In a word, Hughie Jennings. When you boil it down, Koufax’s case isn’t all that different from Jennings’. There’s a handful of great years, and almost nothing else. So we need to take a deeper dive. Are a few years enough?
1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?
The answer is five. Or six. There’s no question about his outstanding 1963 through 1966 seasons—there’s more black ink there than in Moby Dick. BB-REF suggests that a season of five Wins Above Replacement (WAR or Wins) is consistent with All-Star performance. Koufax’s 1961 season fits the bill here at 5.7 WAR. In 1962, injury limited him to 184 innings and 4.4 WAR. So five is our answer.
Is five All-Star seasons a lot? Here are those pitchers who racked up exactly five All-Star seasons (inclusive of batting) and who did most or all of their pitching in the post-Deadball epoch: Kevin Appier, Kevin Brown, Dizzy Dean, Bob Friend, Carl Hubbell, Jerry Koosman, Mark Langston, Roy Oswalt, Billy Pierce, Eddie Rommel, Bret Saberhagen himself, Johan Santana, Urban Shocker, John Smoltz, Dave Stieb, George Uhle, Dazzy Vance, Javier Vazquez, Bucky Walters, Wilbur Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Sandy Koufax.
Twenty-two pitchers who range from great HoME odds to virtually none. Being on this list isn’t enough by itself, but it’s a nice start. Still, only threeofthem have less career value than Koufax, so his peak had better be outstanding.
2. How many MVP-type seasons did he have?
If we look at an MVP-level season as one with eight plus wins (as BBREF suggests), Koufax had three such years. Looking again at pitchers after the Deadball era, how many MVP-type seasons is a lot?
Eighteen pitchers in the Live Ball era have three or more MVP-type seasons, inclusive of their batting:
- 7 seasons: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson
- 6 seasons: Lefty Grove
- 4 seasons: Bob Feller, Wes Ferrell, Phil Niekro, Pedro Martinez, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver
- 3 seasons: Jim Bunning, Bob Gibson, Roy Halladay, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal, Hal Newhouser, Curt Schilling, Warren Spahn
That’s nearly a best of the best since 1920. And not one of the twenty-one other guys in our All-Star list above. He’s better than that group, but in this group everyone else created at least a dozen more Wins of career value than Koufax did. Clemens created almost 100 more!
3. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
It’s impossible to say because it didn’t happen. We know that he could have come down several levels from where he was and remained a good pitcher, but because we’ve chosen to restrict the HoME to what happened on the field rather than hypothesize about what might have happened, for our purposes, the answer is no. Health is part of a player’s skill set, as is a decision to play through pain or not.
4. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?
The whole problem with Sandy Koufax is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone comparable to him. With one exception, Koufax’s list of comps on BB-REF isn’t very indicative of the kind of impact he brought to a team. Nor are those comps adjusted for the contexts in which they occurred.
Who then was like Koufax? To answer, we took a different tack: look for guys since 1893 with six high-quality seasons whose careers had a noticeable drop-off outside those years. Then we compared their best six and rest-of-career with Kofuax in a few different ways. In the best six seasons, we looked at both their value stats (Wins Above Average, WAR, and WAA Win%, which expresses a pitcher’s per game value) and how they fared in the seasonal rankings during their peaks for total WAR, pitching-only WAR, games started, complete games, and innings pitched.
NAME pWAA pWAR WAA% WARTop10 PWARTop10 GSTop10 CGTop10 IPTop10 =================================================================================== Koufax 30.9 46.6 .638 1,2,3,4,8 1,1,2,2,4 1,2,3,4 1,1,2,2,6 1,1,3,4 Santana 27.4 39.5 .629 1,2,4,5 1,1,1,2,9 1,1,3,8,9 3,3 3,3,4,4 McGinnity 32.5 51.9 .612 1,1,3,5,7,9 1,1,2,2,4,9* 1,1,2,3,4,5 1,1,3,3,5,7 1,1,1,1,4,5 Walsh 34.9 55.3 .611 1,2,2,3,3,4 1,1,2,2,3,3 1,1,1,2,3 1,1,2,3,3 1,1,1,2 Rucker 28.2 42.1 .611 1,1,2,5,9,9 1,1,2,3,6,9 1,5,6,7,8,9 1,3,4,6,6 1,3,3,4,6 Vaughn 23.9 37.1 .600 1,2,6,6,8 1,1,2,3,5 1,1,2,4,7,9 2,3,3,5,7,9 1,1,5,5,6 Dean 24.2 38.0 .589 1,3,4,7,7 1,2,3,3,3,3 1,2,3,4,7 1,1,1,2,8,8 1,1,1,2,3 *Split season between AL and NL, finished 9th in AL, 10th in NL.
What did they add to their resume outside their peaks?
NAME pWAA pWAR ====================== Koufax -0.2 6.6 Santana 4.9 11.2 McGinnity -1.0 8.6 Walsh 1.4 7.9 Rucker -1.5 5.8 Vaughn 1.0 9.5 Dean 2.6 4.7
This is a pretty good list to be on. While Dean, Vaughn, and Rucker may be unlikely to draw a vote from us, McGinnity and Walsh are already elected, and Santana appears to have a strong case. Koufax is probably not the best of the bunch (that’s probably Walsh), but he’s definitely in the running for second best.
5. Does the player’s career meet the HoME’s standards?
Let’s look at just the pitching-only WAR of Koufax along with the lowest ranked HoMERs.
NAME pWAR Rank ===================== Koufax 53.2 82 Ferrell 48.8 105 McGinnity 60.4 57 Waddell 61.0 53 Vance 62.5 46 Walsh 63.2 45 Coveleski 65.2 42 Feller 65.2 42 Willis 67.1 38
Only Ferrell trails Koufax. Most are well ahead.
However, Ferrell was an amazing hitter for a pitcher, accumulating 12.8 WAR with his bat. Sandy Koufax’s batting line was also amazing, in the bad sense: .097/.145/.116 and -4.2 WAR. And it helped contribute to Dodger losses. The hitting swing is 17 Wins, leaving Koufax ten behind the second worst.
Let’s try another perspective that might give Koufax a little more sway. The HoME is likely to elect about about 60 to 65 pitchers at its current rate (thirty percent, give or take). Koufax ranks 82nd on the career WAR list, but let’s knock out everyone before the 1920s to keep the comparisons more apt. Now, Koufax is the 57th highest career total. Koufax’s peak total, however, would fall within the top thirty percent of HoME pitchers since the Babe. We’ve already elected fifteen pre-1920s pitchers, so Koufax is really competing for one of 45 to 50 available slots. And some pre-Ruthian pitchers are still hanging around as serious candidates. In other words, his career still doesn’t measure up, but the water is still murky because he’s not so far off the end of the career-value list that the peak trade-off might not make sense.
There’s this way to look as well. Here’s Koufax’s career lined up against Frank Tanana and David Cone. Tanana representing a fairly extreme career candidate and Cone a pitcher whose career presents a middle way:
Tanana: 8.3, 7.6, 7.4, 4.7, 4.4, 3.1, 3.0, 3.0, 2.8, 2.1, 2.0, 1.9, 1.7, 1.4, 1.3, 1.2, 1.0, 0.6, 0.4, 0.3, 0.1 Koufax: 9.9, 9.8, 8.6, 7.1, 5.0, 3.9, 1.9, 1.1, 0.9, 0.7, 0.7, -0.40 Cone: 7.2, 7.0, 6.8, 6.7, 5.8, 5.1, 4.9, 4.3, 4.3, 3.9, 2.9, 1.9, 1.9, 0.8, -0.1, -0.1, -0.9
Koufax was clearly better at his best than both Tanana and Cone. The tremendous lead on Tanana in their six best years takes twelve years to dissipate, after which Tanana tacks on a string of mediocrity. Against Cone, Koufax actually begins to lose ground in year five, and his lead is gone by year eight, after which Cone contributes three above-average years, and a few thanks-for-coming-out seasons.
Frank Tanana was not a better pitcher than Sandy Koufax, and that comparison helps show why it’s important to not simply rely on a career WAR figure as well as how Koufax can win out against long-career competition. But it’s not insane to argue that David Cone might be Koufax’s equal or superior on the basis of his entire body of work, not only on the allure of their respective peaks.
Or to put it another way, we can’t only consider Koufax and his peers on Koufax’s terms.
6. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league?
Finally, an easy one. This is the most compelling argument Koufax has. If we look at total WAR, he’s the game’s best pitcher from 1959–1966. If we leave out hitting, it’s 1957–1966. That’s how dominant Koufax was for a few years.
7. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?
No. From 1961–1966, he was second in the game to Willie Mays. Koufax led the third best player in the game, Frank Robinson, by eleven Wins. Mays, however, led Koufax by twelve.
8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
It is possible Koufax’s home parks had a more profound effect on his career than is captured in the park factors that go into the analytics soup. Koufax’s performance jumped in 1961. He credited Norm Sherry for showing him in Spring Training how to throw more freely and easily, leading to improvements in control and velocity. In 1962, two watershed things happened for Koufax. First, the team moved to Dodger Stadium. Second, MLB redefined the strike zone, enlarging it in the wake of Maris’ 61 in 61. Koufax’s performance nudged upward on a per inning basis, but injuries limited him, Finally, in 1963, Koufax became KOUFAX.
In the LA Coliseum, which strongly favored right-handed pull hitters, Koufax had all kinds of problems with the gopher ball until his step forward in 1961. His HR/9 hovered around 1.50 from 1958 to 1960. In his four years in the Coliseum, his strikeout and BABIP rates didn’t show any particular pattern, but thanks to his homer troubles and high walk rates, his ERA was at least 1.5 runs higher at home than on the road in three of the four years.
Then he moves to Chavez Ravine, and the whole thing changes. Take one:
- extreme flyball/strikeout pitcher
- with homer issues
- who comes straight over the top
- who has just learned how to command his pitches, including a devastating hammer curve.
Move him into a park that:
- has meadows of foul ground
- cuts down homers by the bushel
- has a Denaliesque mound
- serves a league that just redefined its strikezone to be higher and deeper.
Voila! KOUFAX. Surprisingly, we don’t actually see this reflected much in Koufax’s K/9 rates. Instead, it’s in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In Chavez Ravine, his home BABIPs averaged about thirteen percent less than his road BABIPs, double the home-field advantage gained by the entire Dodgers team, Koufax included. His own BABIPs fell off the edge of the earth. From his first year in the Colosseum (1958) through the end of his career, the string goes like this: .243, .265, .277, .292, [move to Dodgers Stadium] .252, .218, .234, .218, and .254.
His strikeout rates stayed fairly consistent, so it’s our supposition that the combination of factors simply led to incredibly weak contact, pushing his BABIP and homer rates down. Hitters had to protect more of the zone in a league newly tilted against them and in a park that reduced offense by about 8.5 percent per annum (per BBREF’s multiyear park factors). Like Whitey Ford in Yankee Stadium, and with a rising fastball that induced popups and a head-to-toes drop that induced weak grounders (see Neyer/James guide to Pitchers) Koufax may have been uniquely qualified to capitalize on the new conditions, conferring more advantage to him than the new settings would his teammates.
Two other things that fit within the bounds of this question, a little one that may or may not be accounted for in the big picture, and one metapsychological.
Koufax had some trouble with what Fangraphs calls sequencing. He was below average at impeding advancement once runners reached base. Why? Two reasons. First, Koufax was routinely among the top ten in wild pitches (thanks to his biting curveball). His primary catcher, Johnny Roseboro, was among the top four in passed balls four times between 1959 and 1963. Second, opposing base stealers had a field day with him. They were successful sixty-six percent of the time against Koufax. The league average was sixty-one percent. This may not seem like a big difference, but remember that lefties are way better against the running game than righties. Heck, Koufax picked off only five runners in twelve years. For a lefty, that’s pathetic. And let’s not blame this on Roseboro. Don Drysdale, a righty, was better than average at keeping opposing runners honest.
Finally there’s this quasi-psychological thing. Check out these three lines. They represent a hurler’s pitching WAR laid out in chronological order from the beginning to the end of his career:
Mr. Normal: 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 6.0, 8.0, 10.5, 10.0, 7.0, 4.5, 1.5, 1.0, 0.0 Mr. Jumpy: 1.0, 6.0, 1.5, 10.5, 2.0, 10.0, 1.5, 8.0, 4.5, 7.0, 1.0, 0.0 Mr. Early: 1.0, 10.0, 10.5, 7.0, 8.0, 4.5, 6.0, 1.5, 2.0, 1.5, 1.0, 0.0
Same guy, different order. Do your perceptions change about him? Mr. Jumpy has that annoying Saberhagenesque every-other-year quality. Maybe he gets hurt a lot but is supremely talented when he can put a full season together. Mr. Early is a burnout case any way you cut it. And Mr. Normal up there simply looks like what we expect a career arc to look like. Actually, it’s a great match for Hughie Jennings’ career.
As you’ve guessed, we just sanded the edges of Koufax’s career and rearranged it. Now here’s Sandy’s actual career:
Mr. Koufax: 0.9, -0.3, 1.3. 1.1, 2.1, 1.5. 5.7, 4.4, 10.7, 7.4, 8.1, 10.3
There’s something about that last series that breeds mystery and awe—an invisible ellipsis, if you will, that beckons us to continue the pattern to whatever end we might imagine for Koufax. And he gave us a lot to dream on.
9. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?
If this is the deciding factor, Koufax gets some help. With 57 IP and a 0.95 ERA, he was pretty awesome in the World Series. Then again, he was just 4-3. Then yet again, the Dodgers won in 1959, 1963, and 1965. Koufax pitched 51 innings with an ERA and RA of an identical 0.88.
10. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?
Robin Roberts says no. Don Drysdale would throw at our heads for saying so. In 1977, Jim Bunning will be better, too. Eric thinks Urban Shocker is likely better, Miller likes Pud Galvin quite a bit.
11. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?
Conclusion? At this point, the junction of peak dominance and career weakness is a little too confounding for us to give a vote to Koufax. Which is strange, really. Either our long look at his credentials is wrong-headed (and that’s very possible!), or all the many, many descriptions of him as one of history’s greatest pitchers are exaggerated. We look back on the point about the order in which Koufax’s seasons occurred and wonder whether its effect is bigger than we think. If you had one game to win, would you pick Sandy Koufax to pitch that game? The answer isn’t Yes! The answer is, well, let me compare him to Pedro, RJ, Clemens, Seaver, Maddux, and Gibson, and get back to you. But careers aren’t one game long, and there’s a difference between the peak expression of a player’s talent and his ability to stitch it into a career—between The Best Pitcher I Ever Saw and The Best Pitcher Ever.
As people who did not see him pitch, we aren’t subject to the same set of biases that his contemporaries were. We have our own, don’t worry. But without the mystique of going out on top to explain it, we can’t find a rationale perspective for why Koufax was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Bert Blyleven was a fourteenth-ballot Hall of Famer. What’s left is the record and the stories of changing times and a changing pitcher that led to it.