This column on just-elected Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 23, 2002.
As Unit gets older and better, comparisons to Ryan inevitable
By Ed Odeven
I’ve seen the amazing Randy Johnson start four games this season at Bank One Ballpark. He’s won all four of those starts.
That’s what the Big Unit does: He dominates like few pitchers ever have in the history of baseball. Johnson, 38, is now 65-23 with 1,178 strikeouts in 843 innings since joining the Diamondbacks in 1999. (Take a moment to fathom those out-of-this world statistics; and while you’re at it, ponder what the Houston Astros — knowing what they now know — would give if they could get a “re-do” an ill-fated decision and go back in time to sign Johnson to a free-agent deal in December 1998.)
An intimidating 6-foot-10 left-hander, Johnson is a cool, composed performer on the mound. Coming at ’em with the trajectory and velocity of missiles, Johnson routinely fires 96-to-98 mph fastballs at hitters. Those fireballs are hard enough to hit.
Then, when trouble arises Johnson reaches back and adds a little more heat, a little more punishment to befuddle opposing batsmen. Johnson has a knack for showmanship, as he demonstrated on Opening Day, throwing a 101 mph pitch to San Diego’s Deivi Cruz on the game’s next-to-last pitch.
And let’s not forget his devastating, knee-buckling sliders. That’s what Johnson used to deliver the knockout blow to Cruz and give Arizona a season-opening win. Cruz whiffed on a slider, sending the frenzied crowd home with a smile. There have been plenty of smiles during Johnson’s tenure with the team and three straight Cy Young Awards to go with it.
Johnson is tied with teammate Curt Schilling for the major league lead in victories. At an age when most pitchers are showing signs of slowing down, Johnson appears to be getting stronger and better. He has lasted at least seven innings in each of his 10 starts this season.
The best parallel one can use to explain Johnson’s maturation as a pitcher is Nolan Ryan, the game’s all-time strikeout king with 5,714. As a youngster, Ryan tried to simply blow batters away with his fastball. He lacked pinpoint control, and essentially tried to win games by throwing, not pitching. Ryan settled down and became a great pitcher.
Similarly Johnson has learned to pitch. He has learned that his slider sets up his overpowering fastball. He has learned that even on an “off night,” he can deliver the goods and keep his team in the game.
After surrendering three runs and six hits, pegging two batters, walking three and fanning 10 against the Giants on Tuesday, the word in the Arizona clubhouse was that Johnson pitched well enough to win, even if it wasn’t a vintage Johnson performance
“Crafty is the perfect word for it,” D-backs catcher Damian Miller said to describe Johnson’s performance. “People get spoiled because of what he’s capable of doing. …Even a crafty Randy is still the best pitcher in baseball.”
It’s hard to find a convincing reason to argue with Miller’s point.