A few years ago, I wrote an article called The Best Pitchers of All Time. It was an admittedly grandiose title, one intended to get lots of hits from search engines and that sort of thing.
The article itself was a vehicle for rolling out a variation of Bill James’ Win Shares system I had created, called Win Shares Above Bench. Previously, I had rolled out a couple of articles ranking the best hitters of all time, but the titles of those pieces were pretty boring.
Evidently, my titling strategy worked because I still get emails about that pitching piece (I never get emails about the hitter rankings). But, mostly I still get emails about the article because I left Sandy Koufax off my list of the 40 greatest pitchers ever.
The response is understandable. From 1962 through 1966, Koufax was 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA. He finished first in ERA all five years and won three Cy Young awards. He won one MVP and finished second in MVP voting twice. He was also terrific in the postseason, with a 0.95 ERA. He was dominant.
Still, I left the guy off my top 40 list, and I feel I owe people an explanation. Instead of responding to emails individually, I’ve decided to just post my reasoning here and refer to it in the future. It will save me a lot of typing.
So…where to begin? Well, one commenter told me I never would have left him off the list if I had actually seen him pitch. Let me assure you that I am an old man. I saw Koufax pitch. He was indeed a great pitcher in the early 1960’s—when I was at my most impressionable, to boot—but my article wasn’t about impressions. It was about a new metric that I was pretty proud of (still am, in fact). And in Win Shares Above Bench, Koufax not only doesn’t rank in the top 40, he’s 91st.
Crazy, you say? Well, maybe. But other, comparable systems also rate Koufax below the top 40. Sean Smith’s WAR rates him 61st all time. In the 2007 THT Annual, David Gassko rates him 64th. If you want to argue that WSAB is wrong and Koufax should be 30 places higher, I can accept that. But 50 places higher? Nope. Here’s why.
One. Sandy Koufax pitched in a very pitcher-friendly environment. Here is a graph of the average number of runs scored per game throughout baseball history, with Koufax’s five prime years highlighted:
Teams scored an average of 4.09 runs per game in Koufax’s prime. The overall major league average has been 4.39. Plus, he pitched in Dodger Stadium, a notorious pitcher’s park at the time, with a pitching park factor of .91. So the effective run environment in which Koufax pitched was .91 times 4.09, or 3.72 runs per game—more than half a run less than the historical major league average.
To hammer home the point, Koufax’s ERA in Dodger Stadium was 1.37. Not for one year, for his career. You could even go so far as to say that the ballpark was primarily responsible for the first of his five superb years (1962).
So the baseline, the essential comparison point, for Koufax’s fantastic five years is different than that for most pitchers. As a final consideration, look at Koufax’s ranking in ERA+, a measure that accounts for run environments. Koufax is 37th in all-time ERA+. Yes, that’s in the top 40. But I’m just getting started.
One(A). ERA+ is flawed in a way that helps pitchers in low run environments. In fact, this is one of my pet statistical peeves. However, it’s not a big deal and that’s all I’ll say about it.
Two. Koufax pitched in the aftermath of major league baseball’s first big expansion. On a percentage basis, the hitting talent may have been more diluted from the previous years than in any other time in history. Koufax posted a 1.90 ERA against the Astros and a phenomenal 1.44 ERA against the Mets. The next lowest team-specific ERA he posted was 2.44 (Cubs). I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that Koufax’s five best years occurred immediately after the league expanded and the Dodgers moved into Dodger Stadium.
Three. Koufax only had five great years. Now, five is a lot and what’s more, he had them consecutively. That is extremely impressive. In fact, if you rank pitchers by something I called All-Star Win Shares (which only considers years in which players were above average and doesn’t discount the below-average years), Koufax is 31st all time. Koufax is justifiably revered for those five fantastic years.
But he had very few “pretty good” years before that and, of course, his career ended abruptly due to arthritis. Outside of the big five, he wasn’t an above-average pitcher overall. If you don’t want to count those years against him, perhaps he should rank in the top 40. But when you do include them, it is very difficult to say that he was a top 40 pitcher.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Sandy Koufax. He was an amazing pitcher and, from all accounts, he’s a terrific person. But I’m the type of person who ranks people according to stats and not according to impressions. I also believe in ranking players fairly, taking care to incorporate as much context as possible and including their entire careers—not just their peaks. And that’s why Sandy Koufax didn’t make my list of the greatest pitchers of all time.