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Big Unit of Measure
2004-07-08 23:45
by Mike Carminati

On May 25, 1989, the Montreal Expos did something that would seem very odd today. The Expos were in the process of creeping back to .500. Denny Martinez shut out the Giants in a day game at Candlestick for his fourth win against just one loss (and a 2.69 ERA). They would finish the day only three behind the division-leading Cubs but were in fourth place. None of those things is all that odd.

What was odd was that the Expos decided that they needed to add a veteran in order to gird themselves for a playoff run. That would be odd today. Other than laundering an odd Cliff Floyd on Les Expos, midseason help in Montreal has amounted to Bruce Chen rentals.

But in 1989 the 'Spos had high expectations. In '87, they had contended until the final days of the season. In '88, Montreal was 4.5 out on August 13 after a 32-17 run. They faltered down the stretch falling 20 games out and finishing at 81-81. As of May 25, the Expos had scored the most runs in the league. Unfortunately, they had also allowed the most and were outscored by a large margin though (187-205).

Along with Martinez, there was Kevin Gross who was 5-3 with a 3.91 ERA but had just shut the Giants out the night before, 1-0 on 11 strikeouts. Also, Bryn Smith was 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA. But the Expos couldn't seem to fill out a rotation. Pascual Perez was 0-7 with a 5.04 ERA, but he was getting paid nearly a million dollars in the last year of a two-year deal. 24-year-old Brian Holman had been moved into the rotation but had lost his last two starts (1-2 with a 4.83 ERA). There was one other starter, but I'll get to him in a minute.

The Expos coveted veteran lefty Mark Langston who would be a free agent at the end of the season and, therefore, was the subject of trade rumors ever since his Mariners opened for spring training. Langston was 4-5 with a 3.56 ERA (14% better than the adjusted league average) in ten starts in May 25. In 1988, he was 15-11 with 3.34 ERA (25% better than the adjusted league average).

These were very fine numbers to be sure, but what made Langston special was the overwhelming way he employed his blazing fastball along with a good slider. He led the league in strikeouts per nine innings, usually just under nine, and total strikeouts in 1984, 86, and 87, and were second in 1988. He also ate innings: 272 in 1987 and 261.1 in 1988. His Achilles heel was his frequent wildness. Langston led the league in walks in 1984 and was in the top four from 1986 to '88.
On May 25, the Expos famously acquired Langston for three young pitchers. He would go 12-9 with a 2.39 ERA that was 48% better than the park-adjusted average. Unfortunately, the Expos again finished at .500 and the Lansgton acquisition was soon viewed as a failure. Langston signed with the Angels after the season. However, the Expos still live with the legacy he wrought.

The three pitchers that Montreal sent to Seattle to get Langston were Gene Harris, Brian Holman, and, of course, Randy Johnson. In some ways Johnson's early career paralleled Langston's so well that one has to wonder why the Expos even bothered to make the trade: Johnson was a lefty who threw a great fastball-slider combo, struck out about a man an inning, and was often wild. Eerie, isnít it?

Johnson led the Southern Association in strikeouts with 163 un 1987, the Florida State League in walks (94) in 1986, and the American Association in balks (20) in 1988. That pretty much epitomizes his minor-league career. However, Johnson had finished 1988 with an 8-7 record, a 3.26 ERA, and 111 strikeouts against "just" 72 walks in 113.1 innings. And in September he had found himself in the Expos rotation, finishing 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four starts, one a complete game. He also struck out 25 men in 26 innings. He did, however, display his signature wildness. He recorded three wild pitches, seven walks and three homers allowed in those 26 innings. Still his adjusted ERA was 49% better than the park-adjusted league average.

Twenty-five-year-old Randy Johnson started the 1989 season in the Expos rotation. On April 5, he gave up one earned run en route to shutout of the 'Spos by 26-year-old Doug Drabek of the Pirates. He struck out 9 and allowed just three hits but walked eight and picked up his first career loss. His next start lasted just three innings, with four runs, zero strikeouts, 5 hits, one homer run, and two walks in a 7-6 loss to the Phils. His next outing lasted just 1.2 innings: 5 ER, 6 H, 1 HR, 2 BB, 0 K. Johnson was then 0-2 with a 7.11 ERA. His next outing lasted at least 5 innings but had similar results: 4 ER, 6 H, 5 BB, 5 K. Johnson and his 0-3, 7.13 record was then sent to the bullpen. After one relief appearance, He got reinserted in the rotation but allows eight earned runs, ten walks (and eleven strikeouts) in the next two starts totaling eleven innings. On May 7, Johnson's record stood at 0-4 with a 6.67 ERA and his September success seemed like ancient history.

Johnson was sent back down to the minors for three starts before the trade. He went 1-1 with a 2.00 ERA and struck out 17 while walking nine in 18 innings. He finished the year in Seattle with a 7-9 record, 4.40 ERA, 104 strikeouts and 70 walks in 118 innings.

A little over a week ago Randy Johnson became the fourth pitcher to reach 4000 strikeouts, something that seemed very unlikely early in his career. Johnson was recording his share of strikeouts but with the 100+ walks that accompanied them and ERAs that were slightly better than average, He was viewed more as an oddity than a great pitcher. His gawky 6'10" stature didnít help. Then Johnson had a breakout season in 1993, winning 19, striking out 308 while walking just 99 in 255.1 innings, recorded a 3.24 ERA (35% better than average), and finished a distant second-place finish in the AL Cy Young vote. Johnson was 29 and he had finally found his muse. He would remain at or above that level as a pitcher until basically today.

Here's a breakdown of the four 4000-strikeout pitchers at various stages of their career that puts Johnson's late blooming on full display:

NameAge 25 KRankAge 30 KRankAge 35 KRankAge 40 KRankTotal KRank
Nolan Ryan82250t24262349414547157141
Roger Clemens98528203311315324099242122
Steve Carlton77960191614296963920441363
Randy Johnson1551102t133077269384010340104

It becomes even clearer if you look at the interstitial values:

Name<=25 KRank26-30 KRank31-35Rank36-40Rank40+Rank
Nolan Ryan82250t16041106861053211671
Randy Johnson155281175913631131710N/A
Roger Clemens9856010481911205946411327
Steve Carlton7791102t11371310539951321613

Not only does Johnson come into his own in his early thirties, he maintained his level of excellence through his thirties, especially his strikeout totals, which were still coming at an unprecedented rate for a man his age. Witness the top 10 in strikeouts for various ages and Johnson's late but continual ascendency:

NameAge 25 K
Amos Rusie1679
Bert Blyleven1546
Toad Ramsey1515
Walter Johnson1461
Dwight Gooden1391
Sam McDowell1384
Fernando Valenzuela1274
Don Drysdale1236
Bob Feller1233
Gus Weyhing1208
Christy Mathewson1208

NameAge 30 K
Walter Johnson2467
Nolan Ryan2426
Sandy Koufax2396
Sam McDowell2391
Bert Blyleven2357
Don Drysdale2307
Pedro Martinez2220
Christy Mathewson2119
Bob Feller2108
Tom Seaver2099

NameAge 35 K
Nolan Ryan3494
Roger Clemens3153
Bert Blyleven3090
Walter Johnson3070
Tom Seaver2988
Steve Carlton2969
Mickey Lolich2799
Randy Johnson2693
Don Sutton2652
Fergie Jenkins2606

NameAge 40 K
Nolan Ryan4547
Roger Clemens4099
Randy Johnson4010
Steve Carlton3920
Bert Blyleven3631
Tom Seaver3537
Walter Johnson3509
Don Sutton3315
Fergie Jenkins3192
Gaylord Perry3141
Bob Gibson3117

NameTotal K
Nolan Ryan5714
Roger Clemens4212
Steve Carlton4136
Randy Johnson4010
Bert Blyleven3701
Tom Seaver3640
Don Sutton3574
Gaylord Perry3534
Walter Johnson3509
Phil Niekro3342
Fergie Jenkins3192
Bob Gibson3117

Name26-30 K
Nolan Ryan1604
Sandy Koufax1444
Tim Keefe1408
Rube Waddell1366
Pedro Martinez1250
Tom Seaver1233
Charley Radbourn1228
Mickey Lolich1180
Randy Johnson1175
Fergie Jenkins1164
J.R. Richard1163

Name31-35 K
Randy Johnson1363
Curt Schilling1229
Jim Bunning1188
Bob Gibson1143
Roger Clemens1120
Nolan Ryan1068
Gaylord Perry1060
Kevin Brown1058
Steve Carlton1053
Mike Scott1022
Name36-40 K
Randy Johnson1317
Nolan Ryan1053
Phil Niekro1035
Steve Carlton951
Roger Clemens946
Cy Young873
Early Wynn858
Charlie Hough848
Gaylord Perry847
Dazzy Vance833

Name40+ K
Nolan Ryan1167
Phil Niekro940
Charlie Hough582
Hoyt Wilhelm570
Gaylord Perry393
Warren Spahn388
Cy Young372
Jack Quinn312
Satchel Paige290
Tommy John262

One last thing, here are the top ten pitchers in strikeouts above expected all-time (through 2003):

NameKExp KDiff
Nolan Ryan57143177.672536.33
Randy Johnson38712166.201704.80
Roger Clemens40992819.701279.30
Walter Johnson35092317.701191.30
Rube Waddell23161200.411115.59
Dazzy Vance2045959.341085.66
Steve Carlton41363155.37980.63
Bob Feller25811617.34963.66
Sandy Koufax23961437.43958.57
Pedro Martinez24261482.38943.62

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