game sometime in the next couple weeks he isn’t just going to become a member of one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs; he is likely to become the last member of that club.

While the once ultra exclusive 500 home run club has suddenly become as crowded as a phone booth during a fraternity pledge night, reaching 300 career victories is going the way of the woolly mammoth.

Earlier this season, Gary Sheffield became the ninth player this decade and 25th player in history to reach 500 home runs. Carlos Delgado of the Mets will probably be joining the club sometime in the next year as he stands only 27 home runs away from the once magical number.

With two more victories, Johnson will become the fourth pitcher this decade, and only the fifth in the last twenty years to collect 300 victories. He will become the 24th pitcher in a club that may never see a 25th member.

After Johnson, the pitcher closest to 300 victories is 46-year-old Jamie Moyer with 249 wins. Entering this season, Moyer needed to average 18 wins per season for the next three years to reach 300.

He has three wins so far in 2009, but considering that he has exceeded 17 wins only twice in his 23 year career, the likelihood that he will achieve 300 wins is pretty remote.

Of pitchers under the age of 40, CC Sabathia, who will be 29 in July, entered this season with 117 victories through his first eight seasons for an average of 15 wins per season. He will have to maintain that average for another 12 years to reach 300 wins.

There are quite a few reasons why these two milestones of greatness have swapped levels of difficulty during the last quarter century.

The combination of performance enhancing drugs, shrinking ballparks and an increase in the number of mediocre pitchers at the major league level have combined to inflate home run totals and elevate players who in other eras would have been lucky to hit 300 home runs to statistical levels once reserved for the greats of the game.

At the same time that forces have combined to increase offensive numbers, starting pitchers have become the victims of a similar convergence of factors.

Once upon a time, starting pitchers in Major League Baseball were considered warriors, heading to the mound every fourth day to carry the mettle for their team. They took the rubber each time expecting to pitch nine innings and some considered it an insult if the manager even thought about taking them out of the game.

Former Baltimore Orioles stalwart Jim Palmer was known for expressing frustration when he was removed from a game before it was finished. Considering that between 1969 and 1978 he averaged 18 complete games a year, you have to wonder how Palmer would react today when most managers are looking to the bullpen by the sixth or seventh inning.

Sending the game to the bullpen earlier is one reason that when a pitcher now wins 16 games in a season he often in the discussion for the Cy Young Award.

The other major reason is that in this era of five-man pitching rotations, pitchers get several fewer starts per season than when most starting rotations included only four men.

When Palmer won 20 or more games in eight of nine seasons between 1970 and 1978, he averaged 37 starts per season and exceeded 300 innings pitched four times.

Johnson is generally recognized as one of the workhorse pitchers of his generation, but he has never started more than 35 games in a season and his career-high for innings pitched is 271.

It is telling to consider that Johnson’s career total of 100 complete games ranks first among active pitchers and is nearly double the second place total. Yet, when compared with the all-time list, Johnson is tied with Dennis Eckersley and two others for 399th place on the career complete game list.

Baseball has always been a game of numbers. Reaching 500 home runs or 300 victories has always meant nearly automatic induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yet, as the value of these milestone numbers becomes a little murky, other factors will have to be used to determine Hall of Fame credentials.

With the recent positive test for performance enhancing drugs by Manny Ramirez, seven members of the 500 home run club have now been linked to PEDs.

The Hall of Fame selection earlier this year of Jim Rice, who hit 382 home runs as baseball’s premier slugger of the late 1970s and 1980s, could indicate a shift away from bloated numbers and toward excellence within an era as criteria for Hall of Fame selection.

A shift toward that kind of evaluation could bode well for some of the premier pitchers of the last two decades.

There has been much debate recently as to whether Curt Schilling –with 216 career wins– is deserving of Hall of Fame recognition. While his win total, along with that of Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz –with 214 and 210 career wins respectively– falls well short of pitchers from previous eras, it looks more impressive when compared with his contemporaries.

Even if Johnson had not been able to continue his push toward 300 wins, a total that Palmer did not reach despite having eight 20 victory seasons and 211 complete games, there is little doubt that his dominance during the late 1990s and early 2000s would have earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

That Johnson has been able to withstand the test of time is a testament to his ability and proof that he is indeed one of the greats of all-time.

He also is going to be the last of his kind, so you won’t want to miss his milestone victory. If you do, it might be quite a while before you see another one quite like it.

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