Saturday, July 01, 2006

Intensive Care Unit

Ugh. Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the water....the Randy Johnson engine turns back into a choo choo. Not that I'm surprised. All along I've said that he's going to be great one day and miserable other days. He's at that point in his career. I did some digging to examine his numbers pre-Bronx and for his season and a half in pinstripes.

One interesting thing that I've found is that his batting average against with the Yankees is a very strong .245 or so. This year he is at .252 including the poor outing against the Mets. That's better than Brandon Webb, Tom Glavine, Scott Kazmir, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, and Kenny Rogers to name a few. It's not what he once was, as his career BAA is a ludicrous .216 over approximately 18 Major League seasons.

He sports a WHIP of 1.18 with the Yankees matching his career number almost exactly (1.16). His 4.26 ERA with the Bombers is a run higher than his career 3.16 ERA, but should still be good enough with the offense we bring to each game to win a bunch. For his career, Johnson averages 7 innings per start. With the Yankees he goes about 6 and a half. The Big Unit sports a nearly 11 K/9 ratio for his career, while he puts up 8.2 per 9 with the Yankees. Still impressive. What is it about the big fella that seems so awful? Why does he seem to stink up the mound so often? Is it unrealistic expectations, similar to A-Rod? Is it something else? These are the burning questions.

Johnson's numbers against left handed batters are still very good. Lefties are hitting .204 against him in 2006 with only 1 homer among 60 batters faced. Additionally, lefties have a 2.88 GO/AO ratio and a hitting line of .204/.259/.315 against Johnson. That's an OPS of a meager .574 in half a season of work. It's also not so far off from what he's done throughout his entire career.

Righties have been a bit better. In 401 plate appearances, righties have hit .260/.324/.432 against Unit with a horrible 0.77 GO/AO ratio and 15 home runs. His career numbers against righties is much better than this with a .219/.313/(SLG splits not available, but certainly less than .432). In fairness on the home run numbers, if the next lefty he faces goes deep the ratio of homers per PA are about the same. Still, I think I see something in the numbers that explains his troubles.

It's not brain surgery, and I won't claim to have some special insight into Randy Johnson's mediocrity, but we can see that his numbers aren't so bad overall. They're worse than his career production, but not by so much as to say that he's completely lost it. The numbers that have slumped are his strikeouts, and his SLG Against for righties. His ERA has ballooned for the Yankees, but it seems that the other stats aren't enough to explain why he's giving up more than a run over his career number for the Yanks, and more than 2 runs this year so far. I think the lack of strikeouts and the high slugging against the Big Unit are the key.

Johnson has always been able to overpower hitters with a nasty fastball, and a sharp vicious slider. Against lefties, the arm angle is still suffiently tough to pick up that they can't catch up to his pitches on most nights. With less velocity on the heater and less snap on the slider, Johnson's out pitches aren't so tough to make contact on these days. Righties can fight off the toughest pitches more easily, and more frequently drive the ball on the stuff in the zone. Making better contact on his pitches makes longer at bats, and better hit balls in play. The fastball is still good, if not overpowering, but I'd love to see what the numbers are on balls put in play for his slider. I'm guessing that it's that pitch that has abandoned him and is primarily responsible for his awful numbers against right handed batters. A lefty seeing a medicore slider from Johnson still has a tough job to do. That pitch is still going to start at the inside of the plate and die low and away. For righties that pitch looks really fat, and no one is fooled by it any longer.

I don't think there's anything he can do about it either. A guy approaching 43 years old, standing 6-10 on the mound, isn't going to be as "rubbery" as he was in his prime. I use that term to suggest that athletic performance depends on power derived from flexibility and the torque generated by a powerful but "bendy" musculature. I know that's not so scientific, but I'm not a kinesthesiologist. I'm a blogger. My conjecture is that Johnson is no longer able to consistently achieve the combination of arm angle and power through the delivery zone that once helped him to strike out righties. The fastball is slower and higher in the zone, while the slider is flatter and stays in the wheelhouse of right handed batters much longer. In everday language that means he throws fat pitches.

One more thing, while I'm talking out my ass. How about the fact that playing in the AL East means a couple of things for RJ. The DH means another tough out for him over the course of a game. In the East that also means facing the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles, and Tampa lineups that can all hit for power. He pitches in Camden, Fenway, and Skydome. It also means that April and May will be much cooler and June will be rainy and/or humid. In Arizona, Johnson had the luxury of facing a pitcher every 9 ABs in one of the worst divisions in baseball, in PETCO/Qualcomm, Dodger Stadium, and in various iterations of San Francisco's home field, plus he pitched in hot-dry weather.

In 616.1 innings against the NL West, Johnson went 52-23 with a 2.57 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 10.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. Against the AL East(minus the Yanks), Johnson has gone 40-24 in 563.2 innings with a 4.04 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 10.3 strikeouts per 9. As a Yankee, against the AL East, Unit is 12-5 in 144 innings, with a 5.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 8.3 K's per 9.

The combination of change in venues, climates, and leagues with his aging body has produced the current version of Randy Johnson. It it what it is. It's not going to get better. We need to live with it, and realize that Mussina and Wang are our consistent regulars, with an occasional flash of excellence from Unit, and a gigantic question mark otherwise. It may or may not be enough to get the job done this year, and perhaps Boston's pitching will be better than ours over 162 games. Right now we are 2nd in all of baseball in OPS Against (Detroit) at .706 while Boston is 14th at .759 on the year. We have scored 5.52 runs per game while Boston is at 5.58 per. Over the course of a full year it looks even and that's where it will probably end up again, good Unit or Bad.

One last thing....close your eyes and imagine this rotation next year to go along with our offense.


If we get Matsuzaka this is a fearsome 5-some. Plug in Zito instead of Matsuzaka and you still have one of the most ridiculous pitching rotations in baseball, even with the top two pitchers on the list in decline. Patience and a bit of Cash Money Magic is the key.

See you tomorrow. Go Yanks!


Anonymous said...

Nice post. The question of exactly why some pitchers lose effectiveness as they lose velocity and get older is fascinating, especially since others like Glavine and Mussina seem able to overcome those same handicaps by changing their pitching style.

And on the other hand sometimes changing pitching styles doesn't work at all. Remember when during Clemens' first year with the Yanks, he tried to use more sinkers and become a finesse pitcher -- and the results were mediocre? He had more success when he went back to using four-seamers, even though he was getting older.

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