Friday, June 5, 2009

Randy Johnson: Greatest LHP of all time?

Caple, Neyer and Stark (espn's top three baseball analysts) had a running back and forth arbument printed about this very question. Now, I kinda hate arguments like this where everyone thinks the "greatest of all time" is whoever is hottest right now. But there's some serious arguments for Johnson...

Candidates mentioned (in reverse historical order): all numbers are career #s:
Randy Johnson; 300-164, 4845Ks, 3.29 era, 136 era+, 5 CYAs, 3 second places
Steve Carlton: 329-244, 4136Ks, 3.22 era, 115 era+, 4 CYAs, a 3rd and a 4th
Sandy Koufax: 165-87, 2396 Ks, 2.76 era, 131 era+, 3 CYAs and a 3rd, retired at 30.
Whitey Ford: 236-106, 1956 Ks, 2.75 era, 133 era+
Warren Spahn: 363-245, 2583 Ks, 3.09 era, 118 era+, 1 CYA, 3 seconds and a third (but award didn't exist til he was 35 and half way through his career. Probably would have at least 3 more).
Lefty Grove: 300-141, 2266 Ks, 3.06 era, 148 era+ , won MVP in a 31-4 season in 1931
Carl Hubbell: 253-154, 1677 Ks, 2.98 era, 130 era+ , 2 mvps
Eddie Plank: 326-194, 2246 Ks, 2.35 era, 122 era+, never anywhere close to an MVP.

In the end, I believe 2 picked Johnson, one picked Spahn. However I think they're both wrong. For me, Lefty Grove is the greatest ever slightly ahead of Johnson. Their biggest argument against Grove seemed to be the lack of black players in the MLB at the time; my counter to that is the following: there were 1/2 as many teams playing in an era in the USA where there was ONE sport that every school kid played. That says to me that the lineups of the day were ferocious enough. We constantly hear about the elite talent of the Negro leagues but I suspect that the stars would still have been stars in the MLB, but there wouldn't have been a major difference in the up-and-down talent levels otherwise.

My order: Grove, Johnson, Spahn, Carlton, Hubbell, Koufax, Ford, Plank. Imagine if Koufax played another 5 years or so. He would have had 4000 Ks and 300 wins and we'd be wondering if Johnson was half as good as he was.



  1. I don't think you can really compare players across eras like that. Don't you think that Johnson benefited from playing against 30 different teams? Don't you think that would dilute the talent pool a little bit.

    On the other hand, Lefty Grove only played against 16 teams in his last year. BUT...he also played in stadiums that were a lot larger than the band boxes of today.

    I just don't think there's any way to compare them. But...I'd give my vote to Sandy Koufax, but I'm probably a bit biased.

  2. Baseball is actually the easiest sport to compare stats across eras, despite the wide changes in playing field. Nobody even counts football championships won prior to the first superbowl; players used to average triple doubles for entire seasons in basketball, and hockey completely revamped their rulebooks to open up scoring after the lost season.

    Now that being said; each player and each era has its pros and cons.
    - early pitchers played against consolidated lineups with fewer teams, but no black players and in massive stadiums that prevented easy home runs.
    - pitchers in the 50s and 60s played in the pre-athletic area, when guys still went out drinking and smoking all night and paid little attention to their health.
    - pitchers in the 90s faced diluted lineups with expansion teams, BUT played in smaller stadiums and in the steriods era. Especially Johnson here.

    Now, had Koufax not retired at 30, odds are he'd be considered the greatest lefty ever. Its why he's in the hall of fame despite only really playing 9 years.

    I do like the arguments made about Johnson's stretch of seasons being even better statistically than Pedro's mid 90's seasons. I mean, he struck out 372 guys when he was 37. I could barely get out of bed at 37 without pulling something. :-)