Commentary

Unit always great, but never the best

Updated: June 4, 2009, 7:42 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Now that Randy Johnson has joined the 300-win club, it probably would be a good time to write about how he has been the best pitcher in the fantasy baseball era, a rock who always went first among his pitching brethren and finished first on the Player Rater. Hooray, Randy Johnson.

The only problem with that statement is it's not the case. During the past 20 or so years, as fantasy baseball has gone from a curiosity to, well, a billion-dollar industry, other pitchers have consistently seemed to get the nod over the Big Unit, be it in drafts or in October. Let's not let that get in the way of a good story, though. We should celebrate Johnson's accomplishment while putting his career into perspective for our game.

I'm as impressed as you are that Johnson actually made it to 300 wins, considering how roughly he started his career, and I don't mean to make light of what has been an incredible ride. Only Nolan Ryan has accrued more strikeouts. The thing is, for a while, strikeouts weren't a staple of fantasy leagues. It's hard to remember now, but back in the day, 4-by-4 was the thing in fantasy baseball, and strikeouts (pitchers) and runs scored (hitters) were added later. It really wasn't until 2000 or so when 5-by-5 leagues became vogue. Johnson has been the strikeout king post-Ryan, but for much of the 1990s, his greatest asset was blunted.

Even for those in 5-by-5 leagues, however, Johnson was rarely the top choice for starting pitchers in fantasy, although he always seemed to be close to the top when it came to draft day and the final results. Thinking back to when Johnson's career began and how I was playing fantasy then, it's amazing that we have a 300-game winner on our hands. From 1990 to '92, Johnson walked an average of 139 hitters per season. And we think Ubaldo Jimenez had control problems in 2008? Luckily, Johnson figured things out. Ah, if only Daniel Cabrera could do the same.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
Jed Jacobson/AllsportRandy Johnson was truly a "Wild Thing" when he was with Seattle.

Johnson was once a Montreal Expo, although he wasn't on fantasy owners' minds until he went to Seattle in the Brian Holman deal. (OK, Mark Langston was in the deal, too.) Although Roger Clemens, for example, was certainly useful in fantasy right away, and an absolute monster in his first full-time season of 1986 when he had arguably his best numbers, Johnson took his sweet ol' time helping fantasy owners out. In fact, the 24th pitcher to win 300 games -- and only the sixth lefty -- has had 236 of those wins after turning 30 years old. Johnson led the league in walks the first three seasons in which he made more than 30 starts and didn't win more than 14 games until he was 29. Fantasy owners waited. Then the Big Unit began to loom large in our game for 15 seasons.

After that, Johnson certainly made his mark as one of the top pitchers at our disposal, even if he often was ranked behind Clemens, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, three pitchers who usually would best Johnson in not only wins but also peripheral categories such as ERA and WHIP. Johnson did nothing wrong, of course, but he was a different kind of pitcher than say, Maddux, an overpowering type who posted high strikeout totals but didn't always bring the wins with them. Johnson did win 20 or more games in a season three times, one more time than Maddux did, but Maddux was far more consistent year after year, piling on 15 or more wins pretty much every season.

In the end -- and although it's not over, it's pretty close -- Johnson was fantasy's top pitcher two times, in 2001 and 2002 when he earned the last of his five Cy Young Awards with more than 20 wins, an ERA less than 2.50 and, of course, major strikeout totals. I think we can safely say this season won't be the third time he's fantasy's top arm.

Johnson has had other terrific seasons, but those two were statistically his best in fantasy. And that's the rub, I guess, when comparing him to Clemens, Maddux and Martinez: I remember multiple times when those guys were considered the obvious top fantasy pitcher on draft day. With Johnson, I can't recall it happening to a degree where you would be viewed as an idiot if you were to pass him up late in Round 1. If you let Maddux, in his prime, drop to Round 2, well, that was just crazy!

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDominance might undersell what Randy Johnson did while in Arizona.

Strikeouts have separated Johnson from just about everyone in baseball, but I think it took fantasy owners a while to forget about all those walks early in his career. By the time Johnson had bolted Seattle for a brief stop in Houston and then a terrific run in Arizona, walks weren't a problem. In this regard, he became a bit underrated.

Johnson was at his best as a Diamondback, posting his top four strikeout seasons, winning three ERA titles in a four-year span and earning four consecutive Cy Young Awards. He was king for a few of those years, but for much of his career, he was overshadowed. Martinez, for example, went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA in 1999 with the Red Sox and struck out 313 hitters. He went ahead of Johnson in fantasy drafts in 2000, even though Johnson was coming off a terrific year. In 1995, when Johnson went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA, Maddux went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA!. No, Maddux didn't have the strikeouts, but in a lot of leagues, it didn't matter then. And for 2005 drafts when Johnson left Arizona for the New York Yankees, kind of the precursor to CC Sabathia's being a bit overhyped for his big move to the Big Apple, Johan Santana had taken over the top spot for fantasy owners who needed pitching. That was Johnson, in a nutshell: There always seemed to be someone else to take first, but he was a nice consolation prize.

None of this should take anything away from how dominant Johnson has been. In a way, he has been more like Ryan than we might have realized, a strikeout machine capable of a no-hitter whenever he pitched. But for most of his run (non-Arizona years), he hasn't been the best in wins, ERA or WHIP. Ryan was like that, too. He ended up in the Hall of Fame, albeit with plenty of losses and just a 3.19 ERA. Johnson's career ERA is 3.29. Although he's kind of limping to the finish line at age 45 -- who wouldn't, right? -- with an ERA on the wrong side of 5 and scuffling for these final wins, Johnson remains very interesting for fantasy owners because of the strikeouts. It's not as if Maddux was a star pitching for the San Diego Padres, you know.

The bottom line on placing Johnson with his contemporaries when it comes to fantasy baseball is that he has 300 wins in his awesome career, while Clemens and Maddux topped 350 wins. That's a big difference. The difference in strikeouts, which didn't matter for many in the 1990s, isn't enough to make up for that. Martinez looks near done at 214 wins, and he didn't really have a longer prime than Johnson did. Santana hasn't done enough yet to be considered in this argument. In ranking the best pitchers of the fantasy era, I would have to place Johnson third, behind Clemens and Maddux but just ahead of Martinez. High praise, indeed, especially considering how the ride began.

Eric Karabell is a senior fantasy writer for ESPN.com. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He twice has been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Karabell by e-mailing him here.

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ESPN.com Senior Writer