Year Inducted: 1972 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 344/396)
Most “experts”, when talking about baseball players, suggest that a player’s prime years start around age 26 and last until, at the latest, 33. Usually, a player has peaked about 30 and can maintain that level or close to it for another few seasons before they really start to decline. So then, what does that say about a player who threw his final pitch at the age of 30 and ended his career with fewer innings than Pedro Martinez? How can such a pitcher even be inducted into the Hall of Fame? Because Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher during his generation, and the greatest left handed pitcher ever.
Koufax may have only thrown a little more than 2300 innings in a mere 12 seasons, but had a dominance about him that few could ever top. Koufax went 165-87 with 2396 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.76. Koufax made a living out of embarrassing hitters, limiting his opposition to a .202 average against, a WHIP of 1.11 and a HR/9 of only 0.76. From 1961-1966, the highest ERA Koufax had was 3.52 in 1961 (an expansion year where offense was higher than typical). Koufax struck out 300 or more batters three times in his career, including a then-record of 382 in 1965. That same season, Koufax set more history by tossing his also then-record fourth career no-hitter, with a perfect game against the Cubs. Nolan Ryan may have broken both of those records, but he never had a game quite like Koufax’s perfecto.
The Dodgers signed Koufax as a bonus baby in 1954. As such, Koufax had to remain on the active Dodger roster for two full seasons, and couldn’t be demoted to the minors until those years were complete. In those two seasons, Koufax was mostly average but put up some decent strikeout numbers in 100 innings of work. During that period, and the ensuing few seasons, Koufax developed a reputation for his lack of control. In the first half of his career, the lowest walk rate Koufax had was 4.40 in 1957. Then, according to his biography in SABR Bios, in Spring Training of 1961 on a bus someone suggested to him to “ease up” and not throw as hard, since that caused his muscles to tense up. How well did that advice work? From 1961-1966, Koufax went 129-47, struck out 1713 in 1632 innings and had an ERA of 2.19 with a WHIP of 0.97. Seems like that was all he needed.
The length of Koufax’s career is the only real negative mark against him. Without a large amount of innings and seasons, it would be impossible for Koufax to rack up the high number of wins and strikeouts that other pitchers of his time period did, like Bob Feller and Bob Gibson. Still, upon his retirement he ranked 27th all-time in fWAR, with at least 100 fewer games than every one above him on the list in addition to being several hundreds of innings behind each of them as well. He was also seventh in strikeouts (and at least 1000 innings behind everyone above him there as well). While the total innings weren’t there, the quality of his innings were unmatched in history up to that point.
Koufax’s elbow forced him to retire very early, after his age-30 season. Deciding that the pain wasn’t worth it, Koufax made the tough decision to walk away from the game he loved while he was at the top. The BBWAA made an excellent decision to induct him on first ballot, rightfully recognizing the immense quality of his innings rather than the quantity.
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