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Monday, April 21, 2014
Monday reading list: Two on Koufax

By David Schoenfield

Joe Posnanski is ranking the 100 best baseball players of all time and the other day he wrote about Sandy Koufax, his No. 46 guy.

Koufax is one of the most difficult players to rank in a list like this due to his short career. His case raises the problems of factoring in peak value versus career value, not to mention postseason performance. Even Koufax's peak -- five great seasons, three of which were pantheon-level seasons -- is relatively short. Plus, he benefited from his time and place: A pitcher's era in a pitcher's park.

Joe writes:

At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.

– in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
– In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
– In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
– In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.

So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.


Overall, in his three monster seasons in 1963, 1965 and 1966 Koufax went 25-5, 1.88; 26-8, 2.04; and 27-9, 1.73.

Now, in retrospect we know Koufax gained a big advantage from Dodger Stadium. They probably knew that on some level at the time, but nobody really kept track of the numbers. What I always found interesting is that other pitchers were putting up big numbers in the same era, and yet it's Koufax whose legacy grew the largest. For example:




The point: Other guys were doing Koufax-like things at the same time. So why Koufax? (Not that Seaver, Gibson and Marichal are disrespected but I'm guessing more casual fans would be inclined to call Koufax the greatest pitcher ever over those three.) Maybe it's the two World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, including a Game 7 shutout in 1965, when the World Series still meant everything. Maybe it was pitching in Los Angeles. Maybe retiring early added to his aura; nobody saw Koufax grow old.

A recent article by Bill James on Bill James Online titled "Climbing the Stairway to Sandy Koufax" finally made my understand why. Bill wrote:
Since 1900 there have been only three seasons by a pitcher in which the pitcher had 25 wins, 300 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a winning percentage of .750. Those three seasons were by Sandy Koufax, 1963, Sandy Koufax, 1965, and Sandy Koufax, 1966.


So there you go. Those other guys came close and maybe did two of those things, but only Koufax has had a Koufax season. Vida Blue came close in 1971; if he'd gone 25-8 instead of 24-8, he would have had a Koufax season. If Steve Carlton goes 27-9 instead of 27-10 in 1972, it's a Koufax season. Randy Johnson came close.

The rest of the article is a fun look at isolating the best pitching seasons ever, or as Bill wrote, "trying to develop a protocol to make a list of the seasons worthy of the Sandy Koufax label."

A few other things to check out: