The Brooklyn Years
Sandy Koufax, to me was the greatest pitcher ever. But prior to 1961, would anyone have said that? His first six years weren’t that great.
Or were they? I was recently reading one of my favourite baseball books, Clearing The Bases, by Allen Barra where he remarked that Sandy was “a much better pitcher before 1961 season then is generally recognized”.
I was actually intrigued by this. Barra mentioned that Koufax lead the league in lowest batting average against 8 times in his career. And if he only had six great (or 1 good and 5 great) seasons, that must mean he was doing something right before '61! Furthermore, Richard made note that he thought that Koufax had seven good years, including 1960, when he was just 8-13. I generally don’t consider that kind of record to be a great year. Add to that his ERA was high (3.91). His prime was his last 5 years before arthritis curtailed his career after the 1966 season, right?
So I decided to give his first 6 seasons a go, to look at real numbers and the circumstances to see if all suddenly came together. So here is what I'm going to do: leading up to 1962, broken down in the first three seasons (limited duty), in Brooklyn and thereafter, one blog per full (or almost) season.
Koufax’s first two years as a bonus baby for the still-Brooklyn Dodgers (1955, 1956) aren’t really worth mentioning because he pitched (41 2/3 and 58 2/3 innings) so little. Still, he had a good ERA his first season (3.02), albeit, again, few appearances.
He didn’t pitch much more in his second season as the Brooklyn Dodgers, for the second season, played in a seven game world series with the Yankees.
In 1957 Koufax was used enough to start to make his mark. He was only 5-4 in 34 games and tossed just 104 innings, but his 122 strikeouts were good enough for 9th place among National League hurlers. That’s also 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). His ERA dropped from 4.91 in just 58 2/3 innings in 1956, to 3.88 in this season.
With 51 walks, he averaged 4.4 walks per nine innings (BB/9). That’s not great, and would be a problem for Koufax until 1962, although, as you will soon see, he would begin compensating for that, this season with high strikeout marks and low hit totals against.
Speaking of which, he surrendered just 83 hits against for 7.2 hits per 9 innings (H/9). Opponents batted just .216 against Koufax.
Although he started 13 just games, he also finished 12 other games. In none of the games he finished did he earn a save. Also, because he pitched less than an inning per Dodger game (154), Koufax is not eligible for consideration when it comes to leading the league in any per game or per nine inning stats.
Barra, Allen Clearing The Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates Of The Last Century, pg 169-170, "Grove, Koufax and Clemens: A Comparison Across Time"