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There are probably few players in history I wish I could have seen play more than Sandy Koufax.
He was a class act, retired early due to injuries, and made the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He is widely regarded as the most dominant left-handed pitcher in baseball history and his five-year stretch of greatness (1962-1966) is viewed as one of the most amazing peak performances of any athlete in history.
During this span, Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards, earned a league MVP award, threw four no-hitters and a perfect game, led the Dodgers to three pennants and a World Championship, and topped the N.L. in ERA five straight seasons, thus establishing himself as a living legend.
And despite all that overwhelming evidence of his achievements, I have the nerve to call Koufax overrated.
What do I know?
I never saw Koufax pitch.
I wasn't born until 1989. I'm barely old enough to remember Ken Griffey, Jr. during his prime, much less Koufax.
I'm sure if I had been alive during that time, I would have been in awe of Koufax. My dad still tells me stories how if teams got a run off Koufax, there would be a hush across the ballpark. Two runs, and the crowd was in disbelief.
Koufax had everything going for him.
He was a well-mannered Jewish boy who was dedicated to his religion, devoted enough to skip Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday.
He pitched for one of the most popular teams in baseball, the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. He walked away in the prime of his career, at a time when he was arguably the most dominant professional athlete alive, giving him a larger than life image.
During his career, he constantly battled injuries and thrived under pressure.
Americans love stars, and Sandy Koufax right up there with Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas.
At a time when television was just striking it big, Sandy Koufax appeared on TV about as much as any athlete in sports, playing in six World Series in 12 seasons.
He shone in the postseason when it counted the most, and there has been very few pitchers that batters least wanted to see on the mound than Koufax and nobody, absolutely nobody, that has performed as spectacularly when it really counted.
Yet there have also been few, if any, players in history who benefited more from their ballpark, the league, and the time period than Sandy Koufax.
Koufax had the benefit of pitching in the top pitcher’s park in baseball in a pitcher’s league during the 1960s, when hitting was at an all-time low and pitching ruled the land.
Once the umpires instituted the new larger strike zones in 1963 and the mound was raised, Koufax became the most dominant pitcher on the planet.
In addition to the help he received from his park and the era, many people don’t even remember that before Koufax became a superhuman strikeout machine, he was actually a below-average pitcher.
Jayson Stark writes in his book, “The Stark Truth,” that Koufax is the most overrated left-handed pitcher of all-time. He focuses primarily on his first six seasons, what Stark refers to as The Other Half of Koufax's Career.
I don't want to penalize Koufax too much for his performance early on.
However, Koufax did struggle with his control more than about any pitcher in the league. He constantly ranked among the league leaders in walks.
During his first six seasons, only one other pitcher in all of baseball who pitched as many innings as Koufax had a higher ERA than Koufax (Chuck Stobbs, 4.28).
Koufax’s numbers were that of a struggling lefty trying to find his way. He was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA and allowed close to 13 base runners per nine innings, including over five walks per game.
In fact, Koufax nearly quit the game following the 1960 season. He had gone just 8-13 with a 3.91 ERA, while walking 100 batters in just 175 innings pitched.
Koufax decided to return for one more season in 1961.
Everything seemed to click for him, as he became one of the best pitchers in the National League, and from there on, began the start of his Hall of Fame career.
It puzzles me how Koufax is simply given a pass for his first six seasons. As Stark says in his book, Koufax is basically allowed “on-the-job training.”
Koufax basically made the Hall of Fame on six tremendous seasons.
There's nothing wrong with that.
Those six seasons were fabulous seasons, although it's difficult for me to ignore how much Dodger Stadium helped his numbers.
Todd Helton and Larry Walker take a lot of heat for playing in Colorado, in hitter-friendly Coors Field. Everyone knows guys like Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla, while still good hitters, are products of the system.
Why is Koufax given a pass?
A breakdown of each season shows just how much Koufax benefited from Dodger Stadium:
1961: 18-13, 3.52 ERA, 2 SHO, 255.2 IP, 212 H, 96 BB, 269 K
This was the last year that Koufax pitched in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a hitters' ballpark. Koufax was vastly more efficient on the road then he was at home.
Home: 9-8, 4.22 ERA, 0 SHO, 132.1 IP, 119 H, 51 BB, 145 K
Away: 9-5, 2.77 ERA, 2 SHO, 123.1 IP, 93 H, 45 BB, 124 K
Away from the Coliseum, his ERA was almost a full run and a half better. Both his shutouts came on the road, and he allowed far fewer baserunners than he did in his home ballpark.
In short, Koufax's home ballpark wasn't helping him out much. If he had stayed at the Los Angeles Coliseum his whole life, I don't think we would talk about him today as a Hall of Famer.
Especially not the greatest left handed pitcher of all-time.
But he didn't stay at the Coliseum. His Dodgers moved to Dodger Stadium.
And it was the best thing to ever happen to Koufax's career.
1962: 14-7, 2.54 ERA, 2 SHO, 184.1 IP, 134 H, 57 BB, 216 K
In 1962, Koufax won the first of five consecutive ERA titles (2.54), posted a 14-7 record, and struck out 216 batters in just 184.1 innings pitched. He battled a severe finger injury that eventually caused him to miss close to two months of the season.
A close look here at the home-road breakdown:
Home: 7-4, 1.75 ERA, 2 SHO, 102.2 IP, 68 H, 25 BB, 118 K
Away: 7-3, 3.53 ERA, 0 SHO, 81.2 IP, 66 H, 32 BB, 98 K
Wow. Part of being a great player is the ability to perform away from the comfort of the home park.
And Koufax was still a good pitcher on the road. But not great.
Imagine projecting his road statistics to a full season.
Projected: 14-6, 3.53 ERA, 0 SHO, 163.1 IP, 132 H, 64 BB, 196 K
He would have finished 14-8 with a 3.53 ERA and just under 200 K’s. The league ERA that season was 3.94, so Koufax was 41 points better on the road than the league. That's just 10 percent better than the rest of the National League.
Does that sound like a dominant season?
That might be good enough to be the second pitcher on a five-man staff – maybe the ace – but not the greatest left-hander in the history of baseball.
Maybe that's a little harsh.
If Koufax had pitched for the San Francisco Giants or the Philadelphia Phillies or the New York Mets or any other team in the National League, he would have gotten to pitch in Dodger Stadium as a visiting pitcher two or so times per season.
To be precise, he would have gotten to pitch against the Dodgers once every nine starts (given that there were nine opposing teams in the league).
Let's say Koufax didn't have a home ballpark, so he made all of his starts each season on the road.
That way he wouldn't have an advantage of any ballpark, but rather he would be on track with the league, as he would be making his starts in accordance with each opposing team's ballpark.
Koufax made 13 starts on the road, which is an average of 1.31 starts against every team. Project that over a full season and he makes 2.62 starts in Dodger Stadium.
An average start for Koufax in Dodger Stadium in 1962:
0.54-0.31 W-L, 7.90 IP, 1.54 ER, 5.23 H, 1.92 BB, 9.08 K
He won 54 percent of his starts, lost 31 percent, and received a no-decision in 15 percent.
Add on the 2.62 extra starts in 1962 for Koufax to his projected numbers for 1962 and we arrive at these numbers:
New Projected: 15.4-7.8 W-L, 3.33 ERA, 0 SHO, 184 IP, 145.7 H, 69 BB, 219.8 K
However, that puts us at 28.62 starts for Koufax in 1962. He actually made 26, a number that is 90.85 percent of what we have.
I then took Koufax's stats for his 28.62 starts and multiplied everything with 0.9085 to arrive at Koufax's final projected stats.
Final Projected (1962): 14-7, 3.33 ERA, 0 SHO, 167.1 IP, 132 H, 63 BB, 200 K
Actual Statistics (1962): 14-7, 2.54 ERA, 2 SHO, 184.1 IP, 134 H, 57 BB, 216 K
What a difference.
The ERA in his projected stats is about four-fifths of a run higher than Koufax's actual stats. He wouldn't have won an ERA title that season; in fact, he wouldn't have finished close to the top ten in that category.
He still would have been a good pitcher. And I can't take away his no-hitter that season, and I don't know if it's fair to penalize him for pitching it at home.
But I think his newly projected stats show he wasn't quite as dominant. He wouldn't have been one of the elite pitchers in baseball that season. He would have been very good still.
But not great.
And I know it's easy to brush that aside.
Why should Koufax's stats be changed just because of his ballpark?
Because no one else (other than his teammates) had the advantage of Dodger Stadium. Bob Gibson didn't. Juan Marichal didn't. No one did.
Koufax did though.
1963: 25-5, 1.88 ERA, 11 SHO, 311 IP, 214 H, 58 BB, 306 K
In 1963, Koufax won the Cy Young award and the league MVP award, led the league in wins, winning percentage (.800), shutouts, and ERA, set a National League record in strikeouts, and led the Dodgers to the World Championship over the Yankees.
He became the first NL pitcher to win the triple crown in 24 years and the first pitcher to win it in either league in 18 years. Koufax also became the first NL pitcher to win the MVP award in seven seasons.
His home and road breakdown:
Home: 11-1, 1.38 ERA, 6 SHO, 143.2 IP, 83 H, 23 BB, 144 K
Away: 14-4, 2.31 ERA, 4 SHO, 167.1 IP, 131 H, 35 BB, 162 K
Koufax’s home ERA was almost a full run better than his road ERA – no doubt a direct result of the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.
He pitched more shutouts, gave up a fewer percentage of hits and walks, while striking out a higher percentage of hitters at home. Six of the eight times that he gave up more than three runs were road starts.
Koufax's road stats projected over a full season:
Projected: 28-8, 2.31 ERA, 8 SHO, 334.2 IP, 262 H, 70 BB, 324 K
He made 40 starts that season, 17 at home and 23 on the road. I want his final projection to include exactly 40 starts.
So I took the stats from his 23 road starts and converted it to get it down to 20 starts, then doubled that to arrive at a season of 40 road starts.
New Projected: 24-7, 2.31 ERA, 7 SHO, 291 IP, 228 H, 61 BB, 282 K
Koufax should have made 4.44 starts at Dodger Stadium, which is one out of every nine starts.
An average start for Koufax in Dodger Stadium in 1963:
0.65-0.06 W-L, 8.45 IP, 1.29 ER, 4.88 H, 1.35 BB, 8.47 K
Add on the 4.44 starts for Koufax from Dodger Stadium and his new projected statistics become even newer.
Newer Projected: 26.6-7.2 W-L, 2.21 ERA, 8.6 SHO, 324.8 IP, 249.7 H, 67 BB, 319.6 K
Convert those 44.4 starts back down to 40 (what Koufax actually made) and these are his final projected statistics for the 1963 season:
Final Projected (1963): 24-7, 2.21 ERA, 8 SHO, 295 IP, 227 H, 61 BB, 291 K
Actual Statistics (1963): 25-5, 1.88 ERA, 11 SHO, 311 IP, 214 H, 58 BB, 306 K
Still a tremendous season.
But not quite as good.
Koufax would have finished second to Juan Marichal in wins (25 to 24). His 2.21 ERA would finish second in the NL, rather than leading the league. And his NL-record 306 strikeouts would still be an NL record, but the final strikeout count would be 291 batters.
Would Koufax still have won the Cy Young award?
It's worth noting that Juan Marichal – Koufax's primary competiton for the Cy Young award – also benefited greatly from his home park that season.
Marichal posted a 2.90 ERA on the road and 2.13 at home, a difference of two-thirds of a run. While it wasn't as great as Koufax's 0.93 run difference, Marichal still performed much better in front of his home crowd.
I think it's safe to say Koufax would have won the Cy Young award this season. He was still arguably the best pitcher in the game, or at least in the conversation.
Would Koufax have won the MVP?
I don't think so.
Pittsburgh's Dick Groat finished second, although personally I think Hank Aaron should have won it.
I think 24 wins and a 2.21 ERA wouldn't have won it, especially considering Koufax would have neither led the league in wins or earned run average.
Still a great season, one of the best of the decade – but no MVP award.
1964: 19-5, 1.74 ERA, 7 SHO, 223 IP, 154 H, 49 BB, 223 K
Koufax led the National League in ERA for the third year in a row. He pitched 29 games, completing just over half (15). He was forced to miss the last six weeks of the season due to severe arthritis in his pitching arm.
Home: 12-2, 0.85 ERA, 6 SHO, 127.2 IP, 82 H, 18 BB, 124 K
Away: 7-3, 2.93 ERA, 1 SHO, 95.1 IP, 72 H, 33 BB, 99 K
His home ERA of 0.85 was over two runs better than his road ERA and he hurled six shutouts at home, as compared to just one on the road.
Koufax's road stats projected over a full season:
Projected: 14-6, 2.93 ERA, 2 SHO, 190.2 IP, 144 H, 66 BB, 198 K
Projected to a full season, his road numbers are a 14-6 record with a 2.93 ERA, a mark that would have failed to rank in the top ten in the National League. With the league ERA at 3.25, Koufax was just one-third of a run better on the road, away from Dodger Stadium.
At 28 starts for the season, Koufax would have made 3.1 starts at Dodger Stadium.
An average start for Koufax in Dodger Stadium in 1964:
0.86-0.14 W-L, 9.12 IP, 0.86 ER, 5.86 H, 1.29 BB, 8.86 K
New Projected: 16.7-6.4 W-L, 2.66 ERA, 2.22 SHO, 218.5 IP, 162.2 H, 70 BB, 225.5 K
Convert those 31.1 starts down to 28 for the season and this is what I arrived at as a final projection for Koufax's 1964 season:
Final Projected (1964): 15-6, 2.66 ERA, 2 SHO, 196.2 IP, 146 H, 63 BB, 203 K
Actual Statistics (1964): 19-5, 1.74 ERA, 7 SHO, 223 IP, 154 H, 53 BB, 223 K
This might be the biggest difference of all of the seasons for Koufax.
His ERA rises almost a full run. He threw less than one-third of the actual shutouts, pitched far fewer innings, and allowed a much greater percentage of base runners per inning.
Koufax would not have won the ERA crown with his newly projected final statistics, but rather his 2.66 ERA would rank seventh among the NL pitchers that season.
1965: 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 8 SHO, 335.2 IP, 216 H, 71 BB, 382 K
Koufax had his finest season ever, setting a new major-league record in K’s (382). He recorded eight shutouts and set a new record in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (5.79).
He won the Cy Young award, his fourth straight ERA title, threw a perfect game – his fourth consecutive season with a no-hitter – and captured his second pitching triple crown.
And led the Dodgers to the World Series, where his three-hit shutout on two days’ rest in Game 7 gave the Dodgers the World Championship, earning Koufax his second World Series MVP award.
And then comes the breakdown:
Home: 14-3, 1.38 ERA, 6 SHO, 170 IP, 89 H, 31 BB, 208 K
Away: 12-5, 2.72 ERA, 2 SHO, 165.2 IP, 127 H, 40 BB, 174 K
Koufax bettered his road ERA by almost a run and a half at home, and his 4.71 hits allowed per nine innings at home would shatter the single-season record if projected to a full season.
On the road, however, Koufax was simply a very good pitcher, as he fashioned a 2.72 ERA, a mark that would be sixth-best among pitchers who didn’t have the benefit of pitching in Dodger Stadium.
Projected: 24-10, 2.72 ERA, 4 SHO, 331.1 IP, 254 H, 80 BB, 348 K
These projections include 42 starts for Koufax. He actually made 41 for the 1965 season, so here are his statistics adjusted down to 41 starts.
New Projected: 23-10, 2.72 ERA, 4 SHO, 323 IP, 248 H, 78 BB, 340 K
From there, I added in the number of starts (4.56) Koufax would have made in Dodger Stadium that season.
An average start for Koufax in Dodger Stadium in 1965:
0.56-0.24 W-L, 8.5 IP, 1.3 ER, 4.45 H, 1.55 BB, 10.4 K
Newer Projected: 25.6-11.1 W-L, 2.58 ERA, 5.37 SHO, 369.9 IP, 268.3 H, 85.1 BB, 387.4 K
Convert those 45.6 starts down to 41 and here is what I arrived at for Koufax's final projected statistics in 1966:
Final Projected (1965): 23-10, 2.58 ERA, 5 SHO, 332.2 IP, 241 H, 77 BB, 348 K
Actual Statistics (1965): 27-9, 2.04 ERA, 8 SHO, 335.2 IP, 216 H, 71 BB, 382 K
This takes Koufax's finest season of his career and reduces it drastically.
In his final projected statistics of the '65 season, Koufax no longer wins the pitching triple crown. He would finish just tied for second (along with teammate Don Drysdale) in wins at 23 and fourth in ERA.
His 348 strikeouts still would have led the league; in fact, coming within one of setting a new single-season record.
Koufax won the Cy Young award in 1965.
Would he still have won it without Dodger Stadium?
I doubt it.
Juan Marichal, who led the NL in ERA in 1965 at an impressive 2.13 mark, actually put up an incredible 1.75 earned run average on the road. Along with his 22 wins, Marichal definitely would have beat out Koufax for the major leagues' Cy Young award.
1966: 27-9, 2.04 ERA, 5 SHO, 323 IP, 241 H, 77 BB, 317 K
In Koufax’s last season, he went out with a bang.
Despite arthritis throughout his pitching arm for the entire season, Koufax hurled 323 innings and won 27 of 36 decisions, posting a 1.73 ERA. It was his fifth straight season leading the National League in earned run average and his third Cy Young award.
He led the Dodgers to the pennant, winning the second game of a doubleheader on the last day of the season to lock up the N.L. flag for L.A, for the third time in four years.
Home: 13-5, 1.52 ERA, 3 SHO, 171.1 IP, 124 H, 45 BB, 160 K
Away: 14-4, 1.96 ERA, 2 SHO, 151.2 IP, 117 H, 32 BB, 157 K
Koufax put up his best stats by far on the road this season. It was the only year of his career in which he put up a sub-2.00 road ERA.
Koufax's road stats projected over a full season:
Projected: 28-8, 1.96 ERA, 4 SHO, 303.1 IP, 234 H, 64 BB, 314 K
Koufax actually made 41 starts in the '66 season. Here are his new projected numbers, converted up to 41 starts.
New Projected: 29-8, 1.96 ERA, 4 SHO, 311 IP, 240 H, 66 BB, 322 K
From there, I added in the 4.56 starts Koufax would have made in Dodger Stadium during the '66 season.
An average start for Koufax in Dodger Stadium in 1966:
0.62-0.24 W-L, 8.16 IP, 1.38 ER, 5.90 H, 2.14 BB, 7.62 K
Add on the 4.56 starts for Koufax and here are his newer projected statistics:
Newer Projected: 31.8-9.1 W-L, 1.91 ERA, 4.6 SHO, 348.2 IP, 266.9 H, 75.8 BB, 356.7 K
Convert the 45.56 starts down to 41 starts and here are Koufax's final projected starts for the 1966 season:
Final Projected (1966): 29-8, 1.91 ERA, 4 SHO, 313.2 IP, 240 H, 68 BB, 321 K
Actual Statistics (1966): 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 5 SHO, 323 IP, 241 H, 77 BB, 317 K
This would have gone down as Koufax's best season.
He would have led the major leagues with 29 wins, nearly winning 30 for the first time since Dizzy Dean in 1934.
His 1.91 ERA still would have led the league, as would his 29 wins and 321 strikeouts. It would have given Koufax the only ERA crown and pitching triple crown of his career.
He most likely would have won the Cy Young award. Any time a pitcher wins the triple crown he's a lock to win the Cy Young.
For his career, Koufax has a 2.48 home ERA and just 3.04 on the road. He threw nearly twice as many shutouts at home despite making 12 fewer starts.
His winning percentage is virtually the same both at home (.658) and on the road (.652), but the numbers show Koufax was a far superior pitcher in the cushion of his home ballpark.
Compare the previous list to this next list of some of Koufax's contemporaries, with their home/road ERA listed (home on top, road on bottom).
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It's pretty evident that everyone is helped out by their home ballpark.
Ellsworth was +14 at home, Maloney +18, Marichal and Nuxhall +21, Friend +31, and Perry +33.
Only Bunning and Gibson were better on the road, with Bunning +22 on the road and Gibson an impressive +53.
No one else had the benefit Koufax had.
Imagine if Gibson pitched in Dodger Stadium, along with Koufax. Koufax's road ERA was 2.57 and Gibson's was 2.39, so I think it's pretty reasonable to assume Gibson could have compiled a home ERA of 1.37, just like Koufax.