If any of you are familiar with Baseball Mogul, you might know that some of the best values in the game are with Hall-of-Fame pitchers at the end of their careers. They don’t require huge contracts, and they’re easier to predict than the young pitchers. There were always a couple scenarios that would drive me nuts, though. It’d be 2050, and O'Conner Pitcherguy would be entering his age-42 season with a career ERA of 3.50 and a K/9 that’s consistently over 9.0. Then his career would fall apart, but not in the traditional way. He’d still strike out a ton of hitters, he’d still have the plus stuff, but all of a sudden he’d be averaging 50 homers for every 200 innings pitched.
This would frustrate me. I’d think, man, that’s not how pitchers go away. They succumb to nagging injuries, major injuries, or a complete collapse of their arsenal. They don’t just become magically gopher-prone.
Randy Johnson has the sixth-best strikeout rate among NL starters. His slider is just goofy good – it breaks down righties and lefties alike. His fastball is anywhere from 88-90, which is pretty good for a lefty, but he’s also releasing the ball a few inches closer to the plate than most pitchers. That might not read like much, but anything that shaves the milliseconds off a hitter’s potential reaction time makes a difference. With the exception of the two games in which Johnson couldn’t find the plate, there’s no question that Johnson is one of the most talented members of a talented staff, even at his advanced age.
And yet he’s tied with dooky-throwers like Jaime Moyer and Bronson Arroyo at the top of the home runs allowed list with ten. Seven starts, ten home runs.
Because Johnson is one of baseball history’s great outlier’s, there isn’t a good, pat answer. Maybe hitters know they can’t hit the slider, so they sit on a fastball, or a slider that hangs. The all-or-nothing approach might lead to a ton of whiffs, but it might also lead to more homers on the pitches the hitters make contact with. Maybe his fastball is good enough to complement his slider, but the extra dingerz are part of the reduced velocity package now. Maybe his spotty control thus far has made him groove more pitches than he’s ever had to in his life.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’re reading too much into 36 innings. Twenty-seven percent of the fly balls he's allowed are leaving the park, which is a crazy number. That screams "fluke." But the number of first-pitch strikes he’s throwing is down from last year, which lends support to the spotty-control-and-pitch-groove theory. "Spotty Control and Pitch Groove" was also a great Bootsy Collins solo project, which should count for something.
I’m not worried. Old-timers do tend to fall apart quickly, but it shouldn’t happen like this. If the swing-throughs are still there, the success should still be there (at least in part). He’s fun to watch, and once he gets a handle on the homers and the walks, he’ll be a top-tier pitcher. You know, just like every pitching prospect that’s ever come through the organization – once the walks and hittable pitches stop, the magic can truly begin!