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Sandy Koufax: “The Left Hand Of God”

"Trying to hit Koufax, was like drinking coffee with a fork.” Willie Stargell/William Coppola Latino Sports

Los Angeles: Dodger HOF lefty, Sandy Koufax, was honored before today’s game at Dodger Stadium with a bronze statue being unveiled right next to Jackie Robinson’s statue. They are both located at the main entrance in the Centerfield Plaza where fans entering those gates will be ‘greeted’ by Jackie and Sandy. Wonder why it took so long. First for Robinson on the 70th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in 2017 and just now for Koufax.

It is true today that no conversation about Koufax can go without mentioning the next great Dodger lefty Clayton Kershaw. But let’s start with the greatest pitcher I ever saw play, Sandy Koufax. He was the pitcher on a beautiful summer day in 1956 in the first game I ever went to at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn N.Y.

I later saw him pitch game 1 of the 1963 World Series at the original Yankee Stadium. In that game he dominated the powerful Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson. He had 15 strikeouts that day. Richardson went down 3 times. This is a guy who only struck out 22 times in 668 plate appearances all year in 1963. The Dodgers would go on to sweep the Yankees in 4 games where Koufax would earn his first of three World Series MVP awards in 4 years.

But dominating in his last 6 years in a row was what catapulted him to a mega star. In those last 6 years of his career he amassed 1713 strikeouts, 129 wins to 47 losses. He also averaged 1.89 in ERA in that span. His next to last season he was 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 27 complete games with 382 strikeouts and only 71 walks! His last year he was 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 27 complete games with 317 strikeouts. My head is spinning just thinking of those last two seasons where he was awarded his last of 3 Cy Young awards. Until Nolan Ryan surpassed him with 7 no-hitters, he was the leader with 4 including a perfect game in 1965. Willie Stargell once said, “Trying to hit Koufax, was like drinking coffee with a fork.” It’s not hard to see why he was nicknamed “The Left Arm of God.” He decided to retire after the 1966 World Series at the age of 30 because of arm pain and is the youngest player ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

So how can we mention LA Dodger starter Clayton Kershaw in the same company as this super hero? Some say Kershaw is better. Has he dominated baseball for 13 of his 15 years? not like Koufax did in 6 years. His numbers over the years are very similar to Koufax. Sandy was 165-87, 2396 strikeouts with a 2.76 ERA over 12 years. Kershaw is 189-87, 2706 strikeouts with a 2.48 over 15 years. Understand this, Koufax had most of his strikeouts and wins in his last 6 years where as Kershaw has been piling them up for the better part of 13 years. Koufax wins this one. So who is better?

One of the differences and it is big in Koufax’s favor, is complete games, 137 with 40 shutouts in 12 years to Kershaw’s 25 complete games with 15 shutouts over 15 years. But the game is different today. Koufax pitched when starting pitchers were expected to go nine innings and Kershaw is held captive to the pitch count era. Sandy was what they called a bonus baby in 1955 and had to be put on the major league roster at 19 years old. He never played minor league ball and had to learn the game at the big league level. The Dodgers brought him along slowly and it took him until age 25 to burst on to the scene.

Because they took their time developing him at this level, Koufax averaged 7.4 innings per game over 12 seasons. Kershaw is at 6.2 over 15 years. Except for their delivery, their pitching styles are similar. The fast balls averaged between 90-93 mph. Curveballs are almost identical with that big arch at 73-74 mph. Pretty sure Koufax had something to do with that as he has always been close to Kershaw over the years. Kershaw throws more sliders than fastballs and Koufax relied on just his fastball and curve. All even here?

Is Kershaw equal or better? I say, “close but no cigars.” Koufax will always be the pitcher, lefty or righty, that all pitchers will be measured against for greatness. I expect that one day there could be another statue of another HOF player in the Centerfield Plaza honoring Kershaw, the other great lefty. But I wouldn’t get the bronze melted down too soon.

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