No. 46: Sandy Koufax

I was working on a completely different essay about Koufax. But in light of events in Overland Park, where I used to live, I expanded on something I wrote about Sandy Koufax on October 13, 2005 in the Kansas City Star — forty years after the Yom Kippur game.

* * *

A rabbi was speeding through Arkansas in the 1960s. Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of a joke? Micah Greenstein was the rabbi and he was trying to get back home for services; it was the day before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Greenstein was pulled over in West Memphis.

“What’s the hurry?” the police office said.

“i’m a rabbi on my way to …”

“What’s a rabbi?” the officer said, not gently. Rabbi Greenstein was beginning to worry that this was going to become very complicated.

“Well,” he said, “a rabbi is a little bit like a priest for Jewish people.”

“Yeah? Well, we don’t know much about that here.” The officer began to walk back to his car to call back to the office and start writing tickets and …

“Please,” Rabbi Greenstein pleaded. “I am trying to get to my congregation before Yom Kippur.”

And, with that the police officer just stopped. He walked back to the car.

“Yom Kippur?” he asked. “You mean the day Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch in the World Series?”

“Yes!” Rabbi Greenstein shouted. “That’s the day!”

“Well,” the officer said, “that’s an important day.” And he let the rabbi go.

* * *

If you look through baseball history, you will find that many of the greatest players were granted historical advantages. These were often just quirks of the time or places where they played, but those advantages still existed. Ty Cobb played in a time where defense was pretty iffy and if you hit the ball with some authority you would get hits. Babe Ruth played only day games against no players of color in a ballpark built for him. Walter Johnson threw a dead ball often heavy with dirt and spit and sweat — in 1913, the year of his famous 1.14 ERA, he actually led the American League in home runs allowed. He allowed nine home runs in 350 or so innings.

Ted Williams could hit anywhere, but it didn’t hurt his batting average to play half his games in Fenway Park — he hit .361 at Fenway in his career, .328 on the road. Roger Maris set the home run record in an expansion year with a short porch perfect for his swing at Yankee Stadium. Mark McGwire broke the home run record in a desperate time for baseball, just after they had canceled a World Series, when the strike zone was tiny and the balls lively and nobody tested for steroids. Bob Gibson had his extraordinary 1.12 season in 1968, the year of the pitcher, when the strike zone was high and the batters were slappy and the LEAGUEWIDE ERA was 2.99.

Few players in baseball history were ever given as many historical advantages as Sandy Koufax was given from 1963 to 1966, those four extraordinary years when he became a legend. In 1962, the Dodgers moved into a beautiful new ballpark, Dodgers Stadium, and it would make pitchers happy for the next 50-plus years. In 1963 — and I suspect the baseball powers that be did not fully understand the ramifications — baseball redefined the strike zone as “the top of the batters shoulders and his knees when he assumes his natural stance.” Baseball, like most sports, has always had lousy rule writers and this rule was particularly vague and game-altering.

A strike officially had been “between the batter’s armpits and the top of his knees.” You will note that while the new ruled kind of sounded the same, it wasn’t the same at all. Armpits became top of the shoulder. Top of knees became simply knees, which included the lower part of the knee. With one strange rule, baseball had introduced the high AND low strike into the game. This was obviously going to help every pitcher. But it helped one pitcher most. Nobody in baseball had a more unhittable rising fastball than Los Angeles’ Sandy Koufax. Nobody in baseball had a more fearsome 12-to-6 dropping curveball either. High strike. Low strike.

The Dodgers also decided to help Koufax out a little bit. The rule in 1963 was that the mound was to be 15-inches high, which is REALLY high compared to the 10 inches of mounds today. But there also was no real policing of the rule, so the mound in Los Angeles became one of the great wonders of baseball. “That mound (in LA) must have been 36 inches high,” pitcher Roger Nelson said in 1969, after the mound was lowered. “It was great — like stepping off a mountain.”

High strikes. Low strikes. Mountain mounds. It was a glorious setup for the man born Sanford Braun, whose mother remarried Irvin Koufax when Sandy was just 9. He’d been more of a curiosity than a great pitcher his first seven or eight years. He was 54-53 with a 3.94 ERA before the team moved into Dodgers Stadium. He led the league in strikeouts in 1961 and wild pitches in 1957. That about summed him up.

Then, from 1963-1966, he went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA. Yeah. Three times in four years, he pitched 300-plus innings and three times in four years he struck out 300-plus batters — in 1965 he struck out 382 batters, a record until Nolan Ryan beat it by one. He threw three no-hitters in those four years — one of them a perfect game — he had 46 games with 10 or more strikeouts and he had 29 shutouts, which is a dozen more than Pedro Martinez had in his entire career. And he was a World Series maestro. It was a glorious life packed into four years.

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.

Koufax had his disadvantages too — it’s easy to forget that. He played in an era without relief pitchers — he threw 60 and 70 more innings than any pitcher has thrown since 2000. He played on a team with a four-man rotation. He also played in an era where pitchers were used up and discarded. Nobody even bothered to count pitches then, and he was locked in so many pitchers duels (his Dodgers, for obvious reasons did not score many runs) that he was throwing so many of those pitches under duress. That undoubtedly contributed to his arm troubles and his retirement at age 30 when he was the best pitcher in the game.

Anyway, Koufax loomed larger than life. The Dodgers of the mid-1960s were something else — with Maury Wills stealing bases, with Vin Scully calling the games, with Hollywood stars watching in this jewel of a new ballpark, with Los Angeles growing at an unreasonable rate. And the starring attraction was Sandy Koufax, at the height of his power, in the perfect moment of time, pitching like no one ever had before and like no one ever has since.

And then, of course, there was Yom Kippur, 1965.

* * *

The 1965 World Series never gets enough credit for being awesome. This is probably because it featured the 1965 Minnesota Twins, who have been somewhat lost to baseball history. Can you name the manager of the 1965 Twins? That’s one of those baseball questions that will separate the casual from the intense. The answer is Sam Mele, a tough outfielder who grew up in New York, was pals with Ted Williams, once led the league in doubles and, later, was instrumental in the development of a young player from South Carolina named Jim Rice.

Anyway, that 1965 World Series had everything … great pitching, legendary performances, all sorts of drama. The Twins won the first two games to take a commanding lead. The Series shifted to Dodger Stadium where Los Angeles won three straight, two of them by shutout. In Game 6 a wonderful character named Mudcat Grant gave up just one run and hit a home run to force a Game 7. And that led, finally and inevitably, to Koufax.

But before all of that, there’s the Yom Kippur story. Koufax was not a particularly observant Jew. There are Easter Christians, who attend church once a year, and Yom Kippur Jews, who don’t really do much of anything Jewish except take off Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. Many Jews fast on Yom Kippur in order to show their devotion to God and atonement for their sins. Koufax did not fast. Like I say, he was not particularly observant. But he understood the symbolism of what he was doing.

There was a history of Jewish baseball players making a public stand and taking off Yom Kippur. You might remember from No. 74 on the list that Hank Greenberg once made national news by sitting out on Yom Kippur with his Detroit Tigers in a pennant race. It captured America’s attention in a time when there was a strong anti-semitic strain in the American life. But Greenberg’s choice came in September — the Jewish calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar so Jewish holidays will bounce around pretty dramatically.

Greenberg’s Yom Kippur was September 19, 1933.

Koufax’s Yom Kippur was October 6, 1965.

There’s reason to believe that while Koufax did understand the significance of sitting out, he didn’t think it was really that big a deal. After all, he was only pushing his start back one day. And it’s not like he was the only Hall of Fame pitcher on that Dodgers team. “They had Don Drysdale!” Mudcat Grant would say. “And he was awfully good.”

Still, Koufax felt like he needed to honor his faith and, even more, honor the Jewish fans who looked to him. To Jewish people all over America, Koufax sitting out Game 1 of the World Series would become legend, a lesson at every Jewish school in America.

“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” Walter Sobchak tells the Dude in “The Big Lebowski. “You’re goddamn right I’m living in the (bleepin’) past.”

That much is easy to understand. But what was particularly special was how Koufax’s sacrifice was viewed in non-Jewish circles. Baseball, of course, has had its dark moments, its painful secrets and more than its share of scandals. But every now and again, baseball has shown the way. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — as Buck O’Neil used to say — that was before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Martin Luther King had even graduated college. When Sandy Koufax rested on Yom Kippur in 1965, a young baseball fan in a small Kansas town took note.

“I didn’t know any Jewish people,” Bill James said. “The ins and outs of the Jewish religion were something of a mystery to me. … My only awareness that Yom Kippur existed came from seeing it on calendars. We used to have those farm seed calendars that highlighted every holiday with a little picture. The picture for Yom Kippur, I believe, was a candelabra.

“This is all I knew about the occasion until 1965. … Then, there were questions. Was it something every Jewish person would do? Or was Koufax very religious? And what was the exact significance of Yom Kippur?”

There are many great stories that go along with Koufax’s decision — my favorite being that Don Drysdale got knocked around that day and when Dodgers manager Walter Alston came to take him out, Drysdale said: “Hey skip, bet you wish I was Jewish today too.”

But perhaps the most telling part is how it all ended. Because the Koufax legend did not build because he would not pitch on Yom Kippur. It came from what followed. Koufax did not pitch memorably in Game 2 — he only went six innings — but he came back for Game 5 and threw a four-hit shutout. After Mudcat Grant’s heroics, Koufax came out to pitch Game 7 on two-days rest. Here’s the thing was most special about it: Game 7 was NOT at Dodger Stadium. It was not off the the high mounds. That game was at Metropolitan Stadium on a chilly, overcast day in front of more than 50,000 wild Twins fans.

When you look at the greatest postseason performances ever, you will think of Jack Morris’ Game 8 in 1991 — that was at home. Don Larsen’s perfect game: Home. Bob Gibson’s 17-strikeout game against the Tigers: Home. Randy Johnson’s absurd three-hit shutout against the Yankees in 2001: Home.

Koufax though went on the road, on two days rest, and he threw perhaps his greatest World Series game, a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout where he did not allow a single runner to reach third and struck out the last two batters.

So, yes, he missed Game 1 for Yom Kippur, but he still pitched three times in that World Series, threw two shutouts, and was at his best in the biggest moment. That’s what made it legendary. If he had given up nine runs in Game 7, well, Jewish fans might still look fondly on Koufax’s decision to sit out for his religion. But the rest of the Dodgers fan base probably would not.

107 thoughts on “No. 46: Sandy Koufax

  1. Richard Aronson

    You wrote: who rules this this help most.” which is so muddled I can’t even suggest a correction.

    Reply
    1. Richard Aronson

      And at the end: he did not allow a single run to reach third ” should be runner, not run.

      I still have the ticket stubs and scorebook from Koufax’s perfect game. Yes, Koufax’s numbers were enhanced by Dodger Stadium, just as they were battered at Ebbets Field and the Coliseum. His career home OPS was .573, road .616, which is not an extreme split. If he’d been able to pitch as many innings in Brooklyn and the short short left field in the Coliseum as he did in Dodger Stadium, they’d be even closer. Three of his five seasons with more than 10 K/9 IP were before Dodger Stadium opened, so Koufax was pretty awesome. He contends it wasn’t until he’d thrown 1,000 innings or so that he finally mastered his delivery, and that if he’d been allowed 2-3 minor league seasons of full time pitching, he’d have been better sooner. I believe him.

      Thanks for writing,
      Richard

      Reply
      1. Guest

        Actually, it is clearly “whom” not “who”, but I don’t want to be that guy, so nevermind (ripkc).

        Reply
  2. 18thstreet

    Great piece.

    The Bloody Sock game was on the road. Schilling made 55,000 New Yorkers shutup, just as he promised he would.

    Reply
    1. Ian

      As nice as that game was for Red Sox fans, a 7 inning, 4 hit, 4k, 1 er outing doesn’t really compare with the others that Joe listed.

      Reply
      1. 18thstreet

        Okay. But the story of that game is hardly in Schilling’s pitching line.

        Willis Reed didn’t play all that well, either.

        Reply
        1. bellweather22

          Willis Reed had four points and three rebounds in that game. Walt Frazier, the real star of the game, had 36 points and 19 assists. Schillings contribution was far greater despite the narrative of Reed “playing on one leg”. Reed’s team stepped up while the Lakers gagged again as they regularly did in that era, winning only one championship despite having four HOFers on the team.

          Reply
          1. Herb Smith

            1. The Willis Reed comparison was the absolute perfect analogy. Just the fact that he suited up at all was huge, and Madison Square erupted when he came out. Schilling has a special surgery just so he could pitch Game Six; how can anybody possibly insinuate that he wasn’t a gamer?

            2. Everyone knows Clyde Frazier was sterling player, but his performance in “The Willis Reed Game” has to stand out as one of the all-time great Game 7 performances, in ANY sport. His team was playing without their superstar center, their leader, the guy guarding Wilt Chamberlain. Frazier just took over. His 19 assists attest to the fact that he basically ran the Knick’s offense. Was he cool under pressure? How about 12-of-12 at the free throw line, on his way to 36 points. And remember, he was known as a DEFENSIVE star. Thus, he did all this while having to guard Jerry West on the other end of the floor. West is basically one of the 10 best players in the history of the sport, and was in the absolute zenith of his prime.

            3. Schilling, for all his negatives (mostly personality-based) was a truly great big-game pitcher. That rep was cemented long before the bloody sock game.

          2. EnzoHernandez11

            You’re absolutely right about Reed. The media are suckers for a good narrative, but it was really Clyde’s moment. Sure, Willis Reed unexpectedly suited up and scored a handful of points. So what? The idea that professional athletes can be taken out of their game by something like this is just preposterous.

            That said, I think you’re a little tough on the Lakers. In 1970, Baylor was pretty much finished and Goodrich was still in Phoenix. The Knicks were simply a better team, even without Reed. Once you got past West and Wilt, there wasn’t much in the cupboard.

          3. bellweather22

            Herb, I’m kind of at a loss why you believe Willis Reed is the perfect analogy to Schilling. Schilling allowed one run in seven innings, which is a nicely pitched game, deep into the game, that led the Red Sox to victory. Reed, on the other hand, played parts of one half, and basically was a brave rallying cry. I see there performances as being quite different. If Schilling laced them up, pitched three innings, gave up two runs and somehow “motivated” the Red Sox to victory, THAT would be the perfect analogy.

          4. Herb Smith

            bellweather, you’re right. I wasn’t responding to your post, I was responding to Ian’s post, in which he seemed to mock Schilling’s performance in the bloody sock game. I was trying to say that, sure, it wasn’t a Larsen perfecto, or a Koufax Game 7, but considering the fact that he was badly injured, just showing up at ALL was a big deal.

            As I read that post, my mind raced, trying to come up with a similar situation, an iconic one, that would explain how important Schilling’s moment was. 18th Street’s post nailed it, and I was impressed that he’d thought of it.

            But yeah, Schilling’s performance was quite a bit better than Willis Reed’s.

  3. PhilM

    Is Koufax the pitcher version of the “overrated/underrated” debate? No question he was a meteor who burned brightly and quickly, like Dizzy Dean: but the mystique of going out on top coupled with the untouchable fastball and curveball and the historic strikeout and ERA numbers made him a legend in his time. I get a lot of grief in my baseball classes when I state that Koufax must be considered in context (like everyone): and as Bill James says, “I wasn’t there,” so I only have the numbers and stories to go on.

    Reply
    1. wordyduke

      I wasn’t there in person but I was in front of the teevee. His fastball was observably faster and the break on his 12 to 6 curve couldn’t be missed, unless you were trying to hit it.

      Reply
  4. Ian

    Agree about the 65 series. That Twins team was pretty good – Versalles was a deserving MVP that year, Killebrew was healthy, Oliva, Battey, Allison gave them some threats. The rotation of Kaat, Grant, Pascul and Perry was great – they had a 114 ERA+ (Dodgers had a 116). Great world series.

    Reply
  5. Dave

    Two comments:

    1. Joe, you write that Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch was perfect was Maris’ swing. It might be the other way around, that he developed his swing to take advantage of the short porch. In 1960, he hit 39 homeruns, 13 at home, 26 on the road. In 1961, he hit 61, 30 at home and 31 on the road. It would seem he learned to jerk the ball down the line for his historic season.

    2. I can’t find the discussion but somewhere in the James’ historic almanacs (original or revised) he has a discussion of Koufax’s record when the Dodgers scored few runs for him during his four year peak. The stat was something like “What was Koufax’s record when the Dodgers scored 1 or 2 runs for him?” or “What was Koufax’s record when the Dodgers scored 1, 2, or 3 runs for him?” I don’t remember which. He won around 90% of those games. The scoring environment doesn’t really matter that much–in close games, he dominated and that was home AND away. For a teenager who rooted for another NL team, it was a pleasure to watch him work.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      I always find Maris’ splits to be fascinating. In 1960, he had only 13 HRs at Yankee stadium and 26 HRs away. Then 19 Home and 14 away in 1962. Then 11at home, 12 away in 1963 and 10 at home 16 away in 1964. It certainly didn’t fit the narrative.

      Reply
    2. Another Mark

      In the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract he reports on researching Drysdale’s record in close games in 1963 and 1964 and, while doing so, realizing Koufax was phenomenal, going 18-4 in games when the Dodgers scored 1,2 or 3 runs during those two years..

      Reply
      1. Dave

        Thanks. I now looked under Drysdale and found the discussion; my memory wasn’t too bad.. And to the above above comment, yes, Koufax pitched “to the score” as in zeroes a lot of times. I wish it had been a 8 or 10 year span instead of 4, but whether a pitching era or not, that was an amazing performance

        Reply
  6. Faye Schlift

    Koufax took some years to develop but showed flashes of brilliance along the way.In
    1959 he tied the then record for most strikeouts in a game with 18.

    Reply
  7. Rick Rodstrom

    One indicator of how hard Koufax was to hit was that he tipped his pitches. His wind-up and delivery were different for his fastball and curve, and sometimes Koufax would advertise that he was throwing a curveball by snapping his wrist before his wind up. So hitters always knew what was coming from Sandy, and they still couldn’t hit it.

    Reply
  8. 543mexico

    I’m still concerned Phil Niekro probably won’t be in this 100-list. Better than Koufax? No. But out of 100?

    Reply
      1. DM

        My guess is that if Niekro hasn’t made it by now, he won’t make it. I think he could have easily been a top 100, but I don’t think there’s room for him at this point. Although he rates well by WAR, I’m guessing Joe will look at that and conclude that a lot of that is attributable to the high number of innings pitched as opposed to the quality of the pitching. I suspect that his career ERA+ of 115 will work against him, and his lack of opportunities to have big post-season moments (one game in each of 2 NLCS playoffs, and that’s it) won’t help either. Not saying that’s his fault, because it’s not. To perform as well as he did on generally bad teams was pretty impressive, but it makes it tough to shine in situations like that. I think at this level, there’s no room at the inn….but I could be wrong. Just my prediction on how I think Joe might have evaluated him.

        Reply
    1. Geoff

      As has previously been discussed, Niekro is pretty clearly better than Koufax. However, there’s no way he’s making the list at this point unless there’s a major upset.

      Reply
  9. Pip

    Okay, can I please ask why sportswriters/fans insist on using the “he never played a night game” argument AGAINST older players? Players today despise day games, and almost UNIVERSALLY prefer to play at night. You can see the ball better (especially because every ballpark in America has a hitter’s eye build in), you don’t have to mess around with your circadian rhythm, etc. Seriously, how is “he didn’t play ay night games.” a knock on older players?

    Reply
    1. robert magee

      Pip

      you answered your own question – all day games HELP your circadian rythmn. it is the shift from night to day and more frequently changing time zones
      That is the big factor

      Reply
  10. DjangoZ

    “Mark McGwire broke the home run record in a desperate time for baseball, just after they had canceled a World Series and nobody tested for steroids.”

    Fixed it for you. It’s 2014, writing that “lively balls” were a part of McGwire hitting home runs is embarrassing.

    Reply
    1. fookfook

      I disagree. Lively balls and whip-handled bats and new smaller ballparks were absolutely factors. Meaningful factors.

      Honestly, McGwire was going against pitchers who threw faster than ever before, many of whom were taking steroids, others of whom had their careers salvaged by Tommy John surgery.

      Pretending that steroids, and specifically steroids for sluggers, was the only factor–that’s a touch embarrassing.

      Reply
      1. tombando

        Haw. Louis Gonzalez, Sosa, Brady, Finley, Raffy are all explained by one thing and one thing only: Roids. Roids Roids. Pretending that bats or park f/x were as big a reason for the Barry Bonds era bastardization of the game is not only embarrassing, its moronic. Have a chocolate Canseco bunny.

        Reply
        1. Chris Mulrain

          how do you explain Griffey’s 600+ homers then? I have no doubt steroids helped those guys, but I also have no doubt that there were plenty of other factors that led to league wide explosion of offense.

          Reply
        2. Geoff

          Tombando’s continued participation in this forum is explained by one thing and one thing only: troll, troll, troll.

          Please go away already…your comments give me a headache.

          Reply
      2. Spencer

        @fookfook

        Agree 100%

        Well put. I think people reach for simple, non complicated answers. That era is more complicated than “steroids”. Expansion diluted talent and allowed stars to shine greater. Pitchers did steroids as well.

        Reply
        1. KHAZAD

          Pitchers doing steroids also contributed to the overall increase in home runs. Faster pitch speed + faster bat speed = more home runs.

          Were there other factors? Sure. Bats have gotten better. The strike zone WAS tiny. Even non steroidal pitchers threw harder as scouts began to live and die by the radar gun. Some think the ball was made livelier as well. Add in Mcgwire’s steroids and it was a perfect storm.

          Ballpark size was not a big deal though. Mcgwire played in a big park and in a division with several of them. The average park size in the 90s was nowhere near the smallest in history.

          Reply
        2. edfromyumaaz

          Hey, it’s easy to trash Bonds, but he didn’t create the steroids era. He watched as lesser talents or no talents like Sosa etc earned great contracts, got kissed by Bud Selig, and turned into heroes. He just wanted to show America what would happen if a truly great player juiced. He was, he did, and finally people realized that something had to be done. Of course the fact that he was black made him all the more objectionable as a national baseball hero. But if you want to blame anyone, the blame falls on Canseco, McGwire, Larussa, and Selig.

          Reply
          1. Dave S

            I agree that blame for the steroids era doesn’t fall on Bonds alone, and that Selig bears much of the blame. I’d add that general managers, managers, team doctors and trainers, teammates, agents, and sportswriters were equally complicit. They all knew what was going on and refused to do anything about it, either publicly or privately. They elected to defer the inevitable damage this news would cause as a less important matter than the ongoing recovery from the damage of 1994.

            That said, it sounds like you are suggesting that Bonds’ steroid use was an altruistic exposing of the widespread steroid use. Bonds’ motivation was pure jealousy that inferior (and in some case significantly inferior) players were surpassing him, in the news and in the record books.

            Worse, though, is your insinuation that popular objection to Bonds was because of his race. Of course, there are racists and racism. But the preponderance of baseball fans – certainly during Bonds career – gladly embraced a black man as a national baseball hero (Griffey and Puckett leap to mind). And conversely, I’ve seen Clemens (a white guy) fall just as far as Bonds in the steroid aftermath.

            Outside of his hometowns, Bonds was largely seen as surly and selfish and was therefore never a popular player to begin with. But what made a popular embrace of Bonds’ steroid-assisted achievements objectionable was more to do with his lying and obstruction during the Balco proceedings. He even allowed Greg Anderson, his steroid provider and childhood friend, to languish in prison for months. This flaunting of the legal system, much like Palmeiro wagging his finger at Congress, will never be seen with favor. On top of that were the intelligence-insulting lies, which are especially hard to abide, as Ryan Braun (a white guy) was recently made to understand.

  11. Marion Pomeroy

    A few years ago I was listening to the audio book of Jane Levy’s “Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy” while driving to an interdenominational meeting of religious leaders associated with the University of Houston. I had just heard the Yom Kippur story when I arrived, and when I walked into the building (a bit early) only the Rabbi and his young intern were there. The intern was a young woman in her early twenties, and I asked he if she had ever heard of Sandy Koufax. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Yes, of course!” I then asked her to tell me about him, and all she knew was that he played some sport–she didn’t know which, and that he had not played on Yom Kippur.

    Reply
      1. Dave

        The legend grows! It just proves that he played in the first WS, along side Cy Young when Boston beat Pittsburgh 5 games to 3. :-)

        Reply
  12. BobDD

    I remember debates about who was the 2nd best pitcher – Marichal or Gibson (Ford? Jenkins? Maloney? Chance? lots of good pitchers in the pitcher’s era of course) – but there was never any question during those four years who was the best. You could have forgiven someone for thinking ‘overpowering’ was Sandy’s middle name.

    This is probably the one I am the most off on cuz I had him at #97 based on length of prime and career.

    Reply
    1. Herb Smith

      True, but the first one came in ’62, before the team moved to Dodger “Pitcher’s Park” Stadium. I think that was the point that Joe was trying to make, although, like you, I was confused.

      My dad used to talk about what a big deal it was that Koufax had broken the Bob Feller and Cy Young “record” of having thrown three no-hitters. And he did it with a Perfect Game, a game so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page. A 14-strike-out perfecto, no less. And against a lineup that had a 3-4-5 of three HOFers in their primes, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. Not a bad outing.

      Reply
      1. Bill Caffrey

        It’s not that confusing. Joe was explicitly talking about Koufax’s numbers during the 4-year period from 1963-1966 when he said three no-hitters. Koufax’s first no-hitter was in 1962, before the 4-year period Joe is discussing in the paragraph in question.

        Reply
  13. Michael Green

    I have read that originally, Dodger Stadium also didn’t have very good lighting.

    That said, the story gets better. In Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, John Roseboro kept calling for a curve and Koufax kept shaking him off. Finally, Roseboro went to the mound and asked why he wouldn’t throw a curve. Koufax replied, “Because I don’t have one today.” Rosey thought for a second and then Koufax said, “&*^% ‘em, we’ll fastball ‘em.” He pitched that game without a curve ball for at least six innings. Think about it.

    Anyone who hasn’t read Jane Leavy’s book on Koufax has really missed a terrific book.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      Never let facts get in the way of a good story:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeKbktNm0Mk

      First CB (actually, I think the first pitch of the game was also a CB, but the angle was bad) is to the Twins’ #2 batter, Joe Nossek (what the &*$# was he doing hitting second?), at 20:03. The next pitch is also a CB, before he gets a groundout on a FB down. Next hitter was Oliva…first pitch strike with a, yep, CB. The only mound visit in the first was a visit from the pitching coach after Koufax walked Oliva and Killebrew back-to-back.

      Should I keep going?

      Reply
  14. Cliff Blau

    A couple of corrections on strikeout records. The single season record was and is held by Matt Kilroy. The single game record during Koufax’s career was held by Charlie Sweeney at 19.

    Reply
    1. Faye Schlift

      Ah, yes, the Sweeney game. Almost forgot that one. I was lucky enough to have been at the game (June 7, 1884). I took my grandson for his 14th birthday. Sweeney really had it going that day.

      Reply
      1. Faye Schlift

        What always stands out about that game was how many batters kept swinging
        at his high fastball with the count 5 balls & 2 strikes.

        Reply
  15. DM

    We started talking about Sandy Koufax so many posts ago, that I’ve been digging into his details for a while now. He’s certainly a very polarizing figure on a list like this, because it breaks down into the people that think he was a god (or, at least the “left arm of god”) vs. the people that feel his peak was just too short to merit mention among the tops of all time, especially since his numbers were so heavily influenced by time (the ’60′s) and place (“Dodger Stadium”).

    I’ve got so many things jotted down after researching his numbers that I felt like a long post would dilute them, so I’m going to throw out a few things at a time as I can. I should mention that I would have had Koufax a little further down on the list (maybe around #60 or so), mainly because there are so many players that had BOTH great peaks and great, lengthy careers, but I certainly understand why he has a case for being this far up.

    The first observation is that people often focus on the incredible home performance from ’62-’66 at Dodger Stadium. Overall, Koufax had a 1.95 ERA during those 5 years, which split into 1.37 at home and 2.57 on the road, and therefore people conclude that he was primarily a product of his home field. Well, that’s partially true. The home ERA was incredible, and that was a major factor in his league-best 1.95 ERA over that time. That was a big gap over the #2 man, Juan Marichal.

    Here’s the best overall ERA’s during that time (I used 700 or more innings as a cutoff, although I allowed McDowell because he was so close):
    Player – Total IP – ERA
    Sandy Koufax – 1,377.00 – 1.95
    Juan Marichal – 1,455.67 – 2.50
    Gary Peters – 897.67 – 2.56
    Don Drysdale – 1,533.00 – 2.75
    Whitey Ford – 1,016.00 – 2.76
    Dean Chance – 1,218.33 – 2.77
    Sam McDowell – 691.67 – 2.78
    Jim Maloney – 1,061.67 – 2.80
    Joe Horlen – 872.33 – 2.84
    Bob Veale – 814.00 – 2.86

    Now, obviously, Koufax owes a large part of that to his home park. Lowest home ERA’s during that time:
    Player – Total IP – Home
    Sandy Koufax – 1,377.00 – 1.37
    Don Drysdale – 1,533.00 – 2.27
    Sam McDowell – 691.67 – 2.29
    Gary Peters – 897.67 – 2.29
    Juan Marichal – 1,455.67 – 2.32
    Dean Chance – 1,218.33 – 2.45
    Eddie Fisher – 700.67 – 2.47
    Ralph Terry – 801.33 – 2.63
    Whitey Ford – 1,016.00 – 2.65
    Bob Shaw – 870.00 – 2.67

    So, clearly, Koufax (as well as Drysdale) really took advantage of the home park. For that matter, so did Dean Chance, as the Angels played in the same stadium during those years.

    However….when you remove everyone from the comforts (and advantages) of home, guess who’s #1 over this time frame on the ROAD? Yep, it’s still Sandy. Here’s the leaderboard:

    Player – Total IP – Away
    Sandy Koufax – 1,377.00 – 2.57
    Juan Marichal – 1,455.67 – 2.69
    Bob Gibson – 1,355.00 – 2.69
    Jim Bunning – 1,395.67 – 2.84
    Gary Peters – 897.67 – 2.85
    Gaylord Perry – 706.00 – 2.86
    Jim Kaat – 1,259.00 – 2.88
    Jim Maloney – 1,061.67 – 2.89
    Whitey Ford – 1,016.00 – 2.89
    Bob Veale – 814.00 – 2.91

    So, Koufax was #1 in BOTH home and road ERA during this time frame. Now, admittedly he didn’t dominate on the road like he did at home…….but still, no one was better, and he had a decent gap ahead of the two outstanding pitchers who were #2 and #3, Marichal and Gibson. I find it interesting that the 3 best pitchers (in my opinion) of the ’60′s rank 1-2-3 on this list. (I personally would rate them Gibson, then Koufax, then Marichal. I suspect Gibson is still to come on Joe’s list. I suspect Marichal didn’t make the cut, although I think he would have been a fine candidate to be somewhere in the top 100.)

    Also, the tremendous K/9 rate that Koufax achieved was not a by-product of pitching at Dodger Stadium. He had a 9.49 rate at home, and a 9.39 rate on the road over this time. The only ones striking out batters at that rate were Dick Radatz and Sam McDowell, both in many fewer innings. He was basically striking out batters like no one else at that time.

    So, if someone wants to conclude that the home performance over this time “made” his reputation, I understand that conclusion. It made his overall totals absolutely sparkling, and made his dominance more pronounced. He wasn’t as dominant on the road. But he was still pretty damn good. Over this slice of time, he was the best pitcher in baseball. Whether that’s enough by itself to elevate him far up on a list of all time greats? Well….depends on your perspective.

    More to come later…..Thanks!

    Reply
    1. mark

      So you’ve proven he was the best pitcher in the game — both home and road — for 4 whole years. Everyone knows that. I don’t think anybody disputes that. But if you measure him against all time, being the best for 4 years, when his numbers during those 4 years were inflated for all the reasons Joe said and everyone knows, he is nowhere near the 46th best of all time and is probably the most overrated player ever.

      Reply
      1. Tom

        Yes, Mark, just like you, everyone knows that Sandy Koufax was only good for four years, ’63-’66.

        Even though he led the league in ERA for five years in a row.

        Every one knows that ’62 doesn’t really count as being a fifth good year for Koufax. Leading the league in ERA at 2.54, as well as in WHIP, hits per 9 innings, and strikeouts per nine innings doesn’t really count for much. So that year pretty much sucked.

        And everyone knows that in ’61 he was really bad. Koufax only went 18-13, 3.52 ERA, led the league with 262 strikeouts, hits per nine innings, strikeouts per nine innings, and strikeout to walk ratio. Pretty close to awful, huh?

        I can see why the guy drives you batty.

        Reply
        1. Patrick Bohn

          When has anyone said Koufax was “really bad” in 1961, or that his 1962 “pretty much sucked”? Making absurd comments like that doesn’t help your case.

          Koufax was a fantastic pitcher. It’s impossible to look at his numbers and conclude he wasn’t an outstanding talent. But that does not mean he had a fantastic career. Those two things are decidedly different for a player like him (or Dean). If you view this list as being about the overall career a player had, well, I can see how this ranking might seem rather high.

          Reply
          1. Tom

            Okay, since the sarcasm was lost in translation, how about this:

            Who else was the best pitcher in baseball for four straight years? In fact, I will up the ante and claim it was five straight years, since Sandy Koufax led the league in ERA from 1962-1966.

            Walter Johnson never did that. Nor did Christy Mathewson, or Tom Seaver, or Roger Clemons or Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez. Not even Cy Young, for that matter.

            The closest is Lefty Grove with four straight ERA titles, and Grover Cleveland Alexander did it five years out of six..

            Some of the all time greats like Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, and Steve Carlton only led their league once.

            Of course, winning the ERA title consistently over a long period of time is not the only measure of greatness, nor perhaps even the best measure. But it’s certainly significant, and an incredible accomplishment.

            Sandy Koufax was not the greatest pitcer who has ever played the game, but he is certainly one of the best.

            I belabor the point to refue Mark’s silly assertion above that Sandy Koufax “is probably the most overratedd player ever.”

            The comparisons reveal what a ridiculous statement that truly is.

          2. DB

            Tommy Bond (5 great years and nothing else). What I think he is saying is not that Koufax was a great player but was he a top 50 of all time? 4 great years with 2 good years is not enough for me. Does it have to be 4 years as Bret Saberhagen was great for 3 years and good for 2 years and is not smelling this list. We never got to see Koufax’s decline phase so do you give him credit for a decline phase and add 6 or 7 years (20 WAR or so). It was not the war or segregation so I do not as injuries are part of the game. So to me, he is a top 100 player at best but not top 50.

          3. buddaley

            It is impressive that Koufax led the league in ERA for 5 straight years, but when considering ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark), he only led it twice in that period. In 1962 it was Gibson (151-143), in 1963 Ellsworth (167-159) and in 1965 Marichal (169-160).

            It remains impressive, but also provides additional context.

          4. buddaley

            To carry the point further, a number of pitchers had a longer string of ERA+ league leaderships than Koufax did:

            Walter Johnson: 3 in 4 years
            Grove: 4 in 4 years and later 4 in 5 years
            Seaver: 3 in 4 years
            Pedro: 4 in 5 years
            Clemens: 4 in 5 years
            Maddux: 4 in 4 years

            There may have been others, but the point is that using ERA+ makes Koufax’s achievement seem a bit less impressive, albeit still remarkable.

          5. kehnn13

            Since you mentioned Walter Johnson, take a look at his stats from 1910 to 1919. Every year but 1 (of those 10 years!) He was in the top 3 in the league for ERA (first 4 times). 8 of those 10 years he was 1st in WAR for pitchers. Taking a very specific item, like number of consecutive years with lowest ERA is kind of an arbitrary stat to try to use as a comparison.

        2. mark

          A guy can be great AND overrated. Just ask our host about Jeter. It’s definitely true of Koufax. I’m only a mild baseball stat-head, but I know of only one stat that measures pitching performance adjusted to ballpark and season, which is ERA+. According to BB Reference, Koufax’s big four seasons rank 58th (1966), 74th (1964), 106th (1965), and 304th (1963) all time. His 1962 season doesn’t make the top 500. And ERA+ is not ridiculously unforgiving to pitchers who pitch in dominant pitching times: Gibson’s 1968 “Year of the Pitcher” season ranks 7th all time.
          Now, not many people have 4 seasons in the top 304 like Koufax does. That’s still pretty impressive. I can’t sort by player so I don’t have the total number but there are not many and the names are generally super impressive, Pedro Martinez has 6 in the top 235, with 2 in the top 10 and 5 seasons ranking in the top 34. Greg Maddux had 8 in the top 304, also with 2 in the top 10. That’s heady company. But Kevin Brown also has four seasons that rank in the top 304, with his highest ranking 22nd (better than Koufax), and the 4th ranking 224 (better than Koufax). Plus he has a 5th season at #472. And Kevin Brown — understandably — doesn’t make many top 100 lists of all-time baseball greats. Joe might surprise me, but I don’t see it happening.
          Again, I realize ERA+ isn’t everything. I’m not ready, for example, to say Kevin Brown was better than Koufax, for example based solely on this. But it’s all I can go by for comparisons across time and park.
          Koufax was GREAT. Indisputably, clearly GREAT. 4 no-hitters in 4 years, one of them a Perfect Game. Wow! But most people think he was greater than he was, and that’s overrated..

          Reply
          1. DM

            Hi Mark,

            Fortunately, I have a way to sort, so I’ll chip in with this…..Here’s a summary of the ERA+ leaders on bb-ref, using # of seasons with an ERA+ of 150 or higher:

            Name – Times with ERA+ 150 or Higher
            Lefty Grove  – 10
            Greg Maddux  – 9
            Roger Clemens  – 9
            Walter Johnson  – 8
            Randy Johnson  – 8
            Christy Mathewson  – 7
            Pete Alexander  – 6
            Cy Young  – 6
            Pedro Martinez  – 6
            Kid Nichols  – 5
            Steve Carlton  – 5
            Mordecai Brown  – 5
            Roy Halladay  – 5
            Kevin Brown  – 5
            Vic Willis  – 4
            Sandy Koufax  – 4
            Rube Waddell  – 4
            Hal Newhouser  – 4
            Ed Walsh  – 4
            Addie Joss  – 4
            Will White  – 4
            Smoky Joe Wood  – 4
            Johan Santana  – 4
            Eddie Cicotte  – 4

            An interesting list You pointed out some of the highlights. I agree with you that ERA+ is important, but it isn’t everything. After all, it’s a single metric, and no single metric is the ultimate evaluation (not even WAR).

            Certainly, some players don’t fare as well by looking at it this way. Seaver was only listed with 3 such seasons, same as Feller and Gibson (although, as you mentioned, his ’68 season was one of the highest ever). Warren Spahn, in his long and excellent career, only reached this threshold 2 times. The top of the list is certainly a “who’s who” of great pitchers, capturing several of the all-time greats. I agree that it’s instances like this that give players such as Kevin Brown, Roy Halladay, and Johan Santana something to hang their hats on. At their best, they were outstanding.

            And, by the way, I also agree with you that someone can be BOTH great AND overrated. I expressed that same thought on another post (can’t remember under which topic), but taken literally, overrated doesn’t have to be necessarily derogatory, although that seems to be how it typically gets used. It literally means to be rated higher than something should be. You can certainly make the case that Koufax is both great and rated too high. It all depends on what criteria you use to measure “greatness”. We all have our own thoughts on that, certainly.

          2. mark

            DM, Thanks for the added info – it sures helps to have someone with better access and/or ability with the figures hanging around. I think this is all consistent with my point, including with the disclaimer that ERA+ isn’t everything. Among other things, it has a tendency to overinflate very early era pitchers. WAR has this problem even worse, making it almost useless to compare pitchers across different time periods even though that is supposedly one of its attributes. Of the top 50 WAR pitching seasons, 44 are 1921 or earlier, based largely I infer on the unsteady but inexorable trend downward in innings pitched over time. And most of those 44 are pre-1900. Of the 6 later seasons that make the cut, one was by Wilbur Wood, an early 1970s knuckleball phenomenon who chewed up innings like crazy. In 72 and 73 (neither the year that made the cut) he basically pitched every third game for the White Sox. But basically WAR, despite its uses, is hopeless for comparing pitchers across time. ERA+ seems to have a much lower but still visible evidence of this effect.

          3. Bill Caffrey

            I don’t have the statistical acumen to study it, but I believe the extreme offense of the steroid era actually made it EASIER for the very greatest of pitchers to put up extreme ERA+ numbers. Basically, the steroid era inflated all ERAs, but it inflated the ERAs of the league average much more than it inflated the ERAs of the very best (Pedro, Clemens, Maddux, Johnson). As a result, their ERA+ numbers look even greater.

            The basic effect is this: as the league average gets worse, it becomes easier to be much better than league average.

            I think this explains why Pedro has more seasons of awesome ERA+ numbers than Seaver and Gibson. There just wasn’t any room in the 60s/70s for a pitcher’s ERA to be THAT much better than league average because league average was already so low.

          4. mark

            Bill you might be right. My sense (and it is not fully developed on an exacting data analysis) is that ERA+ favors pitchers at the ends of the bell curve for pitching times. Seaver pitched in an era that was certainly much more pitching friendly than today or the last 20 years, but he mostly missed the extreme years of the 1960s, and Gibson mostly straddled it. After 1968 they lowered the mounds 5 inches and reduced the strike zone. I think ERA+ helps those who pitch in extreme pitching eras, and extreme hitting periods. It also arguably under-compensates for the park effect. Or at least you could make the case based on 1964 (and yes, I know relying on a single year data point is dumb but I still found this interesting). In 1964 the ERA+ league leader for both the AL and NL pitched in Dodger Stadium: Koufax for the Dodgers and Dean Chance for the Angels. Is it a coincidence that the supposedly park adjusted leaders pitched in the most notoriously pitcher friendly park in baseball? I honestly don’t know and won’t pretend there’s a substantive point to be made, but it might, MIGHT be a single evidence point that ERA+ does not adequately adjust for park effects.

          5. Which hunt?

            Johan and KB may need a little something on which to hang their respective hats, but Doc? That guy is a first ballot guy if you ask me.

  16. DM

    Side note….I just noticed I shouldn’t have put “Total IP” on the home and away results in my post above. That was unnecessary and misleading. Those were only really relevant for the total ERA list, not the home and away. I need a proofreader! :)

    Reply
  17. Evan

    Great post from Joe. I, for one, would be curious to see the original one he was preparing. Perhaps we can get an entry 46b at some point?

    Reply
  18. fivetwentyone

    hey DM, thats some really great stuff. would you be willing to start a blog, say poz100analytics.blogspot.com or something and post this stuff there? you had some great stuff on some of the earlier entries too and I think it’d be cool to see it all in one place and have something to refer back to as the contest goes on…

    Reply
    1. DM

      Fivetwentyone,

      First, thanks for the kind words. I’ve never tried doing anything like that, but if there’s general interest and people have some tips for getting started, I’d be game. For now, it’s been a blast reading Joe’s blog and just having a place to comment and exchange thoughts with other fans. The top 100 has sure been a great conversation starter.

      Second….what in the world does your handle represent? Are you a fan of the 521 HR club (Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas)? Dying to know…..

      Reply
  19. mark

    And you know what,m in my prior comment I came off as being harsh on you, DM, and I didn’t mean to. My apologies. For some reason Koufax drives me batty. Shouldn’t have directed it your way.

    Reply
    1. DM

      Hi Mark,

      Believe me, no offense taken. I’m not even sure we disagree. In fact, my last sentence was “Over this slice of time, he was the best pitcher in baseball. Whether that’s enough by itself to elevate him far up on a list of all time greats? Well….depends on your perspective.”

      So, believe me, I’m not arguing that “4 whole years” (or, really, 5, since we were looking at ’62, ’63, ’64′, ’65, and ’66) of being the best pitcher of the game is necessarily enough to elevate him this high. But you also mentioned that “everyone knows that, and I don’t think anyone disputes that”. Well, I’m not so sure about that statement. I don’t think everyone knows or realizes that, which is part of the reason I put that info out there.

      In the various posts about Koufax, I’ve never seen anyone acknowledge the simple fact that his road stats were excellent as well. The focus tends to be on the extreme nature of the home performance. And, our nature is when we see something that extreme, we tend to write it off since rather than try to keep it all in context and perspective. I’m reminded of several things that Bill James has written about the impact that extreme statistical performances have on our perception, that if someone’s statistics are simply excellent, we marvel at them, but when they are off-the-charts, we tend to dismiss them because we don’t know how to absorb them.

      The road stats weren’t as spectacular, but they were still the best over that time. He was pitching in a low-run environment, sure, but his team was hitting in one as well, so no one was scoring a lot of runs. When it comes to wins and losses….Koufax “won” 74% of the road decisions and 75% of the home decisions. He was a legitimately great pitcher for a moment in time. I don’t think even that simple fact gets universally accepted.

      Reply
      1. steve

        I also love reading DM’s stuff here. The comments to Joe’s blog in general make this one of my fave blogs.

        Reply
  20. AaronB4Mizzou

    Here’s some just for fun numbers comparing two pitchers:

    Pitcher 1: Pitcher 2:
    165-87 for a .655 % 150-83 for a .644%
    16-8 WL/162 games 19-10 WL/162 games
    2324.1 IP 1967.1 IP
    222 IP/162 245 IP/162
    1.106 Career WHIP 1.206 Career WHIP
    131 Career ERA+ 131 Career ERA +
    49 Career WAR 44.9 Career WAR
    94.1% of career WAR 95.5% of career WAR compiled in peak 7 seasons
    compiled in
    peak 7 seasons

    Pretty similar numbers? P1 is better, no doubt, but I think it’s closer than most would guess. I’m sure most on here realize that pitcher 1 is Koufax. Pitcher 2, as I’m guessing most realized, is Dizzy Dean. I did not include strikeout numbers. Koufax K’d nearly twice what Dean did, but Dean’s walk rate was about half that of Koufax’s. Both completed 100+ games, Koufax fired 40 shutouts to Dean’s 26, but Dean had more saves. Koufax pitched primarily in a pitchers park in a pitcher’s era, Dean pitched in a hitters park in a hitters era. Both won 1 MVP & finished runner up in MVP voting 2 more times. No Cy Youngs in Dean’s time, so I won’t add those in. Both are well above the average HOF pitcher on the Black Ink scale and HOF Monitor scale, but below average on Gray Ink and HOF Standard. Koufax leads in all those categories.

    I just thought it was interesting considering Koufax, well deserved, is considered one of the top pitchers ever and is easily on the shortlist for greatest lefty, while Dean is often glossed over and considered by some, a reach for the HOF. My point is, both are very deserving HOF’s and both saw their careers cut short due to injury. Dean through < 60IP after age 30, and Koufax just 323, in one season.

    Reply
    1. thewhitekorean

      Who considers Dean a reach? The general consensus from what I see is that he is a pre-war Koufax. Dean just seems forgotten (like alot of pre-war pitchers), but generally when people hear about his story, they seem to agree he was a definite hall of fmer.

      Reply
      1. Patrick Bohn

        I think his underlying talent level was Hall-of-Fame *worthy*, but I wouldn’t have voted for him. Sorry, the injury was a tough break, but the guy was a full time player for only six seasons (and even that’s a stretch, since the 6th included just 25 starts). His other six seasons in the majors amounted to one full season by modern standard (and less then that based on the standards of his era).

        Longevity has to matter a little.There a plenty of guys who were HOF-*caliber* players whose careers were shortened by injury. Brett Saberhagen had 32 WAR by the end of his age 25 season, and two nearly unanimous Cy Young awards, both of which, according to b-r WAR, he deserved. Had he stayed healthy, he’s probably a Hall of Famer too, isn’t he? Heck, he still finished 61st all-time in pitcher WAR despite being 226th in innings pitched and 163rd in starts

        Reply
  21. Wilbur

    I was very young when I saw Koufax pitch and then maybe only two or three times on the Game of the Week and in the World Series.

    Within the last couple of years, I watched a replay of his Game 7 in the 1965 Series against the Twins. One thing really struck me: on every pitch, when he would finish his pitching motion, he would stagger as if he lost his footing and was thrown off-balance. I’ve never seen any pitcher do anything remotely like this, and it looked as if it placed an added strain on his arm.

    Has anyone else noticed this? Next time you watch this game or another replay of Koufax, look for it.

    Reply
  22. DM

    Thought I’d take a break from the Koufax analysis and post this. I don’t know whether Joe planned this out or not, but the Koufax entry on the top 100 list coincides with Passover. In honor of Koufax and his heritage, here’s one man’s thoughts on an all-time Jewish baseball team.

    Quick setup – anyone fitting the technical definition (that is, born to a Jewish mother, or converted to Judaism) is eligible. This enables someone like Lou Boudreau, who didn’t practice Judaism but who was born to a Jewish mother, to qualify. Besides, this team really needed a shortstop! :)

    Couple of other quick mentions…..when I was growing up, I remember that several players like Ed Reulbach, Johnny Kling, and Buddy Myer were all considered to be Jewish. That information seems to have been inaccurate, and over time the conclusion appears to be that they weren’t. So, even though they’d all probably would have made this team, I left them off. Also, as Joe mentioned a while back on Rod Carew’s post, Carew, although many thought he had converted to Judaism, never really did, so he’s not on this team either.

    I’ve tried to verify that each player qualifies based on information that we have.

    Here goes….25 players, organized as a “real” team. Suggestions for other players are always welcome:

    Starting Lineup:
    C – Mike Lieberthal
    1B – Hank Greenberg
    2B – Ian Kinsler
    3B – Al Rosen
    SS – Lou Boudreau
    OF – Ryan Braun
    OF – Shawn Green
    OF – Sid Gordon

    Batting Order:
    1-Boudreau
    2-Green
    3-Braun
    4-Greenberg
    5-Rosen
    6-Gordon
    7-Kinsler
    8-Lieberthal

    Starting Rotation:
    Sandy Koufax (L)
    Ken Holtzman
    Joe Horlen
    Steve Stone
    Barney Pelty

    Bullpen/spot starters:
    Moe Drabowsky
    Dave Roberts (L)
    Ralph Branca
    Erskine Mayer
    Craig Breslow (L)

    Position Reserve Players:
    C – Harry Danning
    1B – Mike Epstein
    2B/SS – Andy Cohen
    3B – Kevin Youkilis (also 1B)
    OF – George Stone
    OF – Gabe Kapler
    OF – Elliot Maddox

    Manager: Bob Melvin
    General Manger: Theo Epstein
    Clowns: Al Schacht, Max Patkin
    Attorney: Mavin Miller
    Catcher/Spy: Moe Berg
    Owner: Bud Selig
    President: Gabe Paul

    Notables who missed the cut: Steve Yeager, Brad Ausmus, Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Cal Abrams, Rob Blomberg, Richie Scheinblum, Art Shamsky, Scott Radinsky, Mark Clear, Jason Marquis, Larry Sherry, Bo Belinsky, Scott Schoenweiss.

    Strengths: Power hitting, left handed starting pitching
    Weaknesses: Outfield defense, bullpen

    This team is loaded with power in the starting lineup, with everyone having had at least one 30-HR season except for Boudreau.

    Koufax makes an excellent ace, and Holtzman a fine #2, and Horlen a decent #3. However, the overall pitching depth is a little thin.

    In order to get Braun, Green, and Gordon all in the outfield at the same time, two have to play out of position, with Green in CF instead of RF, and Gordon in RF instead of LF, so outfield defense could be a little shaky. Maddox (who converted) and Kapler could come in and be a “true” CF if needed.

    Let me know if I missed anyone.

    Mazel Tov!

    Reply
    1. DM

      Crap….missed designating Ken Holtzman as a lefty and misspelled Marvin Miller as “Mavin”. Told you….I need a proofreader!

      Reply
    2. buddaley

      It’s a good list. You have a couple of players who had Jewish fathers-Lieberthal, Dave Roberts, Mayer. I don’t know whether or not they were self-identified Jews.

      I would have to check the numbers to see if he should replace anyone, but Scott Feldman has both started and relieved. He might be a good addition to the bullpen. Johnny Klippstein’s numbers are unimpressive, but he had an 18 year major league career and pitched over 1900 innings.

      I would put a DH in my lineup. Either move one of your bench players there (Youklis/Epstein) or replace someone (Epstein?) with Blomberg so he can play the role he was accustomed to.

      Reply
      1. DM

        Buddaley,

        Point well taken on Roberts, Lieberthal, and Mayer. They were consistently mentioned on most of my resources, so I didn’t question them, but maybe we should go with other options. Klippstein, I missed. I agree that he’s worthy of a spot. I suggest that Yeager ( who converted) make the team as a reserve, Danning be promoted to starting catcher, and Klippstein and Larry Sherry make the pitching staff.

        Thanks for the suggestions!

        Reply
  23. DM

    Another random Koufax observation….

    When Koufax is the topic, the conversation tends to focus on the years ’62-’66. Of course, there’s good reason for this, since that coincides with the “time and place” that Koufax took advantage of to post his eye-catching results. Trying to put those results in proper context by adjusting for the low run environment caused by that era and Dodger stadium tends to dominate the discussion.

    One thing worth mentioning, though, is this. His 1961 season is better than it looks, for many similar but opposite effects that tend to make the later years look better than they were.

    Looking at it quickly, 1961 doesn’t look like anything special. 18-13, 3.52 ERA. However, digging a little deeper, you see some things:

    1. His ERA of 3.52, while not sparkling. was 7th in the league, and his ERA+ was 5th

    One thing a lot of people tend to forget is that, while runs dipped in the ’60′s, it didn’t really start until ’63. In 1961, the NL league ERA was still over 4.00. Warren Spahn had the best ERA in the league that year with a rather unimpressive 3.02 (and Spahny was 2.03 at home, 4.77 on the road)

    Here’s the NL league ERA by year from ’50 to ’70:

    Year- ERA
    1950- 4.14
    1951- 3.96
    1952- 3.73
    1953- 4.29
    1954- 4.07
    1955- 4.04
    1956- 3.77
    1957- 3.88
    1958- 3.95
    1959- 3.95
    1960- 3.76
    1961- 4.03
    1962- 3.94
    1963- 3.29
    1964- 3.54
    1965- 3.54
    1966- 3.61
    1967- 3.38
    1968- 2.99
    1969- 3.60
    1970- 4.05

    In addition, Koufax, in contrast to his years in Dodger Stadium beginning in ’62, pitched in a very unfavorable park for him in the years just prior to that, and that was the LA Coliseum with its bizarre dimensions and extremely short distance to the left field fence. In ’61, Koufax had a 4.22 ERA at home (and gave up 19 HR’s) but improved to 2.77 on the road (with only 8 HR’s allowed). That road ERA was very consistent with the years to follow after he moved to Dodger Stadium. With a little bit of luck and even just a “normal” home park that year, he could have very easily had his first ERA title.

    So, as opposed to ’63-’66, when Koufax was favored by BOTH low league ERA’s and a low scoring home park, in ’61 everything was pointing the other direction (relatively high league runs, and an unfavorable home park).

    2. WAR, with all its imperfections, sees Koufax as the #2 pitcher in the NL in 1961 with a 5.7 figure. (Don Cardwell was #1 with 6.1, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why he had a higher WAR than Koufax that year).

    3. Koufax in 1961 not only led the league with 269 strikeouts, he broke the NL record set by Christy Mathewson (267) set 58 years prior, in 1903.

    I’m not saying this was a historic season by any means. It’s certainly not as eye-popping as those years in Dodger stadium. But, the closer you look at it, the better it looks, and it shows that he accomplished a great deal in that year. It certainly doesn’t offset the years at Dodger Stadium, but it does indicate that a 25-year old emerging star was on his way.

    Reply
    1. Chris Mulrain

      You’ve made some great points.

      Another thing to keep in mind for Koufax is that he was a bonus baby, who never pitched a day in the Minor Leagues. Makes you wonder if he could have been dominant earlier had he learned to hone his craft, instead of being thrown right into the fire as a 19 year old. And, considering the lack of development, he pitched pretty damn well for a 19 year old on the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers (which, oh by the way, was only the first and only Dodgers team to win a World Series for Brooklyn).

      Reply
      1. DM

        Chris,

        Thanks for the post.

        One of the interesting things you touch on is how young Koufax was when he came up, and he certainly had his early struggles with control. One kind-of follow up to the observations about his 1961 season is that his 1960 season, when he was only 24, was better than it looks too. Now obviously, I don’t want to get too carried away with it, because Koufax at that time wasn’t starting 100% of the time, and he only pitched 175 innings, so he wasn’t carrying the load that the best pitchers in the league were.

        However, a deeper look at 1960 shows the following:

        1. He led the league in K/9 at 10.1. Drysdale was a distant 2nd at 8.2, and everyone else was well below 8

        2. He was 2nd (just barely) in hits/9 behind the infamous Ernie Broglio at 6.84 (it was a virtual tie, as it lists both Broglio and Koufax at 6.840)

        3. Once again, he had a huge home/road split:
        – Overall, 8-13, 3.91 ERA
        – Road, 7-6, 3.00 ERA
        – Home, 1-7, 5.27 ERA

        So, again, he was getting killed at his home park. Again, not saying he was one of the better or more valuable pitchers yet, because he was still pretty wild. But, if you look at his splits from ’58-’61(his age 22-25 seasons) when he called LA Coliseum home, this is what you get (he had about a 70%/30% starting vs. relieving split in those years)

        Overall: 45-43, 3.93, 743 IP, 89 HR allowed
        Road: 28-20, 3.57, 398 IP, 33 HR allowed
        Coliseum: 17-23, 4.33 ERA, 345 IP, 56

        In other words, he was allowing HR at twice the rate (per IP) at home vs. on the road, and allowing about .76 more runs per 9 innings at home. For a young, developing lefty pitcher, that had to be a horrible environment in which to pitch.

        The league ERA over those 4 years was nearly 4 per game. Koufax, even with his struggles, even as a young pitcher, was pitching well better than average on the road. But his home park masked that fact, much as (although not as severe as) his home park worked to his advantage after they moved to Dodger Stadium.

        Again, this doesn’t have a lot to do with whether or not he should be rated top 50 or not, because that mostly comes down to a peak vs. career kind of argument, but just to point out that Koufax is trickier to nail down than many pitchers because of the extreme differences in his various home parks, all while he was trying to find his way and learn his craft.

        One final observation….if you take his career as a whole, combining all of his various home parks (including Ebbets Field), here’s what you get:

        Overall: 2.76
        Home: 2.48
        Road 3.04

        That’s a pretty good home field advantage. I haven’t done a comprehensive study to see how much better pitchers tend to pitch at home, but from the data I was looking at for prior posts, it seemed to imply about a 0.30 advantage at home. I don’t know if that’s totally accurate, but if it is, then Koufax definitely had a bigger than average home/road split.

        Just out of interest, I thought i’d see how he compares in his career splits vs. other top pitchers from the last 70 years of so (I think Feller is the furthest I went back….I tried to use him as the back end). Koufax is definitely in the upper quadrant as far as having the biggest home “advantage” over the course of his career….but there are several others that have had bigger ones. I was very surprised, for example, at the big home/road splits for Feller, Spahn, and Roberts. I don’t recall ever hearing much about those.

        Anyway…submitted for your interest (by the way, for the Gibson and Niekro supporters….note how much better their ERA’s were on the road)

        Thanks,
        DM

        Name – Home – Road – Home Advantage
        Kevin Brown – 2.74 – 3.86 – 1.12
        Nolan Ryan – 2.77 – 3.73 – 0.96
        Don Sutton – 2.81 – 3.77 – 0.96
        Don Drysdale – 2.53 – 3.41 – 0.88
        Bob Feller – 2.85 – 3.70 – 0.85
        Early Wynn – 3.17 – 3.95 – 0.78
        Warren Spahn – 2.74 – 3.49 – 0.75
        Robin Roberts – 3.06 – 3.79 – 0.73
        Tim Hudson – 3.13 – 3.78 – 0.65
        Sandy Koufax – 2.48 – 3.04 – 0.56
        Jim Palmer – 2.59 – 3.13 – 0.54
        Tommy John – 3.12 – 3.56 – 0.44
        Randy Johnson – 3.10 – 3.52 – 0.42
        Greg Maddux – 2.96 – 3.36 – 0.40
        Bob Lemon – 3.05 – 3.41 – 0.36
        Whitey Ford – 2.58 – 2.94 – 0.36
        Steve Carlton – 3.05 – 3.39 – 0.34
        Roy Halladay – 3.22 – 3.56 – 0.34
        Pedro Martinez – 2.76 – 3.08 – 0.32
        Andy Pettitte – 3.69 – 4.01 – 0.32
        Juan Marichal – 2.74 – 3.03 – 0.29
        Gaylord Perry – 2.99 – 3.23 – 0.24
        Mike Mussina – 3.59 – 3.78 – 0.19
        Tom Glavine – 3.46 – 3.61 – 0.15
        Luis Tiant – 3.23 – 3.38 – 0.15
        John Smoltz – 3.29 – 3.37 – 0.08
        Curt Schilling – 3.43 – 3.49 – 0.06
        Bert Blyleven – 3.29 – 3.34 – 0.05
        Roger Clemens – 3.11 – 3.14 – 0.03
        Ferguson Jenkins – 3.34 – 3.33 – (0.01)
        Tom Seaver – 2.90 – 2.83 – (0.07)
        Jim Kaat – 3.52 – 3.38 – (0.14)
        Jim Bunning – 3.36 – 3.17 – (0.19)
        Phil Niekro – 3.51 – 3.20 – (0.31)
        Bob Gibson – 3.08 – 2.76 – (0.32)

        Reply
    2. Ian R.

      Re: Koufax v. Cardwell – It looks like the difference is WAR’s adjustment for team defense. Neither pitcher had an especially good defense behind him, but B-R seems to think that Cardwell’s Cubs were quite a bit worse than Koufax’s Dodgers.

      In terms of fWAR, Koufax beats Cardwell handily, 6.6 to 4.9. All those strikeouts helped.

      Reply
    1. DM

      Will3pin,

      Thanks for the comments, and thanks for posting that link. Always fun to step back in time like that…..

      Reply
  24. Herb Smith

    I’m an idiot for leaving off my Top-50 list Feller and Koufax. Both at the last minute, too. Two iconic Americans, two guys who signify “all that’s good about baseball” for millions of people, two guys Joe has written extensively about in the past.

    It also raises the question of what two Top-45 players are going to “tie.” My first two choices were Clemente/Kaline and Pedro/Koufax, and now we know that neither is gonna happen.

    Who?

    Reply
  25. tombando

    Havent bothered to comment here of late as the entries have been ok and Jack morris bash free. But face itPos is a windbaggy asshole who shilled foe Paterno and is a fucking disgrace. Yeaah take 750 grand to write a 400 page fapathon to a pedaphile priest’s bishop and disgrace yourself in front of everyone. You suck, Poz. Flat out. Fuck you.

    Reply
  26. Dave Pittman

    I saw a Koufax vs. Bob Gibson in Dodger Stadium on either June 17 or 18, 1962. Koufax gave up about 3 hits and Gibson about 5 or so. Bottom on the 9th, score tied at zero, Tommy Davis, in the first of his back to back batting championships, jacked a Gibson fastball into the left field bullpen. 1-0, Koufax. I’ll never forget it, and remembered it well as last week I revisited Dodger Stadium for the first time, almost 52 years from that wonderful game.

    Reply
  27. Moeball

    Agree with some above that I think #46 is too high on the list for Koufax.

    That being said, the reputation he had was just otherworldly, and there are certain things to point to that back it up. Not only did he pitch the clinching Game 7 in ’65 on only two days rest, he tossed a shutout in a game where his team only scored 2 runs. In the ’63 Series he also pitched the clincher against the Yanks (although it was a sweep so not as much drama attached), and also was given only 2 runs to work with, and made that stand up.

    Koufax often gets mentioned as “the one guy you’d want pitching in the most important game with everything on the line”. Games like the ones listed above are part of where that feeling comes from.

    So I decided to look some numbers up and was stunned at what I found. I looked at every major regular starting pitcher in history. I looked at the games where they started that their team scored 2 runs or less through 9 innings. I did this because, whereas today we have play-by-play data on all the games so we can know that, for example, the Tigers gave Verlander 2 runs to work with through the 7 innings he may have pitched in a game, and added another couple of runs in the 9th with a reliever in the game. But we can’t necessarily do that sort of thing for Walter Johnson because we don’t have the play-by-play available for his games. But we do have box scores that can be dug up that can help us approximate this.

    So looking at starts where the team scored 2 runs or less through 9 innings, how did various pitchers throughout history do? Because we’re talking about Koufax here, I decided to look at 5-year peaks for pitchers, since Koufax so famously dominated from 1962-1966, which would easily be identified as his peak.

    With some pitchers, I’ll admit it’s tough to find a 5-year peak. Warren Spahn was a 20-game winner 13 times in his career – he had a lot of really good seasons to choose from. Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens, etc. – it was difficult to choose which period to use for each pitcher. With Koufax it was easy but for a lot of other pitchers it was hard to choose.

    So here’s how I decided – since a lot of the BBWAA guys focus so much on a pitcher’s W-L record in the voting for the Cy Young award, I generally tried to pick the most successful 5-year period for a pitcher in terms of winning. It might not necessarily be the years where he pitched the best in terms of limiting scoring, but it was the most successful period for overall pitching success and winning.

    Results – here’s the shocking part – none of these great pitchers throughout history that I was looking at were showing a winning record when their teams scored 2 runs or less for them. Oh, there were great seasons here and there where a pitcher was able to do that – and, logically enough, I suppose, they often matched up with what we think of as some of the greatest single seasons for a pitcher in history. Here’s some examples:

    Walter Johnson 1913 – the year he went 36-7 overall – he was 13-5 when the Senators scored 2 runs or less for him!

    Carl Hubbell 1933 – the year he had the 1.66 ERA – lowest during the 1930s decade of heavy hitting – he went 10-8 that year when the Giants scored 2 runs or less for him.

    Bob Gibson 1968 – went 10-8 in games where the Cards gave him 2 runs or less; he was 12-1 in his other decisions. At one point early in that season St. Louis scored 2 runs or less in 8 consecutive starts for Gibson, the worst such stretch of poor run support of any pitcher in the study.

    These great seasons, however, were the exceptions. Here’s how Johnson, Hubbell and Gibson did in their best 5-year peaks:

    W. Johnson, from 1911-1915, record with 2 runs or less: 31-43 (18-38 outside of his magnificent 1913 season)

    C. Hubbell, 1933-1937, 17-30 (7-22 outside of 1933)

    B. Gibson, 1966-1970, 22-37 (12-29 outside of 1968)

    Want more? Cy Young, 1892-1896, 15-32.
    Christy Mathewson, 1908-1912, 18-33.

    What about Lefty Grove? 1928-1932, 11-16.

    It’s not a surprise that in higher scoring eras like when Grove pitched, the number of decisions impacted by low scoring are lower than when pitching in low scoring eras.

    What about recent greats? This will shock you:

    Roger Clemens, 1986-1990, 12-24.
    Greg Maddux, 1994-1998, 12-20.
    R. Johnson, 1998-2002, 9-19.
    P. Martinez, 1998-2002, 10-21.

    In 1999, when Pedro was unhittable and went 23-4 overall, he went only 1-4 when given 2 runs or less. He was a perfect 22-0 when given at least 3 runs in a game, which is still incredible given that this was at a time where the average team scored 5 runs a game!

    I looked at all kinds of pitchers throughout history, in big hitting periods and pitching-dominated periods alike, and I kept seeing the same pattern: absolutely nobody was winning games over an extended 5-year period when given 2 runs or less of support. Apparently, even in the deadball era or the 1960s, this was just too low an amount of run support for a pitcher to be successful. Note that of all the pitchers listed above – and I looked at dozens of pitchers beyond these guys as part of the study – not only is nobody showing a winning record with poor run support over a 5-year stretch – nobody is even close to being .500! It just can’t be done!

    Except for Sandy Koufax. From 1962-1966 he went 27-24 when given 2 runs or less of support. He’s the only regular starting pitcher in history to be able to do this. He’s the only one who even comes close to being .500. He did a better job of “pitching to the score” in a low scoring game than any other pitcher in major league history. And it’s not even close.

    Of course, not even Sandy the Sensational could maintain this over a whole career. During the portion of his career prior to 1962, he had a wretchedly bad record in these low scoring situations that made sure he would have a losing career record in these games no matter how well he pitched at his peak. But at his peak he truly was the best ever!

    Reply

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