The Quest

January 10, 2014



As with any voting process, this year’s Hall of Fame election was not without its share of controversies. The one that stirs the pot with the most vigor is the ongoing debate about what should be done with players who either used or were suspected of using steroids. I’ll get to that topic at a later date. For me, however, the more interesting controversy is the fact the Greg Maddux was not voted in unanimously. Not only that, he didn’t break Tom Seaver’s record for highest voting percentage. Of the nearly 600 voters, 16 didn’t believe Maddux was a Hall of Famer. The man had more wins than anyone in the last 50 years, won four consecutive Cy Young awards, 18 Gold Gloves, led the league in ERA four times (ERA+ five times), innings pitched five times, shutouts four times, WHIP four times… you get the idea. He was an amazing pitcher, a true inner circle performer and certainly one of the 10 best pitchers ever, possibly even top 5. More importantly, his statistical record appeals to all types of analysts and evaluators: he’s got the wins for the old school and his record is rife with sabremetric black ink. He’s as much a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame as there ever has been. So the fact that there are 16 people - much less 16 voters - who don’t think he belongs in the Hall of Fame is quite astounding.


Still, I’m not here to call people idiots. No, my purpose is to figure out how someone – anyone - might ever get close to 100% of the vote for the Hall. What does a player have to do for every voter to acknowledge that ‘yes’, this guy belongs in the Hall of Fame? In looking at Maddux’s career there are a couple of things that aren’t on his resume. For example, he never led the league in strikeouts. In fact, he topped 200 Ks in a season only once. He never threw a no-hitter. And he wasn’t very physically intimidating. And he didn’t really have a cool nickname. I mean, “Mad Dog”?  Really?  And well, that’s about it.


So my thinking is that we’ll never see someone get 100% because there’ll always be at least one malcontent. But 99%... that seems achievable, at least in theory. There could still be five ‘no’ votes and the candidate would still top 99%. All I need to find is a player who was better than Greg Maddux and then campaign like crazy over the internet, hoping it goes viral enough to convince the BBWAA voters. Um, yeah.


But who?


I actually have someone in mind and as luck would have it, he is due to be eligible for the first time next year: Randy Johnson. So from this point on my mission will be to get “the Big Unit” inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest voting percentage ever. Why is he the guy? Because he is quite probably the greatest left-handed starting pitcher in the history of baseball.


Before Randy Johnson, the discussion of the best lefties ever always circled around four pitchers: Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton. So let’s compare, with their all-time ranks in parenthesis:


Career numbers

Name                    wins      Ks        WHIP      WAR       ERA+           IP            CG        Sho      

Randy Johnson              303(22)    4875(2)    1.171(88)  104.3(9)   135(22)         4135.1(38)      100(399)   37(57)         

Lefty Grove                300(23)    2266(49)   1.278(379) 109.9(6)   148(4)          3940.0(44)      298(42)    35(71)         

Warren Spahn               363(6)     2583(25)   1.195(132) 92.6(14)   119(124)        5243.2(8)       382(21)    63(6)     

Sandy Koufax               165(203)   2396(41)   1.106(24)  53.2(82)   131(35)         2324.1(290)     137(264)   40(44)    

Steve Carlton              329(11)    4136(4)    1.247(274) 84.1(19)   115(200)        5217.2(9)       254(75)    55(14)         


Koufax’ career was famously cut short by injury at age 31, but he was obviously on track to produce incredible totals. However, the fact that he retired at his peak might actually help his candidacy as he never had a decline phase of his career where his rate stats would deteriorate. Randy Johnson is the only one of these pitchers who pitched entirely in the 5-man rotation era. Still, Johnson fares quite well by comparison despite getting fewer starts. Where he really excels, however, is comparing his peak years:


Peak (average per year)

Name                    wins      Ks        WHIP      WAR       ERA+           IP            CG        Sho      

Randy Johnson (97-02)   20        340       1.068     8.7       177            248           8         3            

Lefty Grove (30-36)     22        140       1.219     8.1       160            255           21        3

Warren Spahn (49-54)    20        162       1.192     6.5       129            291           24        4   

Sandy Koufax (61-66)    22        286       0.970     7.8       156            272           19        6

Steve Carlton (69-74)   17        225       1.260     5.7       122            282           18        3        


As amazing as Koufax and Grove were at their peaks, at least using the metrics that compare players to their contemporaries, Johnson was better. Here’s another thing to chew on: opponent’s batting average. Here are the best marks posted by left-handers in history:


Herb Score         .195

Sandy Koufax       .202

Sid Fernandez      .206

Clayton Kershaw    .207

Sam McDowell       .210

Babe Ruth          .216

Randy Johnson      .218


It’s not surprising to see Koufax here as he was one of the best at preventing hitters from making contact or getting on base. It might be surprising to see Babe Ruth’s name here. Yes, he was an excellent pitcher before being moved to the outfield full-time. But here is Randy Johnson again.


Making this even more impressive is that Johnson faced almost exclusively right-handed line-ups. The reason is because early on his career he had a well-earned reputation for wildness and a pitcher throwing 100 mph without knowing what zip code the pitch would end up in was not exactly comforting to left-handed batters. Star players didn’t want to take a chance on getting beaned and managers knew that lesser lefty bats would be useless. To wit, Shawn Green, Barry Bonds and Todd Helton are the only left-handed hitters to have accumulated at least 50 career plate appearances against Johnson. Only a dozen lefties accumulated more than 30 plate appearances against him. By comparison, more than 120 right-handers faced him more than 30 times.


How about the kind of excellence that isn’t found on the stat page:


Crazy things

Name               No hitters (perfect games)        most Ks in a game       Cy Youngs     World Championships

Randy Johnson           2 (1) w 4 1-hitters          20                      5             1 (2001)

Lefty Grove             0 (0)                        12                      6*            2 (1929, 1930)

Warren Spahn            2 (0) w 2 1-hitters          18 (in 15 innings)      1             1 (1957)

Sandy Koufax            4 (1) w 2 1-hitters          18 (twice)              3             4 (1955, 1959, 1963, 1965)

Steve Carlton           0 (0) w 6 1-hitters          19                      4             3 (1967, 1980, 1987)


(*) The Cy Young Award wasn’t officially handed out until 1956. However, baseball historian Bill Deane wrote an excellent piece in the first Total Baseball annual chronicling the voting history of each major award – Cy Young, MVP and Rookie of the Year – and then compiled a list of hypothetical winners for the years preceding their existence. Lefty Grove won six of his hypothetical Cy Youngs.  


Here again, Johnson compares favorably. In his only World Series, Johnson won both of his starts, holding the vaunted Yankee offense to two runs in two games, and then came back on no rest to pitch the final four outs of the D-backs’ championship Game 7 win. His World Series ERA: 1.04. In championship play – one NLCS, one ALCS and one World Series – he was 5-1 in 48.2 innings pitched with an ERA of 1.48, allowing 39 baserunners (WHIP of 0.801) while striking out 51 batters.


How about Bill James’ noted black ink test, accounting for the number of times a player led his league in a category:


Black ink leader

Name                    Ks        IP        ERA

Randy Johnson           9         2         4

Lefty Grove             7         0         9

Warren Spahn            4         4         3

Sandy Koufax            4         2         5

Steve Carlton           5         5         1


Again, Johnson looks very good. In the history of the game, he is 1st all-time in strikeout rate (10.61 per 9 innings), 2nd all-time in total strikeouts (4875), 5th all-time in wins for a left-hander (303), 9th all-time in WAR for pitchers and 2nd overall for lefties (104.3), 22nd all-time in ERA+ and 5th overall for lefties (135), 7th all time in Win Probability Added and 2nd overall for a lefty (53.19), and 29th all-time in winning percentage and 8th overall for lefties (.646). In the modern era (since 1903), he holds four of the top 10 strikeout seasons and five of the top 11. Nolan Ryan, by comparison, only holds three of the top 10 strikeout seasons. Since the advent of the DH, of the pitchers who have retired he is 9th overall in FIP but 2nd best for a lefty (3.20). He is the only pitcher in history with 4000 or more strikeouts but fewer than 1500 walks.


The baseball writers were rightly impressed with the number of complete games Jack Morris tossed as well as the number of games he took into the ninth inning, albeit not impressed enough to put him in the Hall. Well, Johnson has some of that mojo, too. In the 5-man rotation era, only Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Morris completed more games. But Johnson was tremendously stalwart in another way as well. In 1995, the season that saved baseball in Seattle, Johnson threw 120 pitches or more for the Mariners in each of his final seven starts including a one-game playoff win versus the Angels. That season he topped 120 pitches nineteen times, 140 pitches four times including once in Cleveland in which he threw 160 pitches. For his career he topped 120 pitches thrown in a game 210 times. From 1990 until 2002 he averaged fifteen such outings per season, and that’s despite missing much of the 1996 season due to back surgery. He topped 140 pitches in a game 41 times and threw 150 or more 9 times. Maybe back in the 1960s people would not have thought much of that kind of usage but in an era in which pitch counts are kept religiously in order to protect pitchers, and anyone exceeding 120 pitches prompts the blogosphere to gnash its collective teeth in biblical proportions, those numbers are absolutely mind-boggling. 


Lastly, I’ll throw in something completely subjective: media exposure. Greg Maddux teamed up with Tom Glavine to make the famed Nike “Chicks dig the long ball” ad. Great commercial, but that was it. Maddux largely stayed away from the spotlight. Johnson, conversely, had a number of memorable media appearances. His “Mr. Snappy” commercial for ESPN (where he demonstrated the “grip” of his famous slider – the ball was resting on the back of his hand) was one of the best ads of that multi-year campaign. He also had two very memorable All-Star appearances. In 1993, he threw a fastball about 3 feet over lefty John Kruk’s head, prompting the batter to check his heart and then stand as far away from the plate as possible for the rest of the appearance. In the 1997 All Star Game he had a similar face-off versus another left-hander, Larry Walker. Only on this occasion Walker simply put his batting helmet on backwards, then switched to the right-handed batters box. Johnson had to hide his laughter in his glove.


Even when something in a game went against him, Johnson found a way to make it work for him. In 1997, Mark McGwire hit one of the most impressive home runs in history, reaching the fifth deck in Seattle’s Kingdome off a Johnson fastball. The next day, he held a press conference to playfully suggest that McGwire’s feat came with some special assistance, that his bat had been corked. He then produced a souvenir kid’s bat with a wine cork glued to the top of it as the reputed weapon McGwire used.


Johnson was not just a great player. Some of his feats are so legendary they are unthinkable in today’s game. A player that great yet self-deprecating with such a refined sense of humor… that’s the kind of player I think everyone can vote for.