Sandy Koufax is Criminally Overrated

Last night, MLB announced the result of its effort to name the best four living baseball players. They came up with: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax. Koufax may be the most overrated player in baseball history. He began his career with 5 forgettable seasons from a young player trying to find his game. Then, from 1962 to 1966, he was the best pitcher in baseball. He led the league in ERA each year, and posted the following bWAR:

  • 1962: 4.4 bWAR
  • 1963: 10.7 bWAR
  • 1964: 7.4 bWAR
  • 1965: 8.1 bWAR,
  • 1966: 10.3 bWAR

He then retired due to an arm injury at the age of 30.

Sandy Koufax is the ultimate "peak value" Hall of Fame player. Or at least, he is the most-cited example of a peak value HOFer. In reality, his peak was excellent, but not unique. Let's look at some of the best seasons from other players with a claim to being one of the best living pitchers:

Randy Johnson:

  • 2002: 10.9 bWAR
  • 2001: 10.0 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1995: 8.6 bWAR
  • 2004: 8.5 bWAR

Pedro Martinez:

  • 2000: 11.7 bWAR
  • 1999: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1997: 9.0 bWAR
  • 2003: 8.0 bWAR
  • 1998: 7.2 bWAR

Greg Maddux:

  • 1995: 9.7 bWAR
  • 1992: 9.2 bWAR
  • 1994: 8.5 bWAR
  • 1997: 7.8 bWAR
  • 1996: 7.1 bWAR

Roger Clemens:

  • 1997: 11.9 bWAR
  • 1990: 10.6 bWAR
  • 1987: 9.4 bWAR
  • 1986: 8.9 bWAR
  • 1992: 8.8 bWAR

All of these guys had comparable peaks to Sandy Koufax. You can nitpick and say that Maddux never hit 10 bWAR or something, but the difference between Koufax's run and these guys is negligible. The reason why they are all better pitchers than Sandy Koufax is that each pitcher has a long record of excellence beyond their top-5 seasons, while Koufax was out of baseball immediately following them.

And here's the crazy part: all of the above 5 guys were contemporaries. They were putting up these crazy good peaks roughly simultaneously. Their accomplishments are extraordinary, but by no means are they unique. It just isn't all that uncommon for Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers to peak like Koufax did.

We can add in all sorts of long-career players with similar peaks as well: Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson had similar peaks. All are still alive.

Koufax's career is much more comparable to guys like Doc Gooden (peaked with an insane 12.1 WAR season in 1985, highest in modern history, but was pretty much done being very good by 29) and Juan Marichal (10.3 and 9.1 WAR in 1965-1966, some very solid years before and after) than the all-time greats.

Great player? Absolutely. I'd take him on the Yankees. But Sandy Koufax is not one of the four best living baseball players. He's not even close.

Responses to the nitpicking arguments before anyone makes them:

Yes, bWAR is a perfectly fine statistic to measure single-season value. Baseball Reference uses ERA, rather than FIP, to calculate wins above replacement. It essentially becomes a function of innings, ERA, and a league and park factor. Unless you prefer FIP (the rankings are similar), the calculation is essentially just basic math, and very difficult to dispute. If you have a preferred way of measuring how good a season is, run the numbers and see Koufax sticks out. If you want to be Chris Russo and just yell and say, "BUT KOUFAX WAS BETTER", be my guest.

Koufax pitched a lot of innings in his final two seasons. He led the league with 335 and 323 innings. But that wasn't all that uncommon back in the day. It was the dead ball era with a raised mound. No one is calling Wilber Wood the best pitcher of all time. Randy Johnson pitching 271 in the 90s is arguably more impressive.

No, I am not saying Koufax was a bad pitcher. I'm just saying that his peak was in line with these other guys, but the other guys had an extra decade of awesome in their career. His ERA numbers are also shinier-looking than our reference point due to the era he pitched in and the ballpark he called home.