A version of this story first ran in January 2022.
In 1972, Sandy Koufax was officially voted into the Hall of Fame, alongside Yogi Berra and Early Wynn. He was only 36 years old, a sign both of how dominant he was at his best and the premature end to his career.
Nearly 300 pitchers in AL/NL history have started more games than Koufax. Nearly 200 have racked up more wins. Eighty-one have accrued more wins above replacement (WAR), as a pitcher, per Baseball-Reference.
But few have crafted a legacy as respected and enduring as the Dodgers left-hander, especially in so short a time.
Koufax only pitched in the Majors for 12 seasons and didn’t truly find his form until the last six of those. He suited up for the last time before his 31st birthday. Yet Koufax’s peak performance was so breathtaking — and his style so indelible — that more than a half-century after elbow woes forced an early retirement, his name still conjures thoughts of greatness and glory.
Such great heights: An all-time peak
Koufax’s career can be conveniently split into two halves, one before he harnessed his stuff and one after.
1955-60: 4.10 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 22.5% K-rate, 13.4% BB-rate, 6.7 WAR
1961-66: 2.19 ERA, 2.16 FIP, 26.5% K-rate, 6.4% BB-rate, 46.4 WAR
How overwhelming was Koufax in those last six seasons? During that time, he made the All-Star team every year and led the National League in the following categories: innings (twice), complete games (twice), shutouts (three times), wins (three times), ERA (five times), ERA+ (twice), FIP (six times), WHIP (four times), strikeouts (four times), K-rate (five times), hits-per-nine-innings (five times), K-to-BB ratio (three times) and pitching WAR (twice). Koufax had a nearly 8-WAR lead over any other pitcher during that span and is one of just nine pitchers in the Live Ball Era (since 1920) with multiple 10-WAR campaigns.
Going out on top: 36 WAR in his last 4 years
What’s perhaps most amazing about the second half of Koufax’s career is that he was frequently in agony during that time, after developing severe arthritis in his left elbow. Koufax tried all sorts of treatments, but medicine was hardly as advanced as it is today, and there was little he could do to escape the pain. Despite that, Koufax threw nearly 1,200 regular-season innings over his last four years and piled up 36.3 pitching WAR. The only pitchers in the Live Ball Era to do better over any four-season span are Lefty Grove (1929-32 and ’30-’33), Randy Johnson (1999-2002) and Pedro Martinez (1997-2000). Nobody has come remotely close to Koufax over their final four seasons.
Most pitching WAR in final 4 seasons
1920-2022, per Baseball-Reference
1) Sandy Koufax (1963-66): 36.3
2) Cliff Lee (2011-14): 20.2
3) Brandon Webb (2006-09): 18.8
4) Roger Clemens (2004-07): 18.2
5) Don Wilson (1971-74): 18.0
Best of his ERA: Five NL titles
In each of his final five seasons, Koufax led the NL in ERA, making him the only pitcher in history to finish first in his league (AL or NL) in that category so many years in a row. (He also led in FIP in each of those five, not that anyone knew what FIP was at the time). Koufax’s total ERA over those five seasons was 1.95, and he is the only pitcher in the Live Ball Era to post an ERA under 1.90 in three different qualifying seasons. Despite his slow start, Koufax’s 2.76 career ERA ranks fourth in the Live Ball Era among those with at least 2,000 innings.
The king: Three MLB Triple Crowns
The Triple Crown is most famous with regard to hitters (batting average, home runs, RBIs), but there’s one for pitchers, too (wins, ERA, strikeouts). Koufax not only won three NL pitching Triple Crowns (1963, ’65, ’66), he actually led all of MLB in the three categories in each of those seasons. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Koufax is the only pitcher to finish first in the Majors in wins, ERA and strikeouts in the same season three different times since earned runs became an official stat in both leagues in 1913. Since Koufax’s trifecta, all pitchers combined have accomplished the feat just three times (Dwight Gooden in 1985, Johan Santana in 2006 and Shane Bieber in a shortened season in 2020).
K is for Koufax: 382 in a season
With his blazing fastball and plummeting curveball, Koufax was a nightmare for hitters, especially in this era before the mound was lowered in 1969. He finished in the top 10 in the NL in strikeouts in each of his last 10 seasons (1957-66) and in the top three seven times. Koufax led the Majors in 1961 (269), ’63 (306), ’65 (382) and ’66 (317), with Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Nolan Ryan the only other pitchers in the Modern Era (since 1900) to reach the 300 mark three times. That total of 382 in 1965 set a modern single-season record, since surpassed only by Ryan (383 in 73).
Home sweet home: Dominant at Dodger Stadium
Dodger Stadium didn’t open until 1962, and it’s not a complete coincidence that Koufax’s career took off at about that point. The new ballpark was heaven for pitchers in those days, and Koufax was untouchable there. Here are his seasonal ERAs at Dodger Stadium, each of which came in more than 100 innings: 1.75, 1.38, 0.85, 1.38 and 1.52. That 0.85 mark is a Live Ball Era record at any ballpark (minimum 100 innings), and all five seasons rank in the top 100. Postseason included, Koufax made 88 career starts at Dodger Stadium and allowed more than three earned runs in just four of them (4.5%).
Lowest career ERA at any ballpark
Min. 500 IP, 1920-2022
1) Sandy Koufax: 1.37 (Dodger Stadium)
2) Jacob deGrom: 2.12 (Citi Field)
3) Don Drysdale: 2.19 (Dodger Stadium)
4) Clayton Kershaw: 2.22 (Dodger Stadium)
5) Dean Chance: 2.24 (Dodger Stadium)
Cy collector: Three awards in four years
Koufax is one of 11 pitchers in Major League history to claim at least three Cy Young Awards, and he is the only one of the 10 to do so in the era when there was just one award (1956-66), instead of separate awards for the AL and NL. All three came in a four-season span and remain three of the most impressive Cy-winning campaigns of all time. Koufax won unanimously in 1963 (when he was also the NL MVP), ’65 and ’66 and finished third in ’64 (the Angels’ Dean Chance was first). He was the first pitcher to win in back-to-back years, a club that has now grown to 11. And Koufax is the only pitcher in MLB history to win a Cy in his final season.
Mr. Zero: Four no-hitters
The indestructible Ryan is the all-time record holder with seven no-hitters, the last of which came when he was 44 — 14 years older than Koufax was in his final game. But besides Ryan, no pitcher can match Koufax’s four no-hitters, which amazingly all came in a span of barely more than three years, between June 30, 1962, and Sept. 9, 1965. Koufax is the only pitcher to throw one in four consecutive seasons, with three of those performances including at least a dozen strikeouts. The lefty joins Cy Young himself as the only hurlers to include a perfect game among a group of at least three no-nos. The perfecto came against the Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965, when Koufax struck out 14, which is tied for the most in such a performance. Koufax’s 101 Game Score that day is tied for the fourth-highest on record in an outing of no more than nine innings.
Owning October: 0.95 postseason ERA
Koufax still boasts one of the most impressive postseason résumés in Major League history. He made eight career playoff appearances, including seven starts (all in the World Series, which back then was the only round), and threw 57 innings with a 0.95 ERA. That remains the lowest in history for a pitcher with at least five postseason starts and the second lowest for a pitcher with 40-plus innings, trailing only legendary closer Mariano Rivera (0.70). Koufax dominated. He struck out 61 batters in those 57 innings, threw four complete games and two shutouts, and allowed a mere .180/.223/.240 batting line (.463 OPS).
A Fall Classic Favorite: Two-time World Series MVP
The Dodgers won three of the four World Series in which Koufax pitched (1959, ’63, ’65), and he had a lot to do with that. In the latter two of those series, Koufax was named the World Series MVP, making him one of three multiple-time winners, along with fellow Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson.
Against the Yankees in 1963, Koufax set a postseason record — since equaled or bettered by six others — with 15 strikeouts in Game 2 before coming back on three days’ rest to finish off the sweep with a Game 4 complete game. Against the Twins in ’65, when Koufax famously sat out Game 1 in observance of Yom Kippur, he took a tough-luck loss in Game 2 but then came roaring back with shutouts in Game 5 (three days’ rest) and Game 7 (two days’ rest). Koufax remains the most recent of five pitchers to throw multiple shutouts in the same World Series, and he is the only one to twirl two starts with a Game Score of 88 or better in any single postseason series.
Hello, Hall: Inducted at 36
Koufax’s peak was so impressive that even though he hung up his spikes at age 30, there was no doubt that he was Hall of Fame-worthy. When Koufax first came on the ballot in 1972, he cruised past the 75% threshold, netting 86.9% of the vote. For the sake of comparison, that’s a higher percentage than fellow lefty Warren Spahn got on his first ballot a year later (83.2%) or than another southpaw, Whitey Ford, got on his second ballot in ’74 (77.8%). Koufax was only 36 at the time, which makes him the youngest inductee in Hall history, and he’s now been enshrined in Cooperstown for more than 50 years.
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