Monday, April 16, 2012
Halladay-Lincecum and legacies of Koufax
By David Schoenfield
In the 1963 World Series, Sandy Koufax destroyed the Yankees in two starts, striking out 15 hitters in Game 1 and then winning 2-1 in Game 4. The Yankees, winners of 104 games, lost in four straight, prompting Yogi Berra to say about Koufax, "I can understand how he won 25. What I can't understand is how he lost five."
That's sort of how I feel whenever I watch Roy Halladay pitch. He's a completely different breed of pitcher than Koufax, who combined a blazing fastball with a big curveball. Koufax had that classic 1950s style windup where he reared back and came straight over the top with a big stride. Whereas he basically relied on two pitches, Halladay has an apparently endless arsenal of pitches, from two-seam and four-seam fastballs, to a cutter, curveball, splitter, kitchen sink, garbage disposal and weed whacker. Dizzy Dean used to name his pitches; maybe Halladay should do the same. Halladay is more scrunched up in his delivery and lands on a stiffer front leg and doesn't match Koufax's raw power, but somehow throws his pitches with exacting precision even though they move and dart all over the place.
He's really something to watch, but I suspect you know that already. From 1962 to 1966, when he won five straight NL ERA titles, Koufax had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.57. Halladay has topped that in six different seasons and will likely make it seven this year considering he's walked just one batter in his first two starts. And keep this in mind: While offense levels have certainly dropped in recent seasons, they're still not quite as low as they were in the 1960s when Koufax was at his peak. From '62 to '66 the National League hit .253 and homered every 42 at-bats. Last year, the NL hit .253 and homered every 38 at-bats. But that was the worst offensive output during Halladay's career; it's been higher in other seasons. Koufax also had the advantage of pitching in Dodger Stadium, arguably the best pitcher's park in the league back then with its infamous high mound. Koufax's curveball must have seemed that it was dropping straight down from the top of Sulfir Canyon.
Halladay is on the mound Monday night to face Tim Lincecum, the first matchup of two-time Cy Young winners since Johan Santana and Randy Johnson in 2009. Lincecum, although right-handed, modeled his own delivery on Koufax's. While he's listed at just 5-foot-11, Lincecum makes up for it with a long stride. As Tom Verducci wrote in Sports Illustrated in 2008, the average pitcher's stride is 77 to 87 percent of his height; Lincecum's is 129 percent. He learned that mechanical marvel from his father, who taught his son by studying videos of Koufax.
While Halladay has allowed one run over his first two starts, Lincecum has struggled, giving up 11 runs in 7.2 innings and he's coming off the shortest outing his career.
"Eliminating all doubts in myself, that's the biggest thing I can do,” he told the local media. “Just go out there and have confidence in my stuff. … Whether it's 85 or 95 (mph), you've got to have commitment in it, and I think that's the biggest difference in having that mental edge."
It seems weird to say a mid-April start by a two-time Cy Young winner is an important game, but it feels like it. Giants fans are worried about his velocity and fastball command; maybe it's just early season panic, maybe the worry is legitimate. Maybe it will just take a start against the great Halladay to turn his season around.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.