January 21, 2003

Stick to Politics, Steve-O:...

Stick to Politics, Steve-O: Steve Forbes, in a three-dot column, descrcolnesque combination of intense ambition, genuine humility and principle (he refused to pitch the first game in the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur). He came up with pioneering insights into the art and physics of pitching, and he was amazingly stoic when he was in intense pain during a game.

The Dodgers offense in Koufax's peak years was awful. His incredible win-loss record -- 129-47 in that period -- would have been even better had he been with a team that could score more than one or two runs per game. I'm too busy with matters of non-trivial importance to refute this at length, but as people who actually pay attention to baseball have pointed out before, A) Sandy Koufax pitched extraordinarily for five seasons; the Hall of Fame is filled with pitchers who were excellent for more than 10. He was "arguably" among the finest pitchers ever at his peak, but had 20 fewer victories in his career than David Wells. B) His five peak years coincided with five of the most pitcher-friendly years in the history of baseball, during which he pitched in the most difficult stadium in the league to hit. His home E.R.A. from 1962-66 was 1.37, while on the road it was a more human 2.57. That's some home-field advantage. C) That stoicism in the face of pain and misuse cut short his career. D) The Dodgers offense in that period was good, not "awful." According to Bill James' "The Politics of Glory," L.A. ranked second in a 10-team league in runs scored on the road in both 1963 and '64. In '63, that meant 344 runs in 81 road games. That's four-plus runs a game, not "one or two." ing which he pitched in the most difficult stadium in the league to hit. His home E.R.A. from 1962-66 was 1.37, while on the road it was a more human 2.57. That's some home-field advantage. C) That stoicism in the face of pain and misuse cut short his career. D) The Dodgers offense in that period was good, not "awful." According to Bill James' "The Politics of Glory," L.A. ranked second in a 10-team league in runs scored on the road in both 1963 and '64. In '63, that meant 344 runs in 81 road games. That's four-plus runs a game, not "one or two."

Why the hell am I writing about this? Blowing off steam for a half-second. Also, Koufax has been surrounded with just an ungodly amount of hyperbole in the last year or two. I once did research for a nice long debunking of the the most common Koufax myths, then I remembered that I rarely write about sports for money, so I got back to the War or whatever. Sandy was marvelous enough without the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln.

Posted by at January 21, 2003 07:38 PM
Comments


Matt, if as you say "that stoicism in the face of pain and misuse cut short his career", then it seems you shouldn't be riding him so hard for only having those 5 peak years (as opposed to 10 "excellent" ones).

There is much to be said for the 'good soldier' athlete who blows his potential because he wants to win, rather than save himself for another game (or worse, season!)

Based on your comments, Koufax was the anti-prima-donna, and the credit for that should wipe out any debits for a shortened career.

By the way, I know _nothing_ about baseball. Is Willie Upshaw still playing for the Blue Jays at Exhibition Stadium?

Ken

Posted by: Ken at January 22, 2003 11:20 AM

When he didn't play on Yom Kippur, it wasn't news, but NOW! You'd think he not only didn't play, he davened. He wasn't observent, not that it matters, but you'd think this (refusal) was the biggest thing the man ever did.

Posted by: R. Cohen at January 22, 2003 12:29 PM

Stick to politics? Like he goes after that with any more authority or intellectual honesty than he does sports.

This is a man who just over a week ago claimed that Bush's dividend tax cut was a step toward the tax simplification he's been championing all along.

Posted by: Bill Herbert at January 22, 2003 12:35 PM

Randy Johnson over the past five years has been at least as good, if not better than, Koufax's peak. And where Koufax blindly pitched through pain for five years of glory (after seven years of mediocrity), Johnson achieved all-star status, got hurt, shut it down and came back better than ever.

FM

Posted by: Scott Ross at January 22, 2003 01:19 PM

FM/Scott,
Others have noted this, but I think that Pedro Martinez is even more similar to Koufax than Johnson is. Pedro will probably not have 10+ brilliant seasons; he's already breaking down, and it's not clear he'll ever pitch a full season again.
If you buy the argument that a few dominant seasons can get you considered for 'best ever' status, then I think Pedro's got more going for him than Koufax. As Matt points out, the mid-late 60s was the low ebb for offense-driven baseball. No one claims that the late 90s witnessed a similar offensive collapse. Ergo, shouldn't Pedro's first few seasons with the Red Sox be seen as even better than Koufax's run with the Dodgers? Really, arguments about him playing through pain and being a really devout jew start sounding better and better: when you've got no data to support a conclusion, lean hard on the humanizing, non-numeric factoids.

I get the feeling that many people use baseball solely as a vehicle for nostalgia - 'In my day, baseball was about doing your job, keeping your problems to yourself and being a role model.' There are many who have probably never seen Pedro Martinez pitch (or Randy Johnson) because they've written baseball off as exhibit A in the moral decline of America.

That's why so many of these naysayers who say that any 60's-era journeyman could hit .300 with 30HRs these days can't bring themselves to admit the implications of that belief on today's pitchers. Namely, it would mean any pitcher who finishes the year with an ERA under 3.00 (or 3.50?) should be seen in more or less the same terms as Bob Gibson's '68 season.

Posted by: marc webster at January 22, 2003 03:37 PM

Koufax was a fine pitcher, who rejected the trappings of fame and still lives modestly. But he wasn't even the best of his time, let alone comparable to Lincoln.

Two words. Bob Gibson. One statistic. 1.12. That was his ERA in 1968. No one hit much in the 60s, but 1.12 -- for a starter?

Gibson was just as fine a human being as Koufax, he overcame both racism and asthma, and he had a better curve than Koufax, too.

Nothing against Koufax, but Forbes knows less about baseball than about politics. Which ain't much.

Posted by: Dana Blankenhorn at January 22, 2003 05:48 PM

It's very difficult to compare players from different eras because the game has changed a lot. Koufax was head and shoulders the best pitcher in baseball in the early sixties.


• 1963: National League Most Valuable Player
• 1963: World Series Most Valuable Player
• 1963: Cy Young Award
• 1965: Cy Young Award
• 1965: World Series Most Valuable Player
• 1966: Cy Young Award

He pitched over 300 innings 3 times while last year Pedro Martinez won 20 games but pitched less than 200 innings. He pitched for 3 World champs and was WS MVP twice. He gave up 1 earned run in the '66 series when I believe the Dodgers were shut out 3 times by the Orioles.

He was the Cy Young winner his last 2 seasons and 3 of his last 4 seasons. He had 27 complete games in each of his last two seasons and a total of 13 shutouts. Roger Clemens won the AL Cy Young in 2001 without pitching a complete game or shutout all season.

It's hard to say what he would have done in a different era. Conditioning and medical treatment are so much better now but it is a more offensive era. Players make so much more money that longevity is much more important to them so Koufax wouldn't be used the same way as he was. I don't really accept the idea that when you look at the current dominant starters and look at how much above or below the league averages they are really indicates all that much about their ability as much as it indicates the disparity of talent throughout the leagues and the fact that everybody swings for the fences now. The game was a lot different back then and I guess you can make a lot of arguments about whether it was better or worse. But as a long suffering Red Sox fan I've yet to see Pedro Martinez lead them to the WS and I doubt I ever will.

Posted by: Jack Tanner at January 23, 2003 05:09 AM

Jack brings up an important point -- the mere fact of Koufax's workload made his impact much larger on the Dodgers than any modern pitcher we can come up with, even Randy Johnson. Still, having an E.R.A. of *half* the league average is some kind of terrific.

Posted by: Matt Welch at January 23, 2003 11:03 AM

The decline in innings-pitched is a conscious decision managers and trainers have made. Yes, Bob Gibson and Koufax pitched more complete games than many DIVISIONS total these days, but the move away from 300 innings-pitched and towards specialist relievers is a fundamental change in baseball strategy; it's not an indictment of today's pitchers, nor is it evidence that pitchers of another era were better... Unless we want to make Jack Chesbro the gold standard say that next year the Yankees acquire him at the trading deadline. He's a bit past his prime, he's clearly not what he was in 1999. But the Yankees manage to win the world series again, with Pedro pitching game 1. Does that suddenly elevate him into Koufax territory? Does the fact that Andy Pettitte 'led his team' to four world series in 5 years put HIM in that category?

Posted by: marc webster at January 24, 2003 09:31 AM

The reason that people are resistant to compare current players to players from this era is that the level of competition was considered to be much higher back then. Whether it was or was not is another discussion but I don't think there's much question that baseball overexpanded especially in the 90's.

Posted by: Jack Tanner at January 28, 2003 09:45 AM
Post a comment









Remember personal info?






lievers is good or not, you've got to admit there's a logic to it and that it could conceivably help the teams that use it. Then there's the fact that after a short career, Koufax broke down physically. Kinda puts it in another perspective.
As for the swinging for the fences: if that's true, then why couldn't anyone in the 60s hit .350? (I know, I know, but I'm talking about 65-68). Between 1962 and 1969, no one on the Dodgers hit .300 (if they were using short, compact swings and making lots of contact, they sure as hell weren't rewarded for it).
The Dodgers won 2 world series and 3 pennants in that stretch. It was a time in which having no .300 hitters and scoring fewer than 4 runs a game was not an insurmountable problem. There are a number of reasons why, including the fact that the mound was higher (changed before 1969 season).
You can say that hitters don't use good fundamentals anymore, but the fact is, they put up astounding numbers. That would mean, at least to me, that anyone today who even approaches Koufax-like numbers now has to be seen in a different light. There is tremendous resistance to that.
The whole leading his team to a world series thing is valid, but a bit overblown. The Dodgers weren't a one-man team; they weren't even a one-man pitching staff. He got the job done, absolutely, but then, so did Pedro against the Indians a few years back, but no one on his team got a timely hit. No one else could pitch. Let's say that next year the Yankees acquire him at the trading deadline. He's a bit past his prime, he's clearly not what he was in 1999. But the Yankees manage to win the world series again, with Pedro pitching game 1. Does that suddenly elevate him into Koufax territory? Does the fact that Andy Pettitte 'led his team' to four world series in 5 years put HIM in that category?

Posted by: marc webster at January 24, 2003 09:31 AM

The reason that people are resistant to compare current players to players from this era is that the level of competition was considered to be much higher back then. Whether it was or was not is another discussion but I don't think there's much question that baseball overexpanded especially in the 90's.

Posted by: Jack Tanner at January 28, 2003 09:45 AM
Post a comment









Remember personal info?






= true; } else { document.comments_form.bakecookie[1].checked = true; } //--> /body> e { document.comments_form.bakecookie[1].checked = true; } //--> /body>