What he did: For the first half of his career, Koufax was a mediocre reliever and sometimes starter for the Dodgers. Then, in spring training 1961, he got a tip on control from catcher Norm Sherry. Koufax proceeded to win 18 games in 1961 and followed with a five-year stretch from 1962 through 1966 where he went 111-34, amassed three Cy Young awards, and one MVP.
But then, just as quickly as it began, it was all over for Koufax. Suffering from arthritis, the southpaw retired after the 1966 season at 30. He was a first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame six years later, and some may consider Koufax the greatest lefthander of all-time. Still, one can only wonder what he might have achieved with a full career. The question here is if there’s an era that might have afforded Koufax this opportunity.
Era he might have thrived in: Early 1990s, Atlanta Braves
Why: I attended a screening in San Rafael on Sunday for a documentary, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, which included the story of Koufax’s brief but brilliant career. Three things were reinforced to me:
- Koufax signed out of college as a bonus baby and thus had to stay in the majors his first two years
- He struggled for several early seasons until receiving sage advice from a mentor, Sherry
- He burned out as a result of overuse and the general ignorance of teams in those days concerning proper use of pitchers
So the challenge here is to find an organization where Koufax would still receive great advice, but also have time to properly develop and not be worked into early retirement. Enter the Braves, who in the 1990s shaped several young hurlers like John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery (who was briefly great before turning 24) and Jason Schmidt. Even Greg Maddux had just entered his prime when he hit town prior to the 1993 season and did his best work as a Brave.
Imagine Koufax among that bunch, in place of fellow lefthander Avery. Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, and Avery won 75 games in 1993 and relegated my San Francisco Giants to a 103-59 second-place finish. With Koufax in tow, that number of victories might rise to 85, or more, since the stat converter on Baseball-Reference says a 27-year-old Koufax is good for a 24-9 finish with a 2.51 ERA for Atlanta in 1993.
There’s no telling if the input of the renowned Braves pitching coach in those years, Leo Mazzone, would supersede Sherry’s advice, boost his stats, or help him pitch beyond 30, though I’m thinking it might. Being part of a staff with Glavine, Maddux, and Smoltz could lighten Koufax’s load too, as the trio probably surpassed the talent of Koufax’s rotation mates in Los Angeles, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, and others.
Needless to say, in this arrangement, my Giants don’t come anywhere closer to the 1993 World Series. From 1963 through 1966, Koufax helped keep the Giants from the postseason every year, going a combined 10-5 against San Francisco, with a 2.35 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 141.2 innings in these seasons. Koufax might not have been the greatest Giants killer, but with the Braves, he strikes San Francisco again.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.