The Greatest Left-Handed Pitcher is Koufax. Hands Down.
The Greatest Left-Handed Pitcher is Koufax. Hands Down.
by Cary Greene
March 11, 2022
Note – This article is a more detailed explanation of why I chose Sandy Koufax for the Tuesday Discussion yesterday.
I’m 100% going with “the Left Arm of God” here. Koufax was God’s template for a pitcher: a prizefighter’s back muscles for strength, long arms for leverage and long fingers for extra spin on his fastball and curveball. The baseball was as low as the top of his left ankle when he reached back to throw in that last calm moment of his delivery — like a freight train cresting a hill — just before he flung the weight and force of his body toward the plate. Nobody in baseball history was as flat out intimidating as Sandy Koufax.
Kids today might remember Randy Johnson as the greatest lefty ever. I remember him struggling to keep the ball over the plate and in the park during his stint in the Bronx, from 2005 to 2006. Certainly he had an impressive career and a great 4-year run from 1999 to 2002. His lifetime 101.1 WAR certainly speaks to his longevity.
In fact, nearly 300 pitchers in AL/NL history have started more games than Koufax. Nearly 200 have racked up more wins. Eighty-one have accrued more wins above replacement (WAR), (per Baseball-Reference.)
But few have crafted a legacy as respected and enduring as the Dodgers left-hander, especially in so short a time.
We talk today about advanced “peripherals” and Sandy Koufax, I’m certain ,had overwhelming, almost unnatural advantages to many of his pitches, due to the size of his hands and his ability to spin the ball. His overhand curveball was vicious because his long fingers allowed him to spin the ball faster than anybody else in his era.
Most pitchers use their thumb to generate spin, pushing with it from the bottom of the ball and up the back side. Koufax could place his thumb on the top of the ball, as a guide — similar to the way a basketball player shooting a jumper uses his off-hand on the side of the ball — because his long fingers did all the work, pulling down on the baseball with a wicked snap. On the days he wasn’t pitching, Koufax liked to hold a ball with his fastball and curveball grips because he believed it would strengthen the muscles and tendons in his left hand by just the tiniest bit.
Koufax also threw the ball through the plate, not to it and he picked exact spots with which to locate to. This made him extremely accurate with his pitches.
No pitcher has ever enjoyed a better five-year stretch than Koufax, who compiled a sparkling 111-34 record with a minuscule 1.95 ERA from 1962-66. That span included five All-Star appearances, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, and two World Series titles. Regardless of longevity, Koufax was the greatest lefty to ever toss a baseball towards home plate.
In each of his final five seasons, Koufax led the NL in ERA, making him the only pitcher in history to finish first in his league (AL or NL) in that category so many years in a row. (He also led in FIP in each of those five, not that anyone knew what FIP was at the time). Koufax’s total ERA over those five seasons was 1.95, and he is the only pitcher in the Live Ball Era to post an ERA under 1.90 in three different qualifying seasons.
With his blazing fastball and drop-off-the-table curveball, Koufax was a nightmare for hitters, especially in this era before the mound was lowered in 1969. He finished in the top 10 in the NL in strikeouts in each of his last 10 seasons (1957-66) and in the top three seven times. Koufax led the Majors in 1961 (269), ’63 (306), ’65 (382) and ’66 (317), with Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Nolan Ryan the only other pitchers in the Modern Era (since 1900) to reach the 300 mark three times. That total of 382 in 1965 set a modern single-season record, since surpassed only by Ryan (383 in 73).
Imagine if a pitcher today had 382 strikeouts in a single season? Well, Matt Kilroy could imagine it. After all, he holds the record with 513 strikeouts in 1886, and Kilroy happened to be a left-hander. <gulp?> Did I even pick the right pitcher? Well, Kilroy was there but was he really ever here? LOL. Well, in 1897, Kilroy was there for sure. The dude threw 589.1 innings in 1887. Egads! Those are big time numbers folks! He threw 583 innings the year before and 321 the year after. Unfortunately, Kilroy didn’t have nearly the numbers that Koufax was able to put up. Randy Johnson stuck out 372 in 2001, which was pretty amazing.
Still, Koufax is one of 10 pitchers in Major League history to claim at least three Cy Young Awards, and he is the only one of the 10 to do so in the era when there was just one award (1956-66), instead of separate awards for the AL and NL. All three came in a four-season span and remain three of the most impressive Cy-winning campaigns of all time. Koufax won unanimously in 1963 (when he was also the NL MVP), ’65 and ’66 and finished third in ’64 (the Angels’ Dean Chance was first). He was the first pitcher to win in back-to-back years, a club that has now grown to 11. And Koufax is the only pitcher in MLB history to win a Cy in his final season.
The indestructible Ryan is the all-time record holder with seven no-hitters, the last of which came when he was 44 — 14 years older than Koufax was in his final game. But besides Ryan, no pitcher can match Koufax’s four no-hitters, which amazingly all came in a span of barely more than three years, between June 30, 1962, and Sept. 9, 1965. Koufax is the only pitcher to throw one in four consecutive seasons, with three of those performances including at least a dozen strikeouts. The lefty joins Cy Young himself as the only hurlers to include a perfect game among a group of at least three no-nos. The perfecto came against the Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965, when Koufax struck out 14, which is tied for the most in such a performance. Koufax’s 101 Game Score that day is tied for the fourth-highest on record in an outing of no more than nine innings.
Koufax still boasts one of the most impressive postseason résumés in Major League history. He made eight career playoff appearances, including seven starts (all in the World Series, which back then was the only round), and threw 57 innings with a 0.95 ERA. That remains the lowest in history for a pitcher with at least five postseason starts and the second lowest for a pitcher with 40-plus innings, trailing only legendary closer Mariano Rivera (0.70). Koufax dominated. He struck out 61 batters in those 57 innings, threw four complete games and two shutouts, and allowed a mere .180/.223/.240 batting line (.463 OPS).
The Dodgers won three of the four World Series in which Koufax pitched (1959, ’63, ’65), and he had a lot to do with that. In the latter two of those series, Koufax was named the World Series MVP, making him one of three multiple-time winners, along with fellow Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson.
Don’t take my word that Koufax is the greatest lefty ever though. Ask Ernie Banks.