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If there’s a common theme among the four newest members of the Hall of Fame, it’s that at various points early in their career, they had to change. Not who they were but where they pitched and, to some extent, what role they had.
Regardless of the location or their roles, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio were all deserving of becoming the third quartet to be elected into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA and the first since Joe DiMaggio headlined the 1955 class.
Johnson changed teams five times, going from Montreal to Seattle, Houston, Arizona, New York, and San Francisco. He began his dominant career by not being dominant consistently. He made 10 starts for the Expos before being included in a 1989 trade that landed Mark Langston from Seattle.
Upon reaching Seattle, Johnson foreshadowed glances of future dominance with thee double-digit strikeout games in 1989 and a no-hitter against the Tigers on June 2, 1990. However, the glances didn’t translate to consistent numbers as Johnson had earned run averages of 4.40 and 4.82 in his first two seasons with Seattle while putting together a pedestrian 46-48 record through the 1992 season.
Then in 1993 it took off for Johnson with 19 wins and 308 strikeouts. Two years later he dominated down the stretch for Seattle and helped get the Mariners to their first postseason appearance. By 1998, he changed teams going to Houston and dominating there and then the dominance continued with his amazing 2001 postseason for the D’Backs, and a perfect game in 2004.
By the time he reached the Yankees in 2005, he was not as dominant but in two years he won 34 games. Of course if you covered the Yankees at that time you’ll never forget Joe Torre going “By the way Randy Johnson has some back stiffness” on the the final Friday of the 2006 regular season.
In the end, Johnson had 97.3 percent of the vote, which is the eighth-highest of all-time. He had that percentage of the vote because of 303 wins, 4,875 strikeouts, the most all-time by a left-hander and second behind Nolan Ryan on the all-time list. He also was a five-time Cy Young award winner and a co-MVP of the 2001 World Series (19 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings).
For Martinez there were a number of significant changes.
First there was the change from the Dominican Republic to the United States when the Dodgers signed him. Then there was a season as a relief pitcher in 1993 and it was a really good one, 119 strikeouts, 107 innings, and a 2.61 ERA. For some inexplicable reason, the Dodgers didn’t think he would be an effective starting pitcher and five years after Johnson left Montreal, Martinez arrived.
And what an arrival it was. In four seasons he won 55 games, struck out 843 in 797 1/3 innings and considering two of those seasons were shortened due to labor issues imagine what he would have done had 1994 and 1995 been 162-game seasons. And perhaps the Expos might have been able to keep him. Instead by the fall of 1997, the economic realities led him to be traded to Boston.
And in Boston, he put together one of the most dominant seasons of all time in 1999. During that season he was 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA with 313 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings. He highlighted that dominance with seven straight double-digit strikeout games early on, a 16-strikeout game against the Braves and then double-digit strikeouts over his last eight starts.
Though he did not get 250 or 300 wins, Martinez was 219-100 and a three-time Cy Young award winner. During his years with Boston, he was 117-37 and had 72 double-digit strikeout games, numbers that warranted 91.1 percent of the vote.
Smoltz changed teams in the similar manner that Johnson did, just two years earlier. In 1987, the Tigers needed an experienced starting pitcher and decided on Doyle Alexander. The cost of getting him was Smoltz. Alexander won nine games in 1987 but two years later lost 18 and was out of baseball just as Smoltz’s career was starting.
For 12 years, Smoltz was a starting pitcher and a very good one, helping the Braves go from the basement of the National League to a consistent contender. Injury forced another change in 2001 to the bullpen and Smoltz had 154 saves from 2001-2004 and then he went back to being a starter and won 44 games from 2005-2006.
He was equally as good as Johnson and Martinez in the postseason, going 15-4, including 7-0 in the Division Series and 6-2 in the League Championship Series.
Biggio could have joined Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in last year’s class but just missed by getting 74.8 percent of the vote. This year he jumped to 82.7 percent and ended the dubious distinction of being the only non-suspended member of the 3,000 hit club (Derek Jeter retired last season with 3,465 hits) to not be elected.
Like the others, change played a role in Biggio’s career.
He made his Major League debut June 26, 1988 and caught Jim Deshaies and Larry Andersen in a 6-0 win over the Giants. By the end of 1989, he started playing some center field and, in 1990, Biggio split time between both positions. Then towards the end of 1991, Biggio started playing some second base before moving there for good in 1992 just as a rebuilding team was starting to take shape.
That’s when his career took off.
From 1988 to 1992, he had a .272 average, 74 doubles, 24 home runs, 454 hits and 153 RBI in 483 games. After that he was a .283 hitter (2606-for-9209), with 247 home runs, 1,022 RBI and 594 doubles in 1,567 games.
The argument against him was the word compiler but if he wasn’t good enough with four seasons over .300, seven seasons over .290 and 10 over .280 then he might not had the chance to continue putting up numbers.
Mike Piazza would have made a great fifth member to this historic class but the four who made it were defined by how well they adapted to the various changes throughout their illustrious careers.