It has been 50 years since Sandy Koufax last pitched in the major leagues, but his legacy still looms large, as vast as the sun that shines over Dodger Stadium on a cloudless Southern California afternoon. Indeed, in our #MLBRank of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, this was the order of the top three:
I suppose that order isn't even necessarily so controversial -- I suspect some might scoff at Kershaw, just 125 wins into his superlative career, ranking ahead of the likes of Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and Lefty Grove -- but I'm here to suggest this: I believe the panel is wrong.
Sandy Koufax, mythological figure and all, isn't the greatest left-hander of all time.
The declaration for Koufax as best ever rests with his five-year run of dominance that ended in 1966 with his retirement at the peak of his powers, no longer willing to endure the cortisone shots to dull the pain in his elbow.
"To take a shot every other ballgame is more than I wanted to do and to walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you're taking painkillers, I don't want to have to do that," he said at his retirement announcement.
Let's start here, and with apologies to Spahn, Carlton and the criminally underrated Grove, compare our top three guys and their best five-year runs:
In those five seasons, Koufax led the National League in ERA all years. In two of those seasons, he missed some time with injuries, but in the other three he topped 300 innings and compiled win-loss records of 25-5, 26-8 and 27-9, win totals that seem almost unfathomable in today's games of pitch counts and five-man rotations and quick hooks for starters.
It's an impressive record, no doubt; Koufax won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP award (and finished second in two other votes). In 1963, he threw 11 shutouts. In 1965, he struck out 382 batters and held batters to .179 average while throwing 27 complete games -- more than Kershaw has thrown in his career.
It was, of course, a different era, a good era for pitchers, and few places were better to pitch than Dodger Stadium, then notorious for the highest mound in baseball. Koufax's ascent in 1962 to the best pitcher in the game coincided not just with a sudden improvement in his control, but with the opening of Dodger Stadium. And Koufax loved Dodger Stadium. His home/road splits from 1962-1966:
Home: 57-15, 1.37 ERA
Road: 54-19, 2.57 ERA
He was most extreme in 1964, when he posted 0.85 at home and 2.93 on the road. Despite the ERA difference, note that there wasn't a large difference in win-loss record. Dodger Stadium was simply a tough place to hit, and Koufax took advantage of that. He could allow more runs on the road yet still win games.
That's where the ERA+ figure above comes in. That number attempts to adjust for home park effects and the overall run-scoring environment of the league. So while Johnson has the highest ERA of the three, he has the best adjusted ERA (higher is better). It's close, but Koufax's domination is now put into a different perspective. Then we look at Wins Above Replacement, and Johnson's five-year total exceeds Koufax's.
Then the kicker: These aren't even the five best seasons of Johnson's career. He won four straight NL Cy Young Awards with the Diamondbacks from 1999 to 2002, but 1998 -- when he was traded from the Mariners to the Astros -- was a ho-hum 19-11 season with a 3.28 ERA. In 1997, he'd gone 20-4 with a 2.28 ERA. In the strike-shortened 1995 season, he went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA.
Even if you think Koufax had the best five-year peak, how can you rank him over Johnson, who had the same or better peak and a much longer career?
On the other hand ... we still have the Koufax mythology, the World Series wins, electing not to pitch on Yom Kippur, the credit everyone seems to give him for the "what if" phase of the rest of his career that never happened. He started seven World Series games, with an 0.98 ERA. He lost three of those games, though he gave up a total of just three earned runs in those defeats. Most famously, he started Game 7 of the 1965 World Series on two days of rest and threw a three-hit shutout.
Johnson, meanwhile, won three games in the 2001 World Series, but also struggled at times in the postseason and once went seven starts in a row without a win. Kershaw has his postseason apologists and while he was better in last year's division series, he has yet to deliver that signature playoff performance that we'll be talking about 50 years later and is 2-6 with a 4.45 ERA in 10 starts.
So there's something to the Koufax legend that matters beyond the statistics. We want those stories, we want performances to tell the next generations about, to remind them we love the game.
So if you want Koufax as your No. 1 guy, I understand. But Johnson tops my list. He's the greatest left-hander of all time.
At least until we see what Kershaw does over the next decade.