Randy Johnson: The Greatest Left Hander Of All Time?

Michael McMasterContributor IIIJune 6, 2009

WASHINGTON - JUNE 04:  Randy Johnson #51 of the San Francisco Giants hugs his wife Lisa after winning his 300th career game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on June 4, 2009 in Washington, DC.  The Giants won the game 5-1.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Randy Johnson won his 300th game, placing him in an elite category with 23 of baseball’s greatest players.

It took the Big Unit 22 seasons to reach this incredible milestone, and he is likely the last pitcher who will reach 300 wins for quite sometime. Among active pitchers, only Jamie Moyer (age 46, 250 wins), and Andy Pettite (age 37, 220 wins), are anywhere near 300 wins, and it is unlikely that either pitcher will have the longevity to reach that mark.

A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Johnson spent his career with six different ball clubs, amassing a staggering 4,845 strikeouts while posting a career 3.28 ERA. His accomplishments have put him in an elite group of 24 of baseball’s greatest players, but Johnson is also part of another club that is even more exclusive.

Of the 24 players on that list, only six are left handed (Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Eddie Plank, Tom Glavine, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson), and a compelling argument could be made that Johnson may be the cream of the crop. So, as the 45-year-old Johnson sails through the twilight of his illustrious career, the question must be asked: Is Randy Johnson the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time?

The answer: maybe.

In addition to his 300 wins, the 6’10” left-hander boasts 4,845 strikeouts, a career .647 winning percentage, and one World Series title, with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. The dominant left-hander has an impressive 3.28 career ERA, and he lasted for 22 seasons in the major leagues.

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But, is he the best of all time?

Warren Spahn (363 wins) and Eddie Plank (wins) both finished with more career wins than Johnson, but both finished with significantly lower winning percentages. Over his 21 year career, Spahn lost 245 games and left his winning percentage just short of .600, at .597 percent.

His 2,583 career strikeouts do not compare with Johnson, and his high number of wins is due to his ability to go late in games. Spahn averaged 252 innings per season, which accounts for his high number of wins and losses. Spahn rarely had no-decisions.

A better argument could be made for Plank, whose career win percentage (.627) and career 2.35 ERA seems extremely impressive on the surface. However, Plank played in 623 games in only 17 seasons between 1901 and 1917.

Plank had more opportunities in the years he played, and he also played in a “dead-ball” era, in which pitching was far more dominant in the sport than it is today. In essence, comparing Johnson with Plank would be like comparing Floyd Mayweather with Joe Louis; it’s almost impossible.

Despite winning 300 games, Johnson’s winning percentage is only .647, which would land him behind seven retired greats, including five Hall of Famers and one likely future Hall of Famer, Ron Guidry (Babe Ruth is among those five pitchers, posting a .671 winning % in 163 career games). Johnson’s .647 winning percentage also puts him behind active ace Johan Santana (.682 percent).

Whitey Ford has the best winning percentage of any left-handed pitcher in the history of the game, but his 498 career appearances is far smaller than Johnson’s 607 trips to the hill. In his career, Johnson lost 164 games, while Ford lost only 106. Ford also went out on top, posting a 1.64 ERA in his final season in the major leagues.

Meanwhile, Johnson has a 4.32 ERA in his last five seasons, and he has only won 15 games in his last two seasons. However, Ford was not a strikeout pitcher. The Hall of Famer and career Yankee pitched to contact. With only 1,956 career strikeouts, Ford struck out 5.6 batters per nine innings and had a career 1.21 WHIP.

Ford allowed base runners, but he rarely allowed them to scamper past third. Finally, Ford was a winner. He led the Yankees to six World Series Championships in his career and he posted a career 2.71 ERA.

Steve Carlton won 329 games in his career, yielding a 3.22 ERA while striking out 4,136 batters. However, Carlton had only a .574 winning percentage, and he started in 709 games. Carlton also lost 80 more games than Johnson in his career (Johnson: 164, Carlton: 244). Carlton may have more wins, but Johnson’s 24 seasons were more valuable than Carlton’s.

That leaves only one pitcher who has as many wins as Johnson and an even higher winning percentage: Lefty Grove. Grove finished his career with 300 wins and boasted a dominant .680 winning percentage.

Grove was able to win 300 games in only 17 seasons, and he quit right after number 300. However, Grove also pitched in another time, finishing his career in 1941 with the Boston Red Sox. He struck out 2,266 batters and lost only 141 games in his career.

Tom Glavine has more wins than Johnson, and Johnson is unlikely to pass Glavine, because both are active and Glavine currently leads Johnson by five wins. But, Glavine has lost over 200 games, and his .600 winning percentage is not on par with Johnson.

Is greatness really measured by wins? It is unlikely that this generation will see another left-handed pitcher reach 300 wins any time soon, but there are several left-handed pitchers, retired and active, who have better winning percentages than Johnson.

Sandy Koufax, Ron Guidry, and Johan Santana (age 30) all have significantly higher winning percentages, but their win counts are unlikely to ever reach 300.

Koufax won 53 games in his last two seasons, leaving on top. This year, Johnson will be lucky if he wins ten. So is he the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, or did he just last the longest?

Only one thing can be for sure: Johnson has to be in the conversation. 

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