Randy Johnson: Best lefthander ever?

I read a story by Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune about the retirement yesterday of Randy Johnson that included a curious bit. Steward opined:

From an inauspicious start as a gawky 6-foot-10 kid from Livermore who threw the ball hard but didn’t have much clue where it was going, Johnson evolved into one of the eternal legends of the game, certainly one of the top dozen pitchers ever and arguably the best to ever throw from the left side. Certainly, he is right there alongside Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn.

That got me thinking.  My first instinct was that Steward may have been engaging in some homerism. Urban Dictionary defines this as hometown bias, with an example: “The local newspapers practice homerism, predicting that the hometown teams will win and complaining about the refs when the local teams lose.” Steward was on the 43-minute conference call yesterday where Johnson announced his retirement.  Frankly, I’d be jazzed too if I’d been apart of that.

Granted, looking over the career numbers, there is some cause for debate.  Of the group, Johnson has the highest number of strikeouts and most Cy Young awards, with five, though out of fairness to Spahn and Grove, the award was not given out until 1956.  The others also have the benefit of having some years away to enhance their legacies.  Maybe I’d feel stronger about Johnson if he had pitched in the 1930s, striking fear into Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  Then again, Johnson had to face Barry Bonds in his prime and spent much of his career in the Kingdome, which was essentially the baseball equivalent of a pinball machine.

I’d take Johnson for sure over Spahn or Carlton, but I have a harder time when it comes to Koufax or Grove. If a general manager assembling an all-time dream had any of these players in their prime available to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, how could he pass over Koufax for Johnson?  It just doesn’t compute. The last four years Koufax pitched, he was essentially untouchable.  Only a bum arm cut his career short, made him the sole member of this group not to win 300 games and disqualified him, at least in my book, from being the best lefthander ever.  But in terms of sheer talent, I believe he is the best.

For overall career, I’d take Grove over Johnson.  Johnson won three more games lifetime, but Grove got his 300 in an era where hitters ruled supreme.  Consider that Grove is generally acknowledged to have had his best years from 1929 to 1931, when he went 79-15.  The batting average for the American League was .284 in 1929, .288 in 1930 and .278 in 1931.  For context, in 2002 when Johnson went 24-5, the National League batting average was .259.  If Grove pitched today, especially in the NL, the results would be mindblowing.

All this being said, it will be a long time before another player like Johnson comes along.  He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt.

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