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#200 Sandy Koufax

12/01/2011

From the scan, this card looks pretty good. But it is creased right through the upper half of Koufax’s face, which knocked it down into a good price range for me to pick up a couple of years ago.

The trivia question asks “who holds the lifetime mark for times at bat?” Now, I’m not sure if Topps meant plate appearances or at bats, but the answer in 1964 would’ve been the same: Ty Cobb. In terms of at bats, Cobb broke Honus Wagner’s record in 1926 and finished with 11,434. He held the record until 1974, when he was passed by Hank Aaron. Pete Rose passed Aaron in 1982 and still holds the record at 14,053. The story is much the same in plate appearances. Cobb clipped Wagner’s mark in late 1925, and he again held the record until 1974 at 13,068. Again, Aaron took over the record in 1974 and held it until Rose broke it in 1982. Rose still holds the record at 15,861.

There’s not much that can be said about Sandy Koufax that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Koufax is of course considered one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history despite a general lack of longevity. But until 1963, his numbers were not spectacular, largely due to a lack of control. His stat line from 1955 through 1962 looks like this:

68W, 60L, 3.71 ERA, 110 ERA+, 1.31 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 4.4 BB/9, 9.3 K/9, 1.0 HR/9

Now, these aren’t terrible numbers, but it doesn’t look like he’s headed for a HOF career at this point, although the strikeout rate and hit rates are nice. 1962 is really where things started to turn around for him, when he got the walk rate down to 2.8 and had a career-high K rate of 10.5. He also led the NL in ERA at 2.54, despite having to miss some starts due to a hand injury. This was to some degree affected by the Dodgers moving from the L.A. Coliseum to Dodger Stadium, a move that greatly favored pitchers in general.

In 1963, Koufax began what is likely the most dominant four-year stretch by a modern pitcher. The numbers from those years (the last four of his career):

97 W, 27 L, 1.86 ERA, 172 ERA+, 0.91 WHIP, 6.2 H/9, 2.0 BB/9, 9.3 K/9, 0.6 HR/9

These were startling stats, especially considering the intense pain Koufax pitched through over (at least) the last three years. He won the Cy Young in 1963, 1965 and 1966. His 1964 season was cut short by the arthritis that caused his career to end at age 30. He threw “only” 223 innings and won “just” 19 games, but had an ERA of 1.74 and finished third in the Cy Young voting (Dean Chance had a really great year for the Angels, and these were the days before there were awards for each league).

Koufax threw a no-hitter in each season between 1962 and ’65. His 1964 version came on June 4 against the Phillies. The only baserunner came on a walk to Dick Allen.

Very few hitters had Koufax’s number, especially late in his career. In 1964, it was Deron Johnson that hit him hard, getting three homers against Koufax that season in 17 PA — he was the only player to hit multiple homers off Koufax in ’64.

As far as careers go, Hank Aaron had the most success of Koufax. He hit .362/.431/.647 with seven homers in 130 PA. Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and (oddly) Felipe Alou also hit seven homers off Koufax.

I’ve only been able to see Sandy pitch via some old filmed games that have been posted over the years on MLB.com. It’s often been said that Koufax tipped his pitches by the way he positioned his hands in his wind-up, yet opposing batters still couldn’t hit him.

Koufax was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 at the age of 36 and is still alive and well at age 75, though he has remained largely out of the public eye since resigning as an instructor with the Dodgers in 1990.

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