Throw your back out? Get lots of rest.
Trying to lose weight? Avoid fat at all costs.
Best pitcher in Dodgers history? Sandy Koufax.
Orthodoxy. It's a complicated stew. Equal parts tradition, experience, ignorance and inertia. No sport embraces it, perpetuates it, and closes ranks around it like baseball. Orthodoxy adheres like a scab. How else to explain that managers, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, still consider the sacrifice bunt an effective use of an out? How else to explain the perceived legitimacy of saves? RBI? How else to explain the notion held by many that the game was somehow played at a higher level 90 years ago?
Part of the Koufax orthodoxy, of course, is his legend: Retired at 30, at the height of his game, the height of his fame. And then, gone. He never hawked a book, lent his name, or became an autograph factory.[i] Never a hint of scandal, a suggestion of bad behavior. He'd make his Spring Training visits to the Mets or the Dodgers, to see old friends and talk to the kids, and the press covered these casual afternoons like matters of state. Then he'd disappear again, go back to his life. Fifty years of repose; fifty years of grace; fifty years of dignity. Five decades, essentially, of silence. Baseball's Garbo. All the while, his legend grew, until it overshadowed even his magnificent accomplishments on the mound. He's not just the best pitcher in Dodgers' history; he was—is—often mentioned among the greatest handful of pitchers of all time, more monument than man to generations of fans.
The thing is, we now know that in many cases exercise is a much better treatment than rest for a bad back. We now know that fat isn't the great nutritional bogeyman—sugar is the One Who Knocks.
And it's pretty clear that Clayton Kershaw, not Sandy Koufax, is the best pitcher in the history of the Dodgers' franchise.
Drysdale was the great intimidator—he plunked 154 batters over his 14-year career (while knocking down countless others), and there was no doubt regarding intent: "Big D" was never shy about taking credit for the contusions he created.[ii] "My own little rule was two for one," Drysdale once explained. "If one of my teammates got knocked down, then I knocked down two of the other team. And if they knocked down two, I knocked down four."
Orlando Cepeda concurred. "The trick against Drysdale is to hit him before he hits you."
Drysdale was 19 years old when he broke in with the club; at 20 he was a star, going 17-9 with a 153 ERA+. At 32, he was retired (after averaging more than 275 innings/season for a decade). He had a fearsome fastball in his prime and wonderful control, issuing only 732 unintentional passes over his 3400 innings (less than two walks per nine, if you strip intentional walks from the equation). But Drysdale produced only two truly exceptional seasons: His Cy Young campaign in 1962 (25-9, leading the league in IP and SO), and 1964, when he pitched to an 8.0 WAR and 147 ERA+ over 321 innings (but was saddled with a desultory 18-16 record by a fickle Dodgers offense). He had several other very good years, but his relatively short career and modest peak relegate him to fourth on this list.
Charles Arthur "Dazzy" Vance. A face only a mother could love, a right arm that could launch a thousand ships. Dazzy Vance didn't stick in the majors until he was 31 years old, but the ancient rookie made up for lost time, winning 18 games and leading the league in strikeouts and shutouts.[iii] It was just the beginning: In his 11 seasons with the Brooklyn club, Vance claimed the 1924 MVP award (at the expense of Rogers Hornsby, who hit .424), seven consecutive strikeout titles, and three ERA titles. He also led the league in K/BB ratio eight times, fielding independent pitching (FIP) seven times, pitcher WAR four times, WHIP and ERA+ three times apiece.
Again, all of this accomplished after the age of 31.
By some measures, his 1924 masterpiece is one of the most dominant seasons ever by a pitcher. Vance towered over the league in 1924. His 28 victories were six more than the next highest total; his 2.16 ERA was more than half a run lower than the next best; his 262 strikeouts were nearly twice as many as runner-up Burleigh Grimes (the only other pitcher in the league to record more than 100 strikeouts).
Those are astonishing numbers, but they might understate the extent to which Vance imposed his will on the league. In 1924, Dazzy Vance struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings, against a league average of 2.8 K/9. To put that in perspective, NL pitchers in 2016 struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings. The league leader in this category was Miami's Jose Fernandez (RIP), who fanned batters at a rate about 50% greater than league average (12.5 K/9).[iv] Vance? Vance sent batters muttering back to the bench almost three times as often as his league's average. As Don Sutton might quip, Vance didn't just get hitters out; he took their dignity.
He's probably the greatest pitcher in the history of the franchise, if not the best. And to avoid getting caught in that semantic net, we'll let the reader define greatness by answering a simple question: If you had to win one game--to pay a bet to Tony Soprano, to save a puppy, to buy a year of life--who else among the Dodgers all-time staff would you want on the mound?
- 1959 World Series: Despite allowing but a single run over seven innings, Koufax is on the losing end of a Game Five decision against the White Sox. His final WS line (which includes a two-inning relief stint in Game One) for the 1959 WS: 9 IP/1.00 ERA/7 K/1 BB.
- 1963 World Series: Koufax pitches two complete-game victories (including the Game Four clincher) to vanquish the last of the great Yankees teams and claim his first World Series MVP award. His final line: 18 IP/1.50 ERA/23 K/3 BB.
- 1965 World Series: "The Left Arm of God" yields two runs (one earned) against the Twins in the sixth inning of Game Two. It’s the first and last time he’s touched in the series. His final line: One earned run (0.38 ERA) over 24 innings (including a Game Seven, three-hit shutout). In total, Koufax allows 13 hits, fans 29 and walks five en route to his second World Series MVP honor.
- 1966 World Series: Three (!) fifth-inning errors by Dodgers' center fielder Willie Davis yield three runs and doom Koufax to the loss. In the final start of his brilliant career, Koufax surrenders one earned run in six innings (not that it mattered: The Dodgers hit .142/.226/.192 as a team this Series, scoring two runs in four games).
- Koufax' final career post-season line: 57 IP/0.95 ERA/61 K/11 BB/0.825 WHIP
- Kershaw's current post-season line: 89 IP/4.55 ERA/106 K/27 BB/1.157 WHIP
No, it's not necessarily a fair comp--and it certainly doesn't do Kershaw any favors. But Kershaw doesn't need any favors:
He's already the best.
At first blush, the two might appear statistical doppelgangers: Koufax counts five ERA titles; Kershaw four. Koufax led his league in strikeouts four times; Kershaw three. If pitcher wins mean anything to you, Koufax paced his league three times; Kershaw twice. FIP, WHIP, K/9, K/BB, etc, etc: Take our word for it: Lots and lots of black ink among them. Each can count three Cy Young awards and an MVP trophy on their mantle. WAR rates them as equals: Koufax saved 484 runs over the course of his career as compared to a replacement-level pitcher; Kershaw is at 469 and counting.
Despite these superficial similarities, it's not really that close: Kershaw has been much more efficient (as evidenced by his stronger WHIP), has had significantly better command (as evidenced by his lower FIP and higher SO/W ratio), and has been more dominant relative to his league: Entering his age-29 season, Kershaw currently holds the mark for the lowest adjusted career ERA (ERA+) of any starting pitcher in baseball history.[vi] And what that 159 ERA+ tells us right here, right now, is no starting pitcher in history has been more effective, relative to when and where he pitched, than Kershaw. Among the best pitchers in Dodgers' history (minimum 1500 IP), only Koufax is within 30 basis points of Kershaw's mark.[vii]
OK, Kershaw is obviously great. But as Tom Glavine recently told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick: "Sandy's five-year run was probably the greatest in the history of the game."
Career or peak, Kershaw surrenders fewer hits, walks and home runs--and strikes out a greater percentage of hitters--than the immortal Koufax.[viii] He's far more dominant, relative to his league, than the immortal Koufax. He's been better in just about every way (save those pesky post-seasons) than the immortal Koufax.
Orthodoxy, as stubborn as it is, can be rewritten. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the history of the Dodgers franchise.
[ii] Koufax, by comparison, hit only 18 of the 9497 batters he faced.
[iii] Vance struggled with arm injuries for years. A nebulous procedure in 1920 apparently cured him of his woes. Pain-free for the first time in a decade, Vance quickly realized the immense but intermittent potential he displayed for eight teams in the minors.
[iv] Which is pretty extraordinary in its own right, especially when one considers bullpens pitched more than 35% of all MLB innings in 2016, which skews K/9 rates higher.
[v] Combine what Koufax achieved at 30 yrs old and Vance's career after age 31, and you get this hypothetical Frankenstein's monster of a career line: 362-225/4423 K/5258 IP/128 ERA+/115 WAR (almost as impressive as what Roger Clemens accomplished all by his lonesome).
[vi] If Koufax' WHIP is surprisingly high to you, it's because the Left Arm of God walked a less-than-divine 5.3 batters per 9 innings over his first 700 or so major league innings. His WHIP after he figured things out was a more Koufax-like 0.970
[vii] Among active players, Kershaw laps the field: Only Chris Sale is within hailing distance (135 ERA+). Pedro Martinez currently ranks second on the career list at 154+, albeit it in 1000 additional innings.
[viii] Kershaw has averaged an absurd 8.5 K/BB over his last three seasons; Koufax' single best mark in this category is 5.38.