Was Randy Johnson the best free agent signing since the strike?

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The one baseball playoff game I have ever been to in my life was game 2 of the 1998 NLDS. Astros vs. Padres, the 102 win team falling in the postseason as a result of scoring just three runs in their three quick losses, mainly thanks to Kevin Brown. I was thinking about this game a little more recently as I attended my second ever playoff game over the weekend, and what struck me about the 1998 Astros was how similar Randy Johnson was to CC Sabathia ten years later.

Johnson, 1998 for the Astros: 10-1 in 11 starts, 84.1 IP, 1.28 ERA, 116-26 K/BB, lost in the first round.
Sabathia, 2008 for the Brewers: 11-2 in 17 starts, 130.2 IP, 1.65 ERA, 128-25 K/BB, lost in the first round.

Now obviously Sabathia got dealt about a month earlier, and also racked up some more starts down the stretch as the Brewers were doing everything they could to stay in the race, but other than that these two have eerily similar stories. Long-time stalwart starter in the AL gets dealt to NL Central team that is relatively new to contending, dominates the league, disproves the “good pitching beats good hitting” corollary in the postseason, leaves as a free agent.

Now we all know that Sabathia got a monster contract, isn’t currently doing too hot, etc. etc. Throw his name in with Carl Pavano’s and the Yankee haters will all be happy. In fact, what astounds me so much is that it seems like lists of “worst free agent contracts” come up more often than “best free agent contracts”. Yet this is a society where a good sixty percent of us are in debt up to our eyeballs. I guess everyone is better off judging everyone elses finances.

Anyway, as I’m sure most of you figured where I’m going with this, Randy Johnson left the Astros for the Diamondbacks and a 4 year, $53.4 million contract. Now, it didn’t make Jon Heyman’s best free agent contracts list, probably because it wasn’t signed in 1993 or earlier and thus was actually bargained under fair terms. Also, because Randy Johnson wasn’t a star Yankees pitcher, which is a sin.

Over that four year span, Johnson did the following:
-Led the NL in ERA three of the four years, finishing with a paltry 2.64 in the year he didn’t,
-Went 81-27,
-Led the NL in strikeouts all four years,
-Won the Cy Young Award all four years,
-Led the Diamondbacks to their only World Series crown.

Fangraphs shows his 2002 season, the first which they really have in-depth data for, as a $22.6 million season where he was paid $13 million. I can’t imagine any of his previous three seasons being worth any less, and especially when you factor in the World Series, he probably gave the Diamondbacks at least $100 million of value at only $53.4 million over that contract.

Here’s the other thing about that Heyman article: only four other players on that list were examples of a signing of an in-their prime and awesome player that was bargained after the 1994 strike. And arguably, all four of those were much worse deals.

Fangraphs value
Johnson: Probably ~$100 million of value over four years for $53 million.
Ramirez: $114 million of value, $134.2 million of salary, not counting 2001, which was probably not much different from 02-06. A great deal for a superstar, but not in Johnson’s league.
Guerrero: Thus far, $71.1 million of value, $75 million of salary. Vlad still has a chance to end up with more bang for his buck than Manny if he pulls it together for the rest of this year, but again, this isn’t in Johnson’s league.
Ordonez: $64.4 million of value, $75 million of salary. Also has a chance to do more this year, but this contract is already heavily saved by his crazy 2007 season where he was worth $36.3 mil according to fangraphs.
Pudge: $31.6 million of value, $40 million of salary.

Neither of those four is in Johnson’s league. So was he the best free agent signing since the strike? He certainly wasn’t as valuable as some of the bargain free agents on a per-dollar basis, but he was a known superstar commodity and he contributed double what he was signed for in the modern baseball market. That’s something Sabathia will be hard-pressed to duplicate, anyway.

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~ by Rivers on 2009/04/30.

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