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January 31, 2005

The birth of a Hall of Famer
by SG

This is part 1 of a collaborative three part retrospective on the career of Randy Johnson. Erik will be writing part 2 and sjohnny will be writing part 3.

Randy Johnson was a senior at Livermore High School in 1982. Standing 6'10" but only weighing 185 pounds, he threw as hard as 92 mph but had very little control of his body.

In 2000, in an interview with Guidepost for Kids mentioned in this article, Johnson describes this period as an awkward adolescence.

"I was a little uncoordinated in high school because I was growing so fast. I was so much taller than everybody else, I didn't know how to handle it. Other teams would yell at me on the mound to get me rattled--and it worked. I'd throw harder and get wild and start to walk guys and get taken out of the game."

"It's hard to mix with a crowd when you're walking down the hallway and everybody else is a foot shorter," Johnson said. "I remember hanging out with my friends, like at the mall, and thinking people were staring at me and talking about me. It made me
turn inside myself. I became more shy and quiet."

Luckily for Johnson, his parents were there to support him through what was a difficult adolescence. He would play catch for hours with his father, Bud. When Randy would miss his father's glove, Bud would gently tell his son to retrieve the balls. These games of catch helped Johnson improve his control. Eventually, when Randy began picking up velocity, his throws would shift the slats in the garage door, His dad would smile, hand him a hammer and have him fix them.

One scout's opinion on Johnson in high school: "Timid due to awkwardness and plenty of room to fill out. No concept yet, just a thrower. He's like a box of crackerjacks, there's a surprise inside. Our only problem is whether or not we will like the surprise. He's a boom or bust. Long way to go yet. Has no pitching mechanics. With his long arms he could eventually bury all left-handed hitters. A real gamble."

Johnson's talent did allow him to pitch a perfect game in his final high school start.Johnson got drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 1982 amateur draft. However, his high school coach, Eric Hoff, persuaded him to go to the University of Southern California instead. "I just thought he'd get eaten up in the minor leagues," Hoff said. "He didn't have the maturity level at that time."

Johnson attended the University of Southern California on a dual scholarship for basketball and baseball, but decided to concentrate on baseball after his sophomore season. Johnson's college teammate, Mark McGwire, was often considered the better pitching prospect while they were with the Trojans.

A picture of Johnson at USC

Johnson's college statistics at USC were far from overwhelming.

1983 15 47.0 46 32 34 5-0 3 5.17
1984 26 78.0 72 52 73 5-3 2 3.35
1985 26 118.1 107 104 99 6-9 0 5.32

Career 67 243.1 225 188 206 16-12 5 4.66

Johnson also spent one summer in Alaska, pitching for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.

Then came the 1985 draft. Johnson was drafted 36th, in the second round. Taken before Johnson were names like Mike Poehl, Chris Gwynn, Walt Weiss, Cameron Drew, Jeff Bumgarner, Tommy Greene, Willie Fraser, Trey McCall and several other players, many of whom never saw the majors.

Johnson signed and was assigned to the Jamestown Expos of the New York-Penn league, where he compiled an 0-3 record. In 27 innings, he allowed 29 hits, 22 runs, 24 walks, 21 strikeouts, and put up a 5.93 ERA.

The following season, Johnson was moved to the next level in class A. In West Palm Beach, He put up an 8-7 record, in 26 starts. He pitched 120 innings, allowing 89 hits, 49 runs, 94 walks, 133 strikeouts and racking up a 3.16 ERA. A big improvement from the previous season, but still showing a lot of trouble throwing strikes.

In 1987, Johnson was moved up again, this time to Jacksonville in class AA. There, he went 11-8, in 25 games. 140 innings, 100 hits, 63 runs, 128 walks, and 163 strikeouts, with a 3.73 ERA. He was still walking around 8 men per nine innings, but getting by striking out 10 men every nine innings.

Now 25 years old, Johnson was promoted to the last level of the minors, AAA. For Indianapolis, Johnson made big strides with his control, cutting his BB rate by 2.5 men per nine innings. For the season, he went 8-7 with a 3.26 ERA in 20 starts, 113 innings, 85 hits, 52 runs, 72 walks, and 111 strikeouts. He led the league in balks with 20, which may have been indicative of his problems with concentration, which many blamed for his control. In early June of this season, Montreal had decided it was time to give Johnson his shot in the majors. However, on June 15, right before he was going to be recalled by the Expos, he was forced to leave a game against Richmond after knocking down a line drive with his pitching hand. A frustrated Johnson punched the bat rack with his right hand. As it turned out, his left hand was fine, but he broke his right hand. This ended up delaying Johnson's recall. However, Johnson finally made his major league debut on Sept 15, in a game against Pittsburgh. Johnson pitched five innings and allowed 2 runs, picking up his first major league victory. He finished the season in Montreal strong, winning 3 of his 4 starts and putting up a 2.42 ERA.

With Johnson's impressive cup of coffee at the end of 1988, he began the season in the Montreal rotation in 1989. However, after an 0-4, 6.67 start he was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis. On May 25, with the Expos trailing the Cubs by 3 games in the standings, Johnson, Brian Holman, and Gene Harris were shipped to Seattle in a trade for ace lefty Mark Langston. Montreal would finish the season 12 games out of first, as Langston pitched well but got poor run support. Johnson was inserted into Seattle's starting rotation, and finished with a 7-9 record, and a 4.40 ERA for the Mariners.

Prior to the season, THE SCOUTING REPORT had this to say about Johnson:

Some call him "Big Bird," his teammates call him "Big Unit" and by now, we all know that Randy Johnson is the tallest pitcher in major league history at 6'10". Johnson came to the Mariners along with Brian Holman and Gene Harris in the now famous "Langston Deal." Of the three pitchers Seattle obtained, Johnson was considered the best prospect. He was even rated a National League Rookie of the Year candidate, though he struggled with the Expos in his early '89 outings and had to be returned to the minors.
. . . Johnson has a reputation for blowing his cool -- as a Montreal farmhand he once punched a dugout wall, breaking his right hand -- and some feel that he loses his concentration too easily.
It's a toss-up between Holman and Johnson for the third and fourth spot in the Mariner rotation. Johnson is an important part of the Mariner future, but it's imperative that he improve his control and get his head together a little more.

Johnson showed a glimpse of his enormous potential on June 2, when he pitched the first no-hitter in Mariners history, walking 6 and striking out 8 in front of 20,114 fan in the Kingdome. Fifty of his pitches were clocked at 94 MPH or higher.On the season, Johnson was inconsistent, but managed to post a 14-11 record, with a 3.65 ERA.

Following 1990, here was THE SCOUTING REPORT take on Randy:

A lot of baseball people have looked at Randy Johnson and proclaimed that if he ever puts it all together, look out. Last June 2 in the Kingdome, Johnson put it together and them some...
However, the other side of the big lefthander was also apparent on that no-hit night. Johnson walked six. Admirers later called him "constructively wild," meaning that the Tigers could not dig in at the plate. Maybe it worked that night, but most observers agree that Johnson's control is a big problem. His 120 walks led the majors.
Any team would allow Johnson his few quirks if he pitched up to his immense promise. Certainly he's got the stuff: a high-90s fastball, a sharp, downward curveball and a change-up. At times, he hits all the spots with his pitches and fulfills his desire to be recognized as a pitcher, not just a hard thrower. But Johnson has trouble winning on days when he doesn't have his good stuff. The tallest pitcher in major league history, he finds that his long delivery can easily get out of sync. When that happens, he's prone to walks and home run balls. Last year Johnson gave up 26 dingers, fourth most in the league.

Instead of building on a promising 1990, Johnson regressed in 1991. Despite some spectacular performances, he walked nearly 7 men per nine innings, and finished the season 13-10 with a 3.98 ERA.

1992 started out where 1991 left off. Johnson alternated brilliant starts with disasters, including a memorable 10 BB in 4.1 inning performance against Baltimore.

Peter Gammons had an article about Scott Bradley, who was Johnson's personal catcher with the Mariners for more than 2½ seasons, which touched on this period in Johnson's life.

"He threw very hard," says Bradley, "but he was very wild and inconsistent. He'd launch balls up on the backstop, I guess sometimes for effect. Sometimes when he'd get to 3-and-0 he'd just fling the ball towards the plate, or the batter. He didn't have much confidence. He really was pretty insecure. So to see him now, so quietly confident and so remarkably under control and able to throw both his fastball and his slider for strike after strike is something that never fails to amaze me."

In a Bill Mazeroski baseball annual from the time, a scout was quoted about Johnson:

"If his stuff wasn't so great, you'd write him off. His concentration level and temper are big detriments to his stuff. More than once, I've seen him give up his first hit in the fourth or fifth inning and just quit, just come unglued, like 'The no-hitter's gone. What's the point?'"

However, 1992 turned out to be the turning point for Johnson. From an article about Johnson on At Home Plate:

"I used to be a thrower," he explains. "I struggled. I was leading the league in strikeouts, but I was also leading the league in walks."

One of two things happened: the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) phone conversation with Nolan Ryan.

"Nolan explained that I was landing on my right heel, which made the ball spin off the third base side. Then my arm dropped down, and I lost the strength of my body and the direction. He told me to land on the ball of my foot. It sounds easy, but it took me a while."

The other significant event in Johnson's life that year was the death of his father.

"When my dad died in '92, it forced me to dig deeper. I thought I was, but I really wasn't. I realized there is another level. I learned that to get better, you have to do things other people aren't doing."

The potential turnaround was also touched on in the Mazeroski annual.

Johnson, 29, finally may be turning the corner. He was smart enough to pay attention when Nolan Ryan offered advice last year. Johnson, spacey as always early in the season, came out a new man when Ryan told him the same thing coaches had for years: That he should be using his 96-mph fastball to set up an occasional slurve, rather than the other way around. He made 11 starts after conferring with Ryan, going 5-2 with a 2.87 ERA and yielding 48 hits in 85 innings. His payoff could have been better, as he got no decisions in an 18-strikeout game against Texas and a one-hit, nine inning stint against California in which he struck out 15 and walked only one. Johnson led the league in strkeouts (241), walks (144), and hit batters(18).

The loss of Johnson's father caused him much grief. It also pushed him to become a more devout Christian as well as taking his baseball career more seriously. He made some changes to his windup which helped his control, began using his slider more, and had his first great season, 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA. Following his breakout 1993, Johnson's writeup in that season's Bill Mazeroski annual was far more glowing.

The iconoclastic Randy Johnson and regimented Lou Piniella have formed an uneasy alliance, but both came to understand they need the other's support to succeed. Johnson has improved his mechanics and become less selfish in relating to his team. This could be the year he wins the Cy Young that escaped his soulmate and teacher, Nolan Ryan.

Johnson's place in the game was underscored by a scene from the 1993 All-Star game. Johnson's first pitch flew over John Kruk's head all the way to the screen. Kruk was untouched, yet dazed. He is as tough as they come yet offered meekly at the next three pitches, then said he was happy simply "to get out alive." It was a good day for Kruk and others in the National League when the Mariners signed Johnson to a contract extension running through 1997 with an option for '98.

No lefthander throws as hard as Johnson, and no one comes close to him at instilling fear in hitters. He led the major leagues in hitting batters with pitches (16) last year. Was it any coincidence he also held batters to a .203 average? He no longer can be counted on to beat himself, and seldom does an opposing team do the job by itself.

In the ranking of top left-handed starters, Johnson came in second to Mark Langston.
SCOUT: "Stuff-wise, he's in a class by himself. He finally started showing some maturity out there last year, but let's see if he puts two years together before we say he's the best. His control is always going to be borderline, which actually helps him.

That little doubt is in the hitters mind: 'Am I going to be the one he hits in the head and kills?'"

As good as 1993 turned out to be, the best was yet to come for Johnson. Look for the next installment, covering 1994-1999 later this week.

Thanks to Jason Pommier for Johnson's USC stats