Randy Johnson Biography
One of the most intimidating pitchers to ever take the mound, 6’10” Randy Johnson dominated opposing batters with an arsenal of pitches that included a blazing fastball and a sharp-breaking slider that made even the game’s finest hitters often look foolish. One of only two pitchers to win as many as four consecutive Cy Young Awards, Johnson earned the honor a total of five times during his career, placing him second only to Roger Clemens, who was named his league’s top pitcher on seven separate occasions. Johnson’s 303 victories are the fifth highest total ever compiled by a lefthander, and his 4,875 strikeouts have him trailing only Nolan Ryan on the all-time strikeout list. The lanky lefthander also struck out more batters per nine innings pitched (10.61) than any other pitcher in baseball history. Yet, it appeared early in Johnson’s career he might never become an elite pitcher due to the control problems that plagued him his first several seasons.
Born in Walnut Creek, California on September 10, 1963, Randall David Johnson grew up in nearby Livermore with his parents and five siblings. The son of a 6’6” tall policeman, the tall and gangly Johnson stood out as a child, towering over his fellow classmates at school. Although Johnson’s height often caused him to feel somewhat awkward in social situations, it benefited him on the athletic field, enabling him to consistently dominate other boys his age in most sports. Extremely agile and coordinated despite his great size, Johnson excelled on the basketball court. Baseball, though, remained his first love. Patterning himself after Oakland A’s lefthander Vida Blue, Johnson began to develop his pitching skills at an early age, intimidating batters he faced in pickup games with the outstanding velocity he possessed on his fastball, as well as the lack of control he demonstrated even as a youngster.
Johnson continued to excel in both sports while attending Livermore High School. He began to establish himself as a top pitching prospect as a senior in 1982 when he struck out 121 batters in only 66 innings, while throwing a perfect game in his final start. After Johnson graduated from Livermore, the Atlanta Braves selected him in the second round of the June draft. However, the promising 18-year-old hurler chose instead to attend the University of Southern California, where he continued to star despite often battling control problems.
Johnson spent three years pitching for the Trojans, before being selected in the second round of the 1985 draft, this time by the Montreal Expos. He spent the next three seasons working his way up the Montreal farm system, finally earning his call-up late in 1988. Johnson made four starts for the Expos during the season’s final month, compiling a record of 3-0 and an outstanding 2.42 ERA.
Johnson started off the 1989 campaign slowly for Montreal, going 0-4 with a 6.67 ERA in his six starts before being traded to Seattle for left-hander Mark Langston. Johnson showed glimpses of brilliance over the next four seasons, averaging about a strikeout an inning and leading all A.L. pitchers with 241 strikeouts in 1992. However, the tall left-hander had yet to master the mental aspects of pitching. Extremely emotional and volatile on the mound, Johnson showed little patience when his Seattle teammates committed miscues behind him in the field, and he often expressed his dissatisfaction over the lack of run support they gave him. Johnson’s great height also continued to affect his mechanics on the mound, making it difficult for him to master control of his pitches. As a result, he led all American League pitchers in walks in three of his first four years with the Mariners, while posting a combined record of only 46-44.
Not wanting to see Johnson waste his great talent, Nolan Ryan recommended a slight change in his delivery late in 1992 that helped propel the game’s tallest pitcher into stardom. Ryan noted that Johnson tended to land on the heel of his foot after delivering a pitch, thereby causing him to land offline from home plate. Ryan suggested that he instead land on the ball of his foot, so that he might finish off his delivery facing the plate directly.
The Big Unit
Although Ryan’s suggestion seemed relatively simple, it ended up having a huge impact on Johnson’s performance. Finding the strike zone more consistently almost as soon as he instituted the change, Johnson subsequently became one of baseball’s most dominant hurlers. He finished the 1993 campaign with a record of 19-8, an ERA of 3.24, and a league-leading 308 strikeouts, earning a spot on the All-Star Team for the first time. The combination of Johnson’s 6’10” frame, the tremendous velocity on his fastball, which consistently registered close to 100 mph on the radar gun, and the movement on his breaking ball made the southpaw virtually impossible for left-handed batters to hit. Meanwhile, right-handers similarly struggled with his sharp-breaking slider, which Johnson eventually dubbed “Mr. Snappy” for its tight, late break. The southpaw typically threw his signature pitch at a velocity that measured in the low 90s, prompting opposing batters to believe a fastball had been thrown to them. However, the ball broke down and in to right-handers just before it crossed home plate, causing them to frequently swing at pitches that nearly hit them in the back foot.
Rapidly developing into the league’s most intimidating pitcher, The Big Unit won 13 games and led the A.L. with 204 strikeouts during the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. He then reached new heights in 1995, compiling a record of 18-2, leading the league with 294 strikeouts and a 2.48 ERA, and capturing his first Cy Young Award while helping the Mariners reach the playoffs for the first time in their history. Johnson enabled Seattle to advance to the postseason by pitching a three-hitter against California in the AL West’s one-game playoff, striking out 12 Angels in the process. Unable to start for the Mariners until Game Three of the five-game ALDS series against the Yankees, Johnson watched as New York took a 2–0 series lead. However, the league’s best pitcher shifted the momentum of the series by beating the Yankees in Game Three with 10 strikeouts in seven innings.
After watching his teammates tie the series in Game Four, Johnson made a dramatic relief appearance in the decisive fifth contest, taking the mound on only one day’s rest. Johnson’s slow walk to the pitcher’s mound from the left field bullpen electrified the sold-out home crowd. Entering a 4–4 game in the ninth inning, Johnson pitched the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings, allowing one run, striking out six, and holding on for the series-clinching win in Seattle’s dramatic comeback.
Johnson subsequently missed most of the 1996 campaign with a back injury, but he returned the following year to post a record of 20-4, an ERA of 2.28, and 291 strikeouts. The lefthander’s outstanding performance left him with an overall record of 53-9 from May 1994 to October 1997, including a 16-game winning streak at one point that fell just one victory short of the American League record. Included during that period were two 19-strikeout performances, which occurred six weeks apart in 1997.
Free Agency and Years in Arizona
With free agency looming for Johnson at the end of the 1998 season, the Mariners traded their best pitcher to Houston midway through the campaign. Johnson won 10 of his 11 decisions for the Astros over the season’s second half, finishing the year with a record of 19-11, an ERA of 3.28, and 329 strikeouts. After becoming a free agent at season’s end, Johnson signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he began a string of four consecutive Cy Young Award campaigns in 1999. The numbers Johnson compiled over the course of those four seasons made him the most dominant lefthanded pitcher in the game since Sandy Koufax mesmerized National League hitters more than three decades earlier. After finishing 17-9 and leading the N.L. with a 2.48 ERA, 364 strikeouts, 271 innings pitched, and 12 complete games in his first year in Arizona, Johnson posted a mark of 19-7 in 2000, with a 2.64 ERA, 249 innings pitched, and a league-leading 347 strikeouts, eight complete games, and three shutouts.
The Diamondbacks failed to make the playoffs in either of those two seasons, but Johnson helped make them respectable for the first time in their brief history. Arizona’s fortunes improved even more in 2001, when Curt Schilling teamed up with Johnson to give the Diamondbacks baseball’s most formidable one-two pitching combination. The two hurlers combined for an amazing 90-24 record the next two years, placing first and second in the league in virtually every major pitching category both seasons. Johnson went 21-6 in 2001, with 250 innings pitched and a league-leading 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts. He followed that up by capturing the pitcher’s version of the Triple Crown in 2002, finishing the year with a record of 24-5, a 2.32 ERA, and 334 strikeouts, while also topping the circuit with 260 innings pitched.
The entire nation received its first opportunity to witness the shared brilliance of the two hurlers during the 2001 postseason. Schilling compiled a record of 3-0, with a 0.67 ERA and three complete games during the National League playoffs. Meanwhile, Johnson went 2-1, with an ERA just under 2.00 in his three starts. The two men then practically defeated the heavily-favored New York Yankees by themselves in the World Series, posting all four Arizona victories. Schilling went 1-0 in his three starts, compiling an ERA of 1.69 and striking out 26 batters in 21 innings of work, while allowing only 12 base hits. Starting two games and entering another in relief, Johnson went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA, while striking out 19 batters in 17 innings. He also allowed the Yankees just nine hits. The two aces were named co-winners of the World Series MVP Award.
The dominance displayed by the tandem of Johnson and Schilling came to an end in 2003 when the latter’s arm problems enabled him to appear in only 24 games. Arizona subsequently elected to trade Schilling to Boston at the end of the year. Meanwhile, back problems limited Johnson to only 18 starts in 2003, bringing to an end a brilliant six-year run during which he posted a combined record of 120-42. After going just 6-8 in 2003, Johnson compiled a record of 16-14 for a mediocre Arizona team the following year. Pitching much better than his record would seem to indicate, Johnson also posted an ERA of 2.60 and a league-leading 290 strikeouts for the Diamondbacks.
Arizona dealt Johnson to the Yankees for a package of players prior to the start of the 2005 campaign. Back in the American League for the first time in six-and-a-half years, the 41-year-old lefthander experienced a moderate amount of success in New York the next two seasons, going a combined 34-19 for the Yankees, but failing to lead the team back to the World Series.
The passing of Johnson’s brother prompted the aging hurler to request a trade back to Arizona at the conclusion of the 2006 season so that he could be closer to his family in Phoenix. Suffering with an ailing back and lacking much of the velocity he once had on his fastball and slider, Johnson won a total of only 15 games for the Diamondbacks the next two seasons, before signing a free agent contract with the Giants at the conclusion of the 2008 campaign. The 45-year-old southpaw spent 2009 pitching on the West Coast, winning only eight games, but reaching the 300-win plateau with one of those victories. He retired at the end of the year with a career record of 303-166 and an ERA of 3.29. The Big Unit led his league in strikeouts a total of nine times, surpassing the 300-mark on six separate occasions. He also topped his circuit in ERA and complete games four times each, innings pitched twice, and wins once. In addition to winning the Cy Young Award five times, Johnson finished second in the balloting three other times. He was selected to appear in the All-Star Game a total of 10 times.
Randy Johnson appeared eminently hittable in his final few seasons. But those who saw him perform earlier in his career know that Johnson was once among the most imposing pitchers ever to throw a baseball. Former teammate Damian Miller once stated emphatically, “He’s (Johnson’s) just so dominating. Filthy, ridiculous, stupid – I’ve pretty much used every adjective I could possibly think of.”
Former Chicago Cubs skipper Lou Piniella, who managed Johnson for a time in Seattle, proclaimed, “He is the number one dominating pitcher in baseball. I don’t even know who number two is.”
Mark Grace, who played behind Johnson during the latter’s peak years in Arizona, suggested, “Randy carries his emotions on his sleeve. So when Randy gets pumped, it’s pretty much wise to just go home. When he gets that look in his eyes, you know you’re not going to get a hit off him.”