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.

Catching the legends

I went to my first San Francisco Giants game in about six years yesterday.  My parents and I went to see Randy Johnson face Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros.  It wasn’t the best day for the Big Unit– he gave up three solo home runs and left with an injured shoulder in the fourth inning.  Oswalt looked more like the Johnson of old, holding the Giants to one-run in eight innings. Houston prevailed 7-1, a far cry from the last Giants game I attended when Barry Bonds blasted a walk-off home run against some hapless reliever.  Still, it was cool to see 45-year-old living legend Johnson in action, maybe for the last time.

My dad asked me before the game who my favorite player was, while we sat in our seats halfway down the left-field foul line watching warmups.  It occurred to me that I don’t have too many guys I support these days.  I like Ken Griffey Jr. and Josh Hamilton, I follow American League pitchers Garrett Olson and Ricky Romero because I used to cover them in college, and Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson went to my high school.  Still, it’s not like when I was a kid and I idolized Will Clark.  Heck, even as a young Giants fan, I once ran around my front yard pretending to be Kirk Gibson doing his home run stagger in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.  The modern game just doesn’t fill me with the same wonder.

The argument could be made that my perspective has merely changed as an adult.  Still, I know that if I were offered the chance to see someone from the 1950’s or ’60s play, I could name a dozen guys off the top of my head who I would pay to see play in a heartbeat.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jackie Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose and Willie McCovey all come quickly to mind.  It’s like getting the chance to watch The Beatles, Michael Jackson or Elvis in concert.  Come to think of it, I should really catch the Rolling Stones while it’s still possible.

There just aren’t as many comtemporary players who compare.  I was glad to see Johnson do his thing, and I’ll probably catch Griffey one more time.  From there, who knows.