Koufax Throws 205 Pitches, Wins in 13 Innings

Almost exactly 50 years ago, Sandy Koufax pitched the last Dodgers game played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. On September 20, 1961 Koufax bested the Chicago Cubs, with its lineup that included three future Hall of Famers (Richie Ashburn, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks), 3-2. The three Cubs went a collective two for 15.

During the 13 inning game Koufax, who didn’t allow a hit after the eighth inning, struck out 15 batters. According to pioneer baseball statistician Alan Roth, Koufax, threw 205 pitches.

The pitch count debate has been covered exhaustively both here, on other baseball sites, and by experts far more knowledgeable than me. Still, every time I read examples like the Koufax game and compare it to today, I scratch my head.

The mystery is compounded if your favorite team is, like my Pittsburgh Pirates, pitching-challenged.

When the season began, the Pirates announced its five man starting rotation: Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, Craig Morton, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald.

About a month ago, Maholm and Correia’s seasons ended. They went on the disabled list with arm ailments. Morton and Karstens avoided the DL but skipped starts to preserve their tired arms. Only McDonald has survived the year. In 29 starts, however, he averages a mere 5 plus innings per outing.

Ross Ohlendorf, who went on the DL in April with shoulder problems, was called up from the minors to fill in for Maholm. In three starts, his ERA is 8.03. The line from Ohlendorf’s last outing: 2 IP, 10 H, 6 ER.

Today’s pitcher has conditioning coaches, skilled trainers, better facilities, video breakdown of each pitch and dieticians to monitor their calorie intake. But, despite it all, too many pitchers can’t get out of the fifth inning. Sure there are exceptions like the Phillies Roy Halladay and the Yankees CC Sabathia. But the majority of them fall into the same underperforming category as the Pirates pitchers. They struggle to get to the elusive, six inning “quality start” level.

On Tuesday night, Karstens made his first start since August 27. One of his broadcast booth buddies asked Pirates pitching great and color commentator Steve Blass if he was ever worn out by September. Blass said he always looked forward to ending strong. To Blass, September represented a chance to “pick up two or three more wins.” As far as he could remember, Blass said, he “never had arm fatigue.”

Anatomy hasn’t changed since Koufax, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn and numerous other Hall of Fame pitchers routinely ranked up 300 innings a year. So what’s the explanation?

Beats me. I’ve posed a question without offering an answer or even suggesting a solution—unfair for a journalist to do. The easiest may be just to realize that baseball today is an altogether different game than it was decades ago—and, much less of one.

2 Replies to “Koufax Throws 205 Pitches, Wins in 13 Innings”

  1. Of the many transformational changes in Major League Baseball over the past several decades, I can think of none so game altering as the role now played by relief pitchers. With minor exceptions, few starting pitchers today will go nine innings; they are not programmed to do so. You now have relief pitchers for the middle innings, and like Mariano Rivera, one for the closing inning as well. A recent piece in Sports Illustrated described three of these hurlers for the Atlanta Braves, whose competence is called upon in the latter part of the game to protect the Braves’ lead, something that relief pitchers have always done. What is different is the assumption that starting pitchers today cannot, even with the best physical training and vitamin supplements, throw 205 balls in a game. Better or worse, I leave to you, but decidedly different from the Walter Johnsons and Robin Roberts of the past.

  2. I think that the problem is money. When a team has to fork out tens of millions for a pitcher, the instinct is to protect their investment. This means limiting the amount of physical stress exerted on pitchers’ arms over the course of the season. This has resulted in the magic plateau of 100 pitches. When a pitcher hits that number of pitches, there is rarely a question; he’s done for the day. This is especially irksome when said pitcher is in the process of racking up a no-hitter. Today, it seems we will have few complete game no-hitters (or perfect games???). Instead, we will have multi-pitcher milestones, sadly; a collection of “group feats.”

    The first major league game I attended was a 16-inning affair in 1963 between the Dodgers and the Cardinals. Sandy Koufax had a no-decision, but pitched 12 innings, being pulled for a pinch-hitter with the score tied at 1-1. I can’t imagine how many pitches Sandy threw, but he was certainly approaching the 200-mark. In 1966, Koufax, with a painful arthritic elbow he made 41 starts, pitched 27 complete games, amassing 317 strikeouts in 323 innings, while winning 27 games with an ERA of 1.73! He retired following that year due to the arthritis.

    While arm issues shortened Koufax’ career, Nolan Ryan, on the other hand, pitched for 27 years, starting 773 games and completing 222. He pitched 5,386 innings on his way to 323 career wins. Throughout his lengthy career, Ryan never to my knowledge was aware of pitch-counts.

    I have always been a pitch-count-doubter. In my opinion, a pitcher, especially with all of the training and other technological advantages today, including Tommy John surgery, should be able to go considerably beyond the 100-pitch barrier in a game, before being pulled for a middle-inning relief pitcher, not to mention the automatic use of a closer. However, as I mentioned above, it all certainly comes down to teams’ multi-million-dollar investments and protecting those investments. With all of this protection, are pitchers’ careers really showing profound benefits?

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