Monday, January 30, 2006

Question No. 1: Will Randy's Back Hold Up?

Today begins 12 Questions Facing the Yankees, a series dedicated to getting reasonably unbiased analysis regarding our beloved Yankees. The first order of duty: Randy Johnson and his achy back.

After posing this question, I came to the quick realization that I am completely unqualified to answer it. I don’t have a medical degree, nor have I taken copious notes on Randy’s injury history. And believe it or not, that kind of information isn’t just a Google search away. However, that doesn’t make it less of an issue for the 2006 Yankees.

Randy Johnson was acquired in January of 2005 for one reason: to become the dominant ace the Yankees so desperately needed. Pitching defined the glory years, and 2004’s collapse was mainly blamed on the pitching staff, so acquiring someone of Randy’s caliber was only logical. The snag in this plan: he was 41 years old at the time of the acquisition, so it was/is only a matter of time until he is physically unable to sustain his streak of dominance.

Dominant he wasn’t in 2005, or at least not consistently dominant. We all saw flashes of his brilliance sporadically throughout the season: Opening Night against the Red Sox, a June 11th blanking of the Cardinals to slow a losing streak, out-dueling Tim Wakefield in a 1-0 win vs. Boston in September, and back-to-back trouncing of the Orioles to finish the season. But mixed in there were wholly disastrous outings – remember 7 runs against Tampa Bay?

This is quite an issue, since no one else on the staff looks capable of being a No. 1 starter. Randy is 42 now, and we all know the story about muscles degenerating over time, especially beginning in your 30s. His back isn’t getting any more sturdy, and I think it’s safe to assume he’s not working it out a whole ton this off-season.

As I said, I’m not exactly qualified to comment on the state of Randy’s back. However, I did notice that he has only spent significant time on the DL twice in his career, missing most of the 1996 season with – surprise, surprise – a back injury, and then again in 2003, missing several weeks, but this time it was the knee. The 1996 back injury shouldn’t be of much concern, because he’s done little but dominate since that incident. The 2003 knee injury was a sprain and merely required arthroscopic surgery. Not like it’s a chronic problem or anything.

I don’t think anyone (reading this site) can say with any degree of certainty whether Randy’s back will or will not hold up in 2006. So I guess the question should be geared more towards his performance in 2006, barring injury. Let’s look at some trends from 2002, 2004, and 2005 (we’re leaving out his uncharacteristic and injury-riddled 2003 season).


Doesn’t look too pretty, does it? Of course, many will attribute Randy’s decline in 2005 to his constantly nagging back, but that doesn’t make me feel better one bit. As I said plenty of times before, we can’t prove that his back will be any different in 2006. Three noticeable observations:

  • Strikeout rates are expected to decline in a move from the NL to the AL, but losing two strikeouts per nine is a bit excessive. Pitchers may whiff their share, but I don’t think Randy consistently struck out two of them per nine innings.
  • His walk totals, on the other hand, have been rather impressive. He’s never been regarded as finesse, but declining walk rates cannot be ignored.
  • That 1.28 homers per nine rate hurts. It hurts a lot. The only saving grace is that after surrendering four homers in one inning to the White Sox in August, he only allowed three more for the rest of the season – and one of those was off the bat of Manny Ramirez, which is forgivable.

All of this analysis and attempted prognosis of Randy’s back has reminded me of one indisputable fact: I’m just a fan. You’re just a fan. Everyone not on the payroll of a Major League Baseball team is just a fan. As fans, we’re all prone to bias and subjectivity, and when it comes to a situation like Randy’s, that bias is only intensified. We all want to believe that Randy will be the pitcher that won five Cy Young awards, that he’ll provide the dominance the Yankees have needed for so long at the top of the rotation. But when scrutinizing the numbers, this seems a much more remote possibility than most of us are willing to admit. I’m not trying to be the guy who says, “I told you so!” when Randy falters early on. In fact, I want to be wrong on this issue.

The problem here is that I don’t know Randy. I’ve never sat down and interviewed him, so I can’t speak to his character. The media portrays him in a certain light, but that can’t be trusted because the media paints a character as they see fit. What I do know is that in order for Randy to be Randy, he’s going to need the passion and fury that he possessed in Seattle and Arizona. He has the psyche to pitch in New York; that much we learned last year. Maybe not early on, when he routinely made excuses for his woes, but later on when he bore down and threw his heart out. I’ll even go so far as to say that his September 16th ejection against Toronto was evidence of this passion and fury. Now he’ll have to exorcise those intangibles throughout the 2006 season.

Because let’s face it. If Randy isn’t Randy in 2006, the Yanks aren’t going to live up to the expectations we as fans place on them.