Scouts weren't always on the mark
Ever know what your high school teachers really thought of you? Ever see what the college admissions officer wrote on your entrance essay? Ever see what the human resources director scribbled in the margins of your employment application?
Randy Johnson knows. It took nearly 27 years, but he now knows exactly what major league scouts thought of him in high school, in college and even in an Alaskan summer league.
He knows because we recently sat in front of his locker and thumbed through 20 major league scouting reports -- the first report written when he was an 18-year-old, 6-foot-9, 200-pound senior at Livermore (Calif.) High School in 1982. One scout described his upper body as "slender, concave chest."
The Thin Unit?
That was an inch and 25 pounds ago. That was 296 big league victories ago. It was 4,808 strikeouts, 4,055 innings, five Cy Youngs (four of them in a row), six teams, a bad back and one perfect game ago.
Yet one scout in 1985 wrote "NO PROSPECT" when describing Johnson in his report. Under "Abilities," it read, "I just can't project this delivery and arm action to the big leagues. May be prone to arm trouble and I question his ability to handle stressful situations on the mound."
I won't mention the scout's name, but here's guessing he's now living in a van down by the river. Meanwhile, Johnson, now with the San Francisco Giants, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, as my "Baseball Tonight" buddy Tim Kurkjian told me, one of the three greatest left-handers of all time, along with Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn.
Johnson is only a few days removed from taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He's also 45. Speed guns still whimper when he throws the hard stuff.
But back in April 1982, Johnson was a 6-9 baseball oddity. One scout wrote, "Randy threw well today; he is improving rapidly -- he showed excellent arm strength today. Needs work on CB [curveball] -- lacks command of his CB -- needs work on keeping the same release point for all his pitches."
Johnson's reaction when he sees the report nearly three decades later?
"I didn't even have a curveball back then," he says. "Honestly, high school? That was Livermore High. I didn't have a curveball back then. I think I just threw a fastball, and I had enough trouble throwing fastballs for strikes, let alone curveballs."
That same April of '82, another scout wrote, "Just about average [major league] velocity at the present time. Could get above-average when he gets some weight on him."
Johnson remembers these guys. They would sit in a section of the bleachers at his high school games. They were the guys with the radar guns.
A March '82 report said that Johnson's pitching delivery was "poor" and that "He will be a pitching coach's delight."
"Hmmph," Johnson says.
Another report, written by another scout a month later, noted the skinny Johnson wore an ankle brace (Johnson played basketball and received college scholarship offers to play that sport) and predicted his fastball would become no better than above-average.
"I guess I was pretty average back then," Johnson says.
"So these scouting reports sound about right?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "I think I threw harder. I guess according to them, I had an average fastball back in high school? Well, I don't remember who threw much harder than me. I'm not patting myself on the back, but that's about the only thing I really had going for me. I had velocity. But there were a lot more polished pitchers back in high school than I was. Watching those guys pitch, I thought those kids would make it to the major leagues a lot faster than I probably would."
Johnson has played baseball since he was 7. He played hoops three years in high school and had a full scholly offer to Saint Mary's. He also was given the option to play both sports at USC. But the big league scouts knew which sport was his favorite.
"This boy has a good arm and with some normal development I feel could be a fairly good pitcher," a scout wrote in March 1982. "Colleges interested. GPA 2.8. Wants to play baseball."
Johnson smiles. "Well, I had that going for me: I could be a 'fairly good' pitcher."
An April 1982 report said Johnson was worth a $30,000 signing bonus. Another scout filed this report after a "signability interview" with Johnson's parents: "I feel he will sign for around $40,000. I think he is a good prospect. I like him."
The Atlanta Braves drafted Johnson in the fourth round of the June 1982 amateur draft. He didn't sign. Instead, he went to USC, where scouts monitored him leading up to the 1985 draft.
The opinions: "Best velocity for LHP in area" "Learning to pitch" "Should become front-liner when maturity catches up to height" "Took him off last report, but would like to add him back on" "This kid will probably be some club's fairly high pick" "Threw an '8' fastball" [in scouting terms, an 8 rating means well above average] "Threw about 150 pitches and did not tire" "At 6-10 there is no one like him."
And there wasn't. And there hasn't been anyone like him since. He was singular then and singular now. Maybe that's why other scouts couldn't figure out how his talent and size would translate to the big league level.
That explains the "NO PROSPECT" rating by that one scout in April 1985. And: "Would be a reconstruction project" " A one-pitch pitcher" "Very seldom did he throw with the same point of release" "Threw 11 straight balls" " Dropped $10,000 [in bonus money]" "His size may end up being a negative" "Has a good arm, but I don't care for his delivery."
Johnson understands why he confounded everybody. That's because he confounded himself, too.
"Not only was I trying to grow into my body but I was trying to grow into something that nobody else really was, and that was a pitcher at 6-foot-10," he says.
More than half the reports mention how "hyper" Johnson is on the mound, how he pitches with such intensity and emotion. Little has changed in 27 years.
"Well, that's what's gotten me this far," Johnson says. "That's why I've dominated to this point now, because I used it to my advantage. Obviously, I needed to learn that, just like I needed to learn how to pitch. My emotions could be my best friend or my worst enemy, just like my pitches just like my inconsistencies."
I ask him about the 150-pitch count in a USC start. Wasn't that kind of high?
"I used to throw 135-140 [pitch counts] in the major leagues," he says. "So when I see someone coming out after 100 pitches, I kind of laugh, you know."
Then there's the April 1985 "Signability Questionnaire" that describes Johnson as an "extrovert."
"Well, that's changed, too, because now I'm an introvert," Johnson says.
He threw a perfect game his last start in high school. But it wasn't until 1992, seven years after he was drafted in the second round by the Montreal Expos and later traded to the Seattle Mariners, that he had his pitching epiphany.
It's a little inside baseball/seamhead talk, but Nolan Ryan and Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House noticed Johnson landed on his heel rather than the ball of his foot as he delivered the ball. Once Johnson corrected his landing, his release point became dangerously consistent.
"I guess the biggest thing you wonder is, how come no coaches could really coach me?" he says. "I'm not saying they didn't help me; they did help me. But it took forever for me to develop. Why?"
Because he was a baseball science project. Because nobody, including Johnson, knew he would become one of the greatest players to step on a baseball field. Think about it: Those guys sitting in the Livermore High and USC bleachers will be able to say, "I saw him when he was a teenager. Now he's headed for the Hall of Fame."
"But that's not what they thought," Johnson says.
Can you blame them? Who knew he'd win 296 games -- and counting?
Randy Johnson The Big Surprise.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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