Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One pitcher, dominating a decade

It’s always a fun question to ask among friends, “Who would you give the ball to for one game if your life depended on it?” or “If the bases were loaded and your life was on the line, who would you want up?” Names such as Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Satchel Paige, and more recently Randy Johnson would come up for pitchers. Hitters like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, or newly David Ortiz would be in the conversation. Some would have better arguments than others, regardless of what decade they came from. The stats were always there but outside factors such as fearlessness, or clutch greatness were the influences that would end those conversations.  

The All-Century team was named at Fenway Park during the 2000 All-Star game, home of perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams. Many living legends arrived from the outfield wall just like players appearing the corn stock in “Field of Dreams.” For nearly two decades, Williams punished pitchers in Boston. His six batting titles are just a portion of his awards that attributes to his hall of fame career.  The great hitter retired in 1960. With the greatest hitter hanging them up, the next 10 of 12 years fear switched from one lefty to another. However, this one made his career on the mound.

Sandy Koufax

As unconventional as they come, Koufax would become dominant, but it didn’t happen overnight. Sandy would throw as hard as he could on every pitch and for five seasons it did not work in his favor, almost causing him to quit the game after the 1960 season where he finished 8-13. He threw his glove and cleats in the trash, only to be recovered by the clubhouse manager. Koufax would come back for a ’61 season, but not until he took the winter to get into the best shape of his life. Spring Training came around and Sandy would still be rearing back and firing with all he’s got. During a “B team” game, Dodgers’ catcher Norm Sherry gave Koufax some advice which some say was the turning point in his career. A simple quote of “Don’t throw so hard.” After walking in the bases loaded, Koufax threw a shut out the next seven innings during that ballgame.  A new Koufax was created. In that 1961 campaign, Koufax would break the National League strikeout record of 267 held by the great Christy Mathewson; A record that stood for 58 years.

We would go on to learn a lot more about the southpaw in 1962.  During this season, Koufax would throw his first no-hitter and would drop his season ERA below 3.00 for the first time in his career. However, his season was hampered by a popped artery in his palm. He was prone to injuries, but he was just getting better. The next four years would be his last as he would retire at the age of 30, but it is arguably the greatest four consecutive years ever assembled by any player or pitcher.
Major League Baseball expanded the strike zone in 1963 switching the advantage from the hitters to the pitchers overnight. Koufax now in more control of his pitching than ever would begin his dynasty and reign of the Cy Young award. Sandy threw his second career no-hitter against the Giants on May 11TH outdueling fellow hall of fame pitcher Juan Marichal. In the 1963 World Series Koufax beat Whitey Ford and the Yankees 5-2 in game one, striking out 15 batters including the first five of the game.  He would take the mound in game four and close the sweep to capture the World Series championship. Koufax finished the season 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and setting a new high in strikeouts with 306, giving him his first pitching triple crown along with the Cy Young and the 1963 MVP award. The only major league category Koufax seemed not to lead in was complete games. He had 11 while Bob Gibson recorded 13.

1964 was another great year for Sandy although an ailing elbow would cause him to miss starts. A 19-5 with a 1.74 ERA was still amongst the top of the list. The wing would not get any better going into the 1965 season. After pitching a complete spring training game in late March, Koufax woke up to see a black and blue arm, a sign of serious hemorrhaging. He would be told that pitching would be nearly impossible and soon would lose complete feeling in his arm.  Koufax would start taking medication, applying creams, and sticking his arm in ice baths after every game. Somehow that season, Sandy threw more innings than any other season, recording a lead 335.2 innings pitched. 

Then on September 9th, Koufax would become the 6th pitcher in modern-day baseball to throw a perfect game. The Dodgers would face the Minnesota Twins in the World Series and Koufax would be asked to pitch in games two, five and seven.  He won all three games he started including throwing complete games in game five and seven to bring the World Series trophy back to Los Angeles along with another Cy Young and World Series MVP award.  His season ending stats were a record of 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and a record setting 382 strikeouts giving him yet another pitching triple crown.
It’s always a good feeling to end on a high note, and that’s exactly what Sandy Koufax did, even with all the arm pain, holding out with teammate Don Drysdale during contract talks, and even starring in a movie, Koufax would pitch one more season. 1966 would be his final campaign and he gave it all he got. Koufax would set a career high in wins with 27, again lead the league in ERA with a 1.73 and record a league leading 317 strikeouts, giving him his 3rd pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young award.  The Dodgers once again made it back to the World Series, only to get swept by Jim Palmer and the Baltimore Orioles. 

In four trips to the World Series with the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax recorded a 4-3 record in 57 innings with a 0.95 ERA including four complete games and two shutouts.  In his 12-season career, Koufax had a 165–87 record with a 2.76 ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He was the first pitcher to average fewer than seven hits allowed per nine innings pitched in his career (6.79) and to strike out more than nine batters (9.28) per nine innings pitched in his career. He also became the 2nd pitcher in baseball history to have two games with 18 or more strikeouts, and the first to have eight games with 15 or more strikeouts. For 10 years, he was the best pitcher in the league. He will go down as the greatest left handed pitcher of all time.