Editor’s note: Rory Paap of PaapFly.com, who’s written a couple guest posts here in recent months has agreed to contribute an article every other week to this site. Rory’s on his way up as a writer and is light years ahead of me in terms of statistical analysis. I’m honored to have him here.
Over on my personal corner of the Web, I recently wrote about Matt Cain and his ability to tame the fly ball and defended that idea today, after it stirred some controversy. I wrote that Cain’s skill did not make him overrated, but unique. While doing my best to unearth what exactly Cain is so good at, I brought in Koufax. At a glance, they don’t seem so similar at all, but upon further observation some similarities emerge: Koufax also excelled at turning balls hit in the air into outs. Unfortunately, because it is predominantly in this area that Cain excels (and it does little or nothing to light up the stat sheet otherwise), many choose to poke holes in it. But with Koufax, he excelled in each of rendering fly balls innocuous and striking out hitters in flurries; thus, no one bothers to question the former.
But that’s only just an introduction to my favorite pitcher of all time, southpaw Sandy Koufax. I explained in that post that Koufax’s dominant stretch would be addressed some other time; it has arrived.
He must have been something else given that he was a Dodger and I am an intense Giants fan.
Koufax had two weapons that made him devastating: an extremely hard four-seam fastball that had late life which made it appear to rise as it approached the hitter, and a 12 to 6 curveball held with an odd grip and ridiculous bite. These two weapons caused Willie Stargell to once say of him: “Trying to hit him is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”
Koufax would only play 12 seasons, but the first half of them were uninspiring. He had a golden left arm that could blister a catchers glove with fastballs but hadn’t a clue how to wield it. But in the second half of his career he learned to, and what followed was one of the grittiest and most dominant stretches in history for a pitcher.
It was gritty because he suffered from severe arthritis in his final two seasons, and by the end it was clear he would take any measure to get to the bump every few days. After more than one start his arm was black and blue and his elbow about the size of a football. To remedy this inconvenience (when it would qualify as a serious medical condition to most), Sandy soaked his arm in ice baths after starts, took Empirin with codeine, Butazolidin and capsaicin*-based Capsolin ointment for pain, inflammation and god knows what else, as Jane Leavy explained in her 2003 biography (which I’ve read and is wonderful), Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. That sounds more like an addict’s medicine cabinet than a pitcher’s between-start regimen.
*Capsaicin comes from the white, membranous area inside of peppers, and is what gives them the “heat,” i.e. what is the irritant to humans. Does that sound like something you’d feel comfortable slathering your arm with?
From 1962-65 he was breathtaking. With a 1.95 ERA he would win 111 games to just 34 losses in 1,377 innings and 176 starts, of which 100 were complete games (33 shutouts) – to put that into context, Roy Halladay led baseball in 2010 with 9 complete games, and only Felix Hernandez was close with just 6.
Announcing his arrival as an elite pitcher, Koufax threw his first no-hitter in June of ’62. He would throw three more over the course of his career, the last being of the elusive Perfect Game variety in 1965 when he struck out more than half (14) of the 27 batters he faced. He was the first to throw four no-hitters, and it would take a man named Nolan Ryan to eclipse him.
His adjusted-ERA (ERA+) was 167 over that span, or 67% better than the league average pitcher. He allowed less than one base runner per inning (walks plus hits per inning (WHIP): .926). He struck out more than a batter per inning (9.4 per nine) and walked just 2.1 per nine (strikeout to walk ratio: 4.57). He racked up an unbelievable 42 (4.4, 10.8, 7.8, 8.2, 10.8) Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in those five seasons.
And with his dominance came accolades. He won both the Cy Young award and the MVP award in 1963. When he won the Cy Young award again in 1965 and 1966 (finishing second in both seasons’ MVP voting), he became the first pitcher to ever have won three, and each happened to be unanimous. In each of those seasons, he was the Triple Crown winner for pitchers. What’s more, he’d have led the American League too.
He also earned World Series MVP honors twice while leading the Dodgers to titles in both 1963 and 1965.
In 1966, he led the league in wins, ERA, starts, complete games, shutouts, innings and strikeouts, won the Cy Young unanimously, and then quietly walked away. He’d had enough of the pain. He was just 30. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972 on his first ballot, the youngest player ever enshrined.
And yet perhaps the greatest achievement of his career came on October 6, 1965 when he refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, as the game fell on Yom Kippur. His fearlessness in standing up for what was sacred to him was inspiring.
If, by any chance, you’re looking for a more recent example of such a dominant stretch, look no further than Randy Johnson’s 1999-2003. Within that stretch, he had an ERA+ of 175 and won four consecutive NL Cy Young awards. But keep in mind that he won only one NL Triple Crown in that stretch and a single World Series MVP. He did not throw a no-hitter, let alone four. His cumulative WAR in that span was 34 (to Koufax’s 42). In terms of pure performance, workload, postseason success, league awards and no-hitters, Koufax’s ’62 to ’66 is peerless. Talk about going out in style.
(H/T to Baseball-reference, Baseball Almanac and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, written by Jane Leavy)