By now, it is pretty much agreed upon that Randy Johnson is one of the top five pitchers in the last 20 years and one of the greatest lefties of all time. He is an individual that I loved watching take the mound and intimidate hitters like hardly any other pitcher during what has become known as the Steroid Era. 

It is also common knowledge that Barry Bonds, performance enhancers or not, was one of the best hitters of the last 20 years. Any argument against the fact can be pointed at almost any of his great years in the 90’s, which saw him plate three MVP awards. He also was notorious in bringing fear to opposing pitchers, often drawing the intentional pass, or pitched around to the same effect. 

Now, as you are reading these words, you are probably wondering why I would draw a comparison between a pitcher who has not been associated with steroid use and a hitter that is still going through the legal system in defense of alleged use of steroids (more commonly seen as abuse of steroids). I’m not disputing either fact in this article. 

Barry Bonds’ most famous nemesis, Bob Costas, to whom Barry referred to as “that little midget man”, and many others have stated repeatedly that the proof of Barry’s use of steroids, outside of his enlarged head, muscles, and stature, was in the fact that Barry was not only good from 2001-2004, but that he had gotten better. There is no arguing that those were Barry’s best years—from age 36 to age 39. 

During that time period, Mr. Bonds was one of the most escalated figures in the game. He, at a point, could have been seen as larger than the game itself. He broke Mark McGwire’s now admitted steroid abused 70 home run season with 73 of his own. During that incredible four year span, Barry won four MVP awards, hit .349, with a .559 OBP, earned a ridiculous 1.368 OPS,  and averaged 189 BB’s—71 of them intentionally. On top of that, he hit 209 home runs, averaging 52 per season.

Again, that is from age 36-39!  

Now, throughout my limited research, there is only one other person, who at a similar age, also got better at the later stages of his career and that would be Mr. Randy Johnson. Many people have not looked into this fact, or at least, I haven’t heard nor seen any reporting of this fact. If you know of a report, please do inform me.

Randy Johnson was also dominating in the early stage of his career with Seattle, leading the league in strikeouts four years straight from 1992-1995, with the highest total being 308 strikeouts in 255.1 innings in 1993. 

However, just like Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson showed the world that his best performances were held to later in his career when he put together four masterful seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

From 1999-2002, with four straight Cy Young Award seasons just like Barry’s four MVP’s, Randy Johnson led the league in strikeouts, averaging a whopping 354 per year (1,417 total) in an average of 254 innings (1030 total) over that stretch. He also led the league in ERA for three of those four years, posting three of his lowest ERA’s of his career, averaging 2.48.

During these four years, ages 35-38, Mr. Johnson also posted two of his three 20 win seasons, averaging as much over the four years and, as we know, adding a World Series title to his credit. 

When we do a wider comparison, Roger Clemens, over the same time period, ages 36-39, playing for the New York Yankees, averaged 189 strikeouts in 198 innings, with a 4.01 ERA. He had a Cy Young winning season in 2001 when he was 20-3 with a 3.51 ERA. An interesting note here would be that if we were to move the clock back a couple of years for Clemens, his two Cy Young Award winning seasons in Toronto would skew those numbers. 

Another contemporary, slightly younger still (33-36), was Greg Maddux, who, over the same time period, averaged a 3.07 ERA, 154 strikeouts, 225 innings pitched, and 18 wins. He didn’t win a CY Young Award (see Randy Johnson), was not once an all-star, but did win a gold glove each of those years. His numbers decreased even more in his late 30’s. 

There really is no comparison with Barry Bonds as far as age and career numbers in what has been labeled the Steroid Era. But, if you go back throughout history and look at some numbers, interested things are revealed.

Ted Williams from ages 36-39 had a batting average of .355 (hitting .388 at the age of 38) had a .490 OBP, a 1.144 OPS, all while averaging 29 home runs (the highest being 38, again, at the age of 38.)

Babe Ruth, from ages 36-39, averaged 36 home runs and batted .329, with a .470 OBP and 1.089 OPS. The interesting thing to note with the Sultan of Swing is that his numbers decreased with each passing year. 

Hank Aaron averaged 40 home runs during those ages, but the other numbers are much lower. Willie Mays doesn’t even compare.

In the end, Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson did the unthinkable. They actually got better with age. They are the only two players that I know of throughout the history of the game to do so. They both put up, in consecutive years, in their mid to late 30’s, numbers that do not compare to what they had done previously in their career, although they both had eye popping numbers in the 90’s.

It must be stated, I’m NOT making a case for Randy Johnson using steroids, nor am I trying to diminish what Barry did during the highlighted years. What they accomplished as individuals carry very striking similarities—similarities that cannot be matched by other individuals of the same age at any other point in the history of the game.

There are players that performed at a high level during those years…Warren Spahn, Cy Young, and Ty Cobb to name a few. But none of these players took their game to the next level later in their career.

It deserves recognition, and from my vantage point, praise. Whether or not they used performance enhancers matters little to me. I think it is truly remarkable and outstanding. 

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