Perpetual Heat

What makes Randy Johnson the most feared Pitcher in baseball?


In baseball, left-handed pitchers have long been considered different, if not downright loony. The word "sinister" comes from the Latin word meaning "left." Johnson is certainly sinister on the mound, not just because he's a lefty, but because of his extreme height: He is 6 feet, 10 inches tall. "Basically, the game is designed in favor of a left-handed hitter and a left-handed pitcher," says Dr. Tom House, a Del Mar, California, sports psychologist who pitched for Atlanta, Boston and Seattle. "It has to do with angles, distance and time and the perception of those angles, distance and time."

Hitting is a matter of training and conditioning, and so when the ball comes from a discernibly different angle, namely from the left hand instead of the right, it can throw a batter off. The left-handed batter has an edge, some would say, because he's already two steps closer to first base when he stands at the plate. Common thinking is that left-handed hitters have trouble hitting off of left-handed pitchers.

Tunnel vision: Johnson leaves the field, oblivious to a teammate?s extended handshake.
Paolo Vescia
Tunnel vision: Johnson leaves the field, oblivious to a teammate?s extended handshake.
Big Unit is watching: A ballpark TV monitor captures the glowering game action.
Paolo Vescia
Big Unit is watching: A ballpark TV monitor captures the glowering game action.

"As a pitcher, you're supposed to have an advantage against a left-handed hitter simply because you can throw your breaking ball in to him and your release point may look like it's going to hit him," Johnson says.

It's no cakewalk for a righty, either.

"Randy, for the most part, pitches on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters," says Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor. "He stands on the left-hand side of the rubber. When he delivers the ball, his arm is at an angle that the right-handed hitter sees his arm where a second baseman would normally play. The illusion of that makes you think the ball is going to be on the outer part of the plate. Most pitchers, when they throw the fastball, the ball's pretty much coming in on a straight plane; his is coming on an angle."

Catcher Kelly Stinnett says that when Johnson is pitching, it's not uncommon for batters to jump out of the box because they think the ball is coming at them when it's coming right down the center of the plate.

"Hitters are looking for something that comes out of a pitcher's hand that looks inviting to swing at," says Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter. "There's not a lot that comes out of his hand that makes you think, "I could do something with that ball.'"

Johnson throws two pitches, a slider and a fastball, in fine-tuned gradations of speed and movement. The slider is a pitch that starts out like a fastball and breaks like a curve ball, only less and later. Johnson's moves 86 miles per hour or faster. The speed and movement of his fastball depends on where he grasps the ball. His two-seam fastball, according to Stinnett, moves four to six inches away from the hitter; like a rocket-powered moth, it flutters in at the low to mid-90s. His four-seam fastball comes straight in at 98 to 100 miles per hour, so fast that even experienced catchers look at the clock to see just how fast.

"When I'm catching and he hums one in there on an 0-2 count and I think it's hard, I look up there," says catcher Damian Miller. "Last year in Philadelphia, he hit 103 three times."

What's it take to hit a fastball? According to Terry Bahill, a University of Arizona engineering professor who wrote a book on the subject, it takes only 450 milliseconds -- less than half a second -- for the ball to travel from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt. And in that time, the hitter has to calculate its trajectory, figure out where the ball will be, and start swinging long before the ball gets there.

Add Johnson's height into the mix. Most pitchers are 6-1 or 6-2, nearly a foot shorter than Johnson. And Johnson's got longer arms.

"One foot of distance is three miles an hour to the hitter's eye, not in velocity," says House. "In other words, the gun's going to read the same, but if Randy releases his hundred-mile-an-hour fastball closer to home plate by one foot, it's 103 miles per hour to the hitter's perception."

And his stamina: Most pitchers hit the wall by the time they've thrown 100 pitches. Johnson likes to pitch the entire game, and he leads the league in complete games. As Showalter says, "He's throwing 98, 99 miles an hour with his 120th pitch."

As Stinnett adds, "I don't think Randy ever runs out of juice."


Outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, you used to worry about being mugged. Now you have to worry about getting run down by a $500 baby stroller pushed by some Gen X yuppie who's hopped up on Starbucks coffee. The neighborhood bars are also filled with yuppies instead of the traditional drunk old-timers who would occasionally lift their heads from the mahogany to shout at the TV; the only word you could ever understand was "bum," and from that you knew they were talking about baseball.But inside "The Friendly Confines," little has changed in the past 50 years or so. The grass is still cut in a crosshatch pattern that resembles the bad plaid on a cheap sofa in the typical Chicago rec room. And baseball here is still a daytime obsession far more important than workaday life. Upward of 40,000 fans a day come to see the Cubs and jeer the opposition during batting practice. They know the faces and names of every player and they call out insults accordingly.

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