How Good Was Sandy Koufax:
The mystique about Sandy Koufax is generally not understood by people who never saw him pitch. To the players who faced him, played with him, or fans saw him he is a pitcher they remember with awe. Sandy Koufax was in the major league only twelve years, barely clearing the Hall of Fame minimum of ten. In the first eight of those years he was not great, his record being 68-60. He won an ERA title in 1962 when he only pitched half a season due to injury and led the league in strikeouts in 1961 with 269. What could he have possibly done in the next four years that would get him elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot nine years later. At age 36 he was the youngest player ever inducted into Cooperstown. Who was this man?
Sanford Braun was born on December 30, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. When he was just three, his father left him and his mother. His mother would spend the next 6 years as a single parent working as an accountant and Sandy would live with her and his grandparents. When he was 9 his mother remarried Irving Koufax.
Sandy Koufax sport was basketball. He played it through his youth, high school and even earned himself a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. But he could also throw a baseball really, really hard. When he did play college baseball the scouts came in droves. Though most saw him as too raw and out of control. Koufax did not mind, he was a basketball player with dreams of an NBA career. But when his hometown Dodgers offered him he took them up on the offer.
He joined the Dodgers in 1954. This was one of the greatest Dodger teams in history with Jackie Robinson at 36 still on the team, Roy Campanella won the NL MVP that year as a catcher for the Dodgers and Duke Snider led the league in RBI and would finish 2nd in the NL MVP vote. Don Newcomb would pitch to 20 wins this season. This would be a culmination of the integration of baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers as they would win the 1955 World Series against their cross-town rival the New York Yankees with many of the pioneers of baseball integration.
But Koufax would have little to do with that team. He was still raw. He was still out of control. He would come in and relieve but did little to contribute to this great Dodgers era. He went 2-2 with a 3.02 ERA that year. But the next era of Dodger baseball would belong to Koufax.
The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. By 1961 Sandy Koufax would begin to dominate the game he’d barely played in his youth. He would dominate the next 5 years in unprecedented and overwhelming fashion.
Always a humble man but also an observing Jew, when Yom Kippur, the most religious holiday in the Jewish faith fell on a day he was supposed to pitch in the World Series he asked to be replaced. He won acclaim and criticism for the choice. It launched him to near sainthood among Jewish and other observant people of faith.
Koufax would suffer from tendinitis in his elbow which he feared would affect him long term. He shocked not only the baseball world but his own teammates when he called it a career after his Cy Young winning year in 1966.
But the years of his dominance is something the modern baseball fan may not be able to understand.
Mickey Mantle said of his fastball, “How are you supposed to hit that shit”.
Yogi Berra famously said of his 25-5 season, “I can see how he won 25 games, What I don’t understand is how he lost 5.”
Let’s look at those four years.
IP W L ERA SO ShO CY MVP
1963 311 25 5 1.88 306 11 1st 1st
1964 223 19 5 1.74 223 7 3rd 17th last start 8/16
1965 336 26 8 2.04 382 8 1st 2nd
1966 323 27 9 1.73 317 5 1st 2nd
1963: Eleven shut-outs! 306 strikeouts was a new National League record. Nobody today pitches 311 innings. Not only did he win 25 games, but he was at his best in big games. His most important start of the year was on September 17th against the second place St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards had cut a six game deficit to one when the Dodgers came into St. Louis for a three game series. Dodgers’ Johnny Podres beat the Cards in game one increasing the lead to two. Koufax then faced Curt Simmons. Here’s Sandy’s line.
IP H R ER BB SO GS
9/17/63 STL 9 4 0 0 0 4 83 L.A. Lead went from 2 to 3.
The Dodgers then pulled away and won by six games. They then faced the defending World Champion New York Yankees in the World Series. Koufax started the first game in Yankee Stadium. Sandy was overpowering:
IP H R ER BB SO GS
1963 Game 1 9 6 2 2 3 15 79
Johnny Podres and Don Drysdale shut down New York in games two and three. Sandy then came back going for the sweep at Dodger Stadium; the result was another gem in the clincher.
IP H R ER BB SO GS
Game 4 9 6 1 1 0 8 79
1964: Dodgers fell out of contention early. The Season ended with a crazy finish between the Cardinals, Phillies and Reds (St. Louis won). Koufax’ last start was August 18th due to an elbow injury caused by diving into second base. This caused arthritis to develop in the left elbow. He was done for the season. He basically pitched 2/3 of a season, but let’s compare his 2/3 of a season to the MVP Season of Clayton Kershaw in 2014.
IP W L ERA SO SHO
Koufax 1964 223 19 5 1.74 223 7
Kershaw 2014 198 21 3 1.77 239 2
Koufax was as good in his partial season as Kershaw was in his best season.
1965: At the start of the season the Dodgers considered starting Koufax every seventh game to protect his left elbow. Sandy would have none of it. He would take his turn every fourth day. He responded with maybe his best season, breaking Bob Feller’s major league record for strikeouts. The Dodgers were involved in a tense pennant race involving four teams. He pitched his perfect game on September 9th. According to Bill James’ Game Score (GS), it was the highest scored 9 inning performance ever. On September 16th the Dodgers found themselves 4 1/2 games behind the San Francisco Giants with 16 games to play. Sandy won 4 of his last five starts, going 4-0 with one no decision. The box score of his four wins:
IP H R ER BB SO GS
9/18/65 STL 9 4 0 0 1 6 84 Remained 3 ½ games behind Giants
9/25/65 STL 9 5 0 0 3 12 86 Remained 1 game behind Giants
9/29/65 CIN 9 2 0 0 1 13 95 Moved from 1 game ahead to 2
10/2/65 MIL 9 4 1 1 4 13 84 Clinched pennant
Then in the World Series he won his second World Series MVP, despite being the losing pitcher in Game Two. He shut out the Minnesota Twins in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, then came back on two days rest to shut them out in Game Seven in the Twin Cities.
IP H R ER BB SO GS
1965 Game 2 6 6 2 1 1 9 62
Game 5 9 4 0 0 1 10 88
Game 7 9 3 0 0 3 10 88
Twins Manager Sam Mele said it best after game seven; “Koufax is murder, great. The best I have ever seen. You hate to lose, but we didn’t disgrace ourselves. We were beaten by the best pitcher that there is anywhere.”
1966: Koufax again had constant pain in his left arm. He would have to put his arm in ice after every start. The result? He again led the league in innings pitched, for the third time in four years he won the pitching triple crown (Wins, ERA, Strikeouts), he set the National League Record for wins by a left-hander (later tied by Steve Carlton). Also for the third time in four years he was a unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award. Just note that at the time major league baseball only gave out one award per year. With the Dodgers clinging to a narrow lead late in the season, Koufax again was sensational down the stretch. The line on his last two starts:
9/29/66 STL 9 4 1 1 1 13 87 1.5 games ahead to 2 ahead
10/2/66 PHL 9 7 3 2 1 10 72 Clinched flag on last day of season
He would lose his only start of World Series, which ultimately would be his final game. In his final start Dodger Center Fielder Willie Davis made three errors in the same inning which led to three unearned runs against Sandy.
IP H R ER BB SO GS
1966 Game 2 6 6 4 1 2 2 50
Following the World Series Koufax shocked the baseball world by calling it quits.
How good was Sandy Koufax in those four years? Well the numbers were unprecedented. He was nearly unhittable. As Hall of Famerer Wilver Stargell said; “What was it like hitting against Koufax? You ever tried to drink coffee with a fork?”
Henry Aaron opined after Sandy beat Warren Spahn, in a tense 2-1 duel; “Boy am I glad I don’t have to face him again.”
Modern fans have concerns about Sandy’s World Series record. He was just 4-3, which seems very pedestrian. But look at how he pitched in the three losses: He gave up four earned runs in 19 innings. The Dodgers scored only one run in those three starts! Those are his losses. In his four wins he gave up three earned runs in 36 innings, striking out 43. He did this against the best teams in baseball, the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins.
Finally, the most overpowering argument for the greatness of Sandy Koufax. This is referred to in Bill James’ original ‘Historical Baseball Abstract”, but I’ll stretch it out to the four years in question. Sandy was actually better than his record. Read these numbers carefully.
When the Dodgers scored 5 runs or greater Koufax was: 23-0
When the Dodgers scored 4 runs Koufax was: 12-1
When the Dodgers scored 3 runs Koufax was: 9-3
When the Dodgers scored 2 runs Koufax was: 9-4
When the Dodgers scored 1 run Koufax was: 8-8
This is incredible, when the Dodgers scored one, two, or three runs in a game Sandy Koufax’ record was 26-15. He was given only one run to work with in more starts than any other total.
We’ll close with the MVP Awards for 1963, 1965, and 1966. Koufax won in 1963, but Sandy Koufax should have won all three years. Some sportswriters will not vote for a pitcher for MVP out of principal. Their argument is Sandy was only involved in 25% of his team’s games. The counter to that is was the fact that Sandy Koufax is pitching four times as valuable in the games he started as Willie Mays or Roberto Clemente. If he is then he deserves the MVP. He was clearly more valuable than Clemente in 1966, the decision against Mays is much more difficult. Mays had a great year in 1965, arguably his greatest ever, but the Giants finished 2 games behind the Dodgers. As we have shown Koufax also had a great season, he was unbeatable down the stretch. Either man was deserving, but the fact that Koufax’ team won gives the edge to Sandy.
Is Sandy Koufax the greatest pitcher of all time? The answer is clearly no. If you had to take the career of Sandy Koufax or Greg Maddux, who should you take? Maddux won twice as many games as Koufax and pitched almost twice as long. Same goes for other modern pitchers, such as Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver. Koufax’ contemporaries Bob Gibson and Phil Niekro careers were better; but if we’re looking at peak of performance, Koufax beats all these. The only pitchers that could match Sandy at his top level for consecutive years are Kid Nichols, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Lefty Grove. Was Sandy the greatest left-hander of all time? Again the careers of Grove, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson are clearly more valuable; but only Grove can compare to him at his best, and Grove played in the 1920s and 1930s. Stated clearly…No left handed pitcher ever reach the height of performance Sandy Koufax reached between 1963 and his retirement following the 1966 season.