Posted November 18, 2013

Is Clayton Kershaw better right now than Sandy Koufax? No (not yet). More valuable? Yes

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax
Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax

Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax have combined to win five Cy Young awards. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Forty-seven years ago today, on Nov. 18, 1966, Sandy Koufax announced his retirement from baseball due to chronic arthritis in his left elbow. It was a shocking decision given that Koufax had been the most dominant pitcher in baseball over the previous four seasons. From 1963 to ’66, he had averaged a 24-7 record, 307 strikeouts and a 1.86 ERA, winning three out of four Cy Young awards at a time before each league had its own award. That brief run as the best pitcher in baseball, plus the two All-Star seasons that preceded it and his dominance in four World Series (0.95 ERA, four complete games, two shutouts in seven starts and one scoreless relief appearance) made him a Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility and a permanent part of any discussion about the greatest pitcher of all time.

There is now another Dodgers lefty who is at the forefront of any discussion about the greatest pitchers in the game today. That man is Clayton Kershaw, who last week won his second NL Cy Young award in the past three seasons (he finished second in 2012). Koufax, for all his incredible accomplishments, never once posted a park- and league-adjusted ERA+ as high as Kershaw’s 194 this past season (Koufax’s best mark was 190 in his final season). In addition, the first of Koufax’s Cy Young awards didn’t come until his age-27 season, whereas Kershaw has won two before the age of 26. Kershaw still has a long way to go, of course, but he has accomplished so much so soon that there is a very real possibility that he could one-day do the unthinkable: surpass Koufax as the greatest lefthanded pitcher in Dodgers history.

Of course, for that to happen, Los Angeles has to pay big money to keep him around. Kershaw is due to be a free agent after the 2014 season, making this offseason the Dodgers’ last best chance to sign him to an extension before he hits the market. In some ways, that puts Kershaw in the same position this winter that Koufax was in when he and fellow L.A. ace Don Drysdale staged a joint holdout during spring training of 1966.

At the time of the holdout, Koufax, like Kershaw now, had won two of the last three Cy Young awards (Koufax was third across both leagues in his “off” year of 1964). Koufax had led the NL in ERA each of the last four seasons and the majors in strikeouts in his two Cy Young years. Kershaw has led the majors in ERA each of the last three seasons and the NL in strikeouts in his two Cy Young campaigns. Both were undeniably the best pitcher in baseball when they entered their negotiations with the Dodgers.

That’s where the similarities end, however. One can’t compare the two situations financially. Koufax’s holdout came a decade before real free agency. His $110,000 salary in 1965 was already among the highest in the game, and the two-year, $260,000 contract Willie Mays signed that February was the richest in baseball history. Without the threat of actual free agency, Koufax, who was seeking a three-year joint contract with Drysdale worth a total of more than $1 million, wound up settling for one-year at $125,000. Kershaw, meanwhile, is coming off a two-year, $19 million deal, and seems sure to land the richest pitching contract ever, surpassing the $180 million, seven-year extension that Justin Verlander signed with the Tigers in March. In fact, Kershaw stands an excellent chance of becoming the first pitcher to sign a contract that exceeds $200 million in total value.

There is often speculation about how much pre-free-agency players would be worth in today’s game, and while the situations of Koufax and Kershaw aren’t exactly the same and there are several variables at play, it’s worth exploring which player would get the longer and richer contract if they had similar circumstances. Let’s assume Koufax, at the time of his holdout, was in the same position Kershaw is now: coming off a $19 million contract with free agency looming after the coming season. He would still be a 30-year-old with chronic arm problems whose arthritic pitching elbow had sent him to the disabled list in each of the last two seasons and which required cortisone shots and painkillers just so he could take the mound.

What would that version of Koufax have been worth on today’s market? It’s an interesting question, one clouded significantly by the condition of his elbow, a condition that was common knowledge at the time. As Jane Leavy wrote in her acclaimed biography of Koufax in 2002: Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, “back issues of sports magazines and deadline newspaper stories from 1964 on reveal endless speculation over how long and how effectively he could pitch.”

Put a 30-year-old Koufax with that arthritic elbow in Kershaw’s place this winter and there very well may have been no pressure for the Dodgers to extend him at all, and if they did, they may well have only bought out his first free agent year. Coming off that presumed two-year, $19 million contract, his second Cy Young award, a record 382 strikeouts and a pair of 10-strikeout shutouts in a victorious World Series, Koufax would be due for a big payday in his final arbitration year despite the elbow. Because of it, however, his hopes for an extension might have been limited to a two-year-deal in excess of $40 million. That’s nearly identical to the one two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum signed with the Giants in January 2012 heading into his age-28 season, before he stopped being effective.

By comparison, Kershaw won’t be 26 until March, has never spent a day on the disabled list and his left arm isn’t listed once in his injury history. It remains to be seen if Kershaw can ever equal Koufax in the hearts of Dodgers fans, but as an investment, he’s arguably more valuable right now than Koufax ever was.

37 comments
KeysSteven
KeysSteven

Wordsmith all you like, Cliff ("better" v "valuable"), the baseball gods consult Koufax for advice.

Clay's "not yet" even in Orel Hershiser's league.  Live in the moment but revel in baseball's history.   

samludu
samludu

The issue whether Kershaw is more valuable than Koufax going forward is pointless. Yes, Kershaw is young and healthy and, barring injury, likely has good years ahead of him. Koufax, at 30, was plagued by a chronically damaged left elbow, an ailment so bad he was told by his doctors that he risked permanent damage if he continued pitching. Only a moron would think Koufax would've been a sound financial investment over a significant period if he'd ignored that advice and continued pitching after 1966.

Corcoran admits "the situations of Kershaw and Koufax aren't exactly the same." Exactly? Hardly at all. 

It would've been interesting to compare Kershaw as an investment to one of his contemporaries. More apples to apples. No, instead, he took the superficial route (for all his verbiage) by comparing the relative value of two Dodger lefthanders who won consecutive ERA titles and multiple Cy Young and who last name had two syllables and began with the letter K. 


frangooch32
frangooch32

This is crazy. Koufax pitched a complete game shutout in game 7 of the 65 WS on two days rest. Koufax beat the unbeatable 63 yankees twice in a 4 game sweep. When Koufax took the mound, the opposing team usually just tossed their gloves on the field and gave up. Virtually guaranteed wins--look at his win percentage. Is that valuable? Duh.

Kershaw choked in the biggest game of his life this year.

Stat monkeys ruin the game.


MorphySmith
MorphySmith

Funny how today's writers think thet THEY know who is better than the HOFs from years ago. Just because you see these guys pitch in person does NOT mean they are better. look at the watered down leagues, look at all the SO's because batters these days only want Homeruns. makes for EASIER pitching I would say.

samludu
samludu

Koufax pitched every four days, not every five days like Kershaw and today's other coddled pitchers, who are laughingly called "innings eaters" if they manage to throw 200 innings in a season. In his prime, Koufax pitched more than 300 innings per season and once struck out 382. And he did it with an arthritic left elbow. Think Kershaw could throw that many innings? Healthy or otherwise? Want to talk about how many complete games Koufax pitched as opposed to Kershaw? No contest. No-hitters? Again, no contest. 

Today you can win a Cy Young Award winning just 16 games. You couldn't do that in Koufax's era. You could routinely win 20 games or more a season and never win a Cy Young. (See the great Juan Marichal.) And in Koufax's time, they only gave out one Cy Young, not one for each league.

Want to talk World Series performances? Koufax was supreme. Kershaw lost both games this Series and had a very high ERA. Very disappointing.

It's funny. Every time a pitcher comes along and accomplishes significant things, whether it's Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens or Greg Maddiux or Clayton Kershaw, they're inevitably compared to Sandy Koufax. Why? Because he's the benchmark, the gold standard.

As Willie Stargell once said, "Trying to hit Koufax is like trying to eat soup with a fork."


Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips

Obviously this was written by someone who bases everything on stats and never watched the Dodgers in the early-mid 60's when they were dependent on pitching to win two championships and go to the World Series 3 times in 4 years and lost the National League championship in a playoff in another year or it would've been 4 out of 5. Kershaw's a great pitcher but he doesn't compare......yet.

MyDogWally
MyDogWally

One of the amazing things about Koufax is that he amassed his amazing records in an era when the Dodgers were a terrible-hitting team.  That he was able to hold his opponents to under 2 runs per game is not just remarkable, it was actually necessary in order for the Dodgers to win.

My parents, who had never been to a Dodger game in their lives, were given two tickets by someone who couldn't use them.  Turns out they sat two rows behind home plate on the night Koufax pitched his perfect game against the Cubs.  The Dodgers had only one hit in that game and managed to win 1 - 0.

ErniePyle
ErniePyle

This is what happens when you give children a forum like this. 1965 World Series, Game 7. Two days rest after winning Game 5 on a 4-hit shutout . On the road. A 3-hit shutout to win the Series.

OK
OK

Clifford,

Your brain is fried. Seek help.

John NoLastName
John NoLastName

Better than Koufax? Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. The fact that we today compare pitchers to a man who pitched a half-century ago and had to retire at age 30 is testament enough to that man's dominance.

I also know this ... anyone who ever saw Koufax pitch, or especially those who had to hit against him, will never have doubts about who was the best they ever saw. A number of pitchers are in the same discussion ... Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, a few others ... but I don't believe anyone has ever dominated Major League hitters the way Koufax did in that five-year stretch.

There was a time, before he learned to command his stuff and became the pitcher he was, there was talk the Dodgers would trade him. Players around the league prayed he would be traded to their team. Willie Mays was quoted as saying he hoped the Giants would get him. "That boy's got stuff you can't even see," he said. 

 It was a standing joke around the National League how left-handed hitters especially caught the "Koufax flu" on days he pitched against them.

And then of course there's the famous line from Yogi after Koufax blew away the Yankees in the '63 World Series ... "I can see why he won 25. What I can't figure out is how the hell he lost 5."

William27
William27

I wonder if modern medicine could have helped Koufax pitch longer ?

JimCasey
JimCasey

Take your numbers and lose them. When Koufax pitched he put the other team in a slump it would take them at least a week to get over. He had two pitches, and he tipped them, and you still couldn't hit him. Kershaw's numbers may, in some cases, look better, and that is only because there are so many bad pitchers in the majors now. In Koufax's time, there were either 8 or 10 teams in the league, not 15, so there was less room for mediocrity. 

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@KeysSteven   Perspective please gentlemen.  Kershaw has only pitched 6 seasons in the bigs so far so of course he can't compare to the rate stats of the 12 seasons Mr. Koufax put up.

However, comparing the first 6 seasons of Mr. Koufax's career to the first six seasons of Clayton's career and there is no comparison.  Clayton had the better first six seasons.

Now, let's let Clayton pitch another six seasons and then we may compare him to Mr. Koufax.

None of us know or may predict the future.  None of us know how Clayton will perform, will he get injured etc...

berdosux
berdosux

@KeysSteven I can agree with you on Koufax, but saying Kershaw isnt in Orel's league is pushing it a bit far.  Are you one of those rings are the only thing that matter people?

berdosux
berdosux

@MorphySmith The hitters also werent as good as todays hitters, the strike zone was much bigger, and the mound was higher.  Pretty sure the advantage would go to the pitcher of yesteryear not todays pitcher.

sterculius65
sterculius65

I would also point out that the mound was higher and they weren't pitching to roiders and Dodher stadium had miles of foul ground.

Mikey A
Mikey A

@samludu Wow. Read the article before you gripe, old man. He didn't say he's better than Koufax, yet.

Mikey A
Mikey A

@ErniePyle This is what happens when old people get on a forum like this. GET OFF MAH LAWN

mikalrod
mikalrod

@John NoLastName That was a great read!  I've seen Koufax pitch many times, and a lot of those who've come after. Koufax was the best! 

fabio.fantone
fabio.fantone

@William27 Good point. You wonder if Tommy John surgery would have cured his bad elbow or at least allowed him to pitch without the chronic pain for a few more years.

JohnSinor
JohnSinor

My thoughts exactly.No way this story has "legs".

sterculius65
sterculius65

@JimCasey How many roiders did Koufax have to face, he also had a higher mound and a much more spacious stadium. Different era with different advantages and disadvantages.

JohnSinor
JohnSinor

So true.Great points made here.A friend who saw Koufax said "the other team would look like high schoolers against Koufax".

frangooch32
frangooch32

@sterculius65 @frangooch32 Bonehead, he lost the biggest game of his life 8-0. Got beat in his earlier start, too. Did you even watch the NLCS? Koufax was huge on the big stage, Kershaw, a dwarf. He's not even in the conversation.

frangooch32
frangooch32

@berdosux @MorphySmith Hitters weren't as good? Mays, Aaron, McCovey, Clemente, Banks, Robinson on a regular basis in an 8 team league? These guys are immortals, as opposed to, say, Michael Cuddyer. Not to mention what Koufax did to other Hall of Famers like Mantle, Maris, Killebrew, Oliva, etc. in the World Series.


Game is watered down today.

samludu
samludu

@Mikey A @samludu 


What I'm pointing out, little Mikey, is that Kershaw has a long, long, long way to go to match Koufax. An ERA over six in the World Series doesn't get you there.

sterculius65
sterculius65

@frangooch32

Kershaw Playoff log


Atl g1 7ip, 3h, 1er

Atl g2 6ip, 3h, 0er

Stl g2 6ip, 2h, 0er

Stl g6 4ip, 10h,7er


Yeah he is sure is a "dwarf" 

sterculius65
sterculius65

@frangooch32 One look at the stats clearly shows that the hitters of today are a more formidable bunch.

samludu
samludu

@sterculius65 @samludu 

Kershaw's World Series ERA for this past World Series was over six. He lost both games, idiot. Look it up.

sterculius65
sterculius65

@samludu You are really quoting Kershaw's era for his lone ws start when he was a twenty year old rookie. God that is pathetic. What had Koufax done when he was twenty moron?

berdosux
berdosux

@KeysSteven @sterculius65 @Sam Phillips arguably... is the key word.  Which is true.  Kershaw has done more at a younger age than Koufax did.  Koufax didnt really start to shine until after his 26 year old season, and Kershaw isnt even 26 yet and has 2 Cy Youngs.