Koufax’s peak

Having just spent an entire post “putting down” Sandy Koufax, I’d thought I’d follow up by examining the question of whether Sandy Koufax’s peak was the best of all time. Instead of referring to WAR or WSAB, I decided to use “Situation-Adjusted WPA” or “Game-state adjusted wOBA” or some mouthful like that. It’s just WPA/LI.

I’ve learned to mistrust WPA for starting pitchers, for many of the same reasons that I mistrust a pitcher’s win-loss record. A team’s offense has too much impact on it. But WPA/LI quantifies how well the pitcher pitches to the situation he’s given, and one of the objections I heard about my Koufax post is that he did a good job of pitching to the situation. So WPA/LI should address that objection.

The problem with using WPA/LI is that we only have stats from 1954. So this post will address the question of the best pitching peaks since 1954.

The best single season of WPA/LI since 1954 was Pedro Martinez’s 2000, when he was 18-6 with a 1.75 ERA. His WPA/LI of 8.5 was more than a “win” higher than Bob Gibson’s 7.3 in 1968. Rounding out the top five at 7.2 are Roger Clemens (in 1997 with Toronto), Greg Maddux (1995) and Koufax (1963). Pedro was beyond amazing. To my surprise, Dwight Gooden’s 1985 was ninth (6.5).

The best two seasons (not necessarily consecutive) were also Pedro’s: 15.2 in 1999 and 2000. The next best two-season peak was Koufax’s in 1963 and 1966: 14.4 (7.2 in each season), followed by Maddux (13.5), Gibson (13.2) and Clemens (12.7).

The best three-season peak also belongs to Pedro, though Koufax is closing the gap. Throwing in Pedro’s 1997 brings his three-year total to 21.5, while Koufax’s total at three seasons is 21.2, by virtue of his outstanding 1965. The other best three-year peaks are still Maddux (19.8), Gibson (18.1) and Clemens (18.0).

Koufax takes over at four years, at 26.8. Pedro is second at 26.5. Maddux is third at 26.0, Clemens is fourth at 23.3 and Randy Johnson moves up to fifth place at 23.2. Gibson is sixth.

The all-time five-year peak season leader is Greg Maddux. Maddux has 31.4 “situational wins” (I’m not really sure what to call them) over his top five seasons, which also happen to be consecutive (1994-1998). Pedro is just barely second with 31.3 (mostly 1997-2003, but skipping a couple of years) and Koufax is third with 30.5. Clemens is fourth, Johnson fifth and Gibson sixth. Rounding out the top ten are Kevin Brown, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer.

Once you go beyond five years, I don’t think you’re really talking about a peak anymore, but Greg Maddux just sort of takes over.

So was Koufax’s peak the best of all time (actually, since 1954), even adjusted for his low run-scoring environment and situational pitching? He’s certainly right up there with Pedro and Maddux. I don’t have enough faith in the metric to declare one or the other “the winner,” but if you want to call his peak the best in the second half of major league history, I won’t object.

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.
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12 years ago

wish we had the data to see Grove and Walter in this

Silver King
12 years ago

Cool stuff!  Thanks

12 years ago

Sandy was a much different pitcher in Dodger Stadium than he was in the other stadia in which he pitched.

I would be intrigued to see how Sandy’s WPA/LI numbers break down between Dodger Stadium and on the road.  In actuality, I wouldn’t expect to see much difference.  Sandy pitched a lot better in Dodger Stadium, but so did the opponents’ pitchers.

I think both Sandy’s WAR and his VORP would show a very large difference between Dodger Stadium and on the road though.

Because of the hitters’ park nature of Ebbetts Field and the LA Coliseum and the pitcher’s park nature of Dodger Stadium, I think Sandy is overrated in his 1962-1966 stardom and underrated from 1955 through 1961.

Because he pitched about 30% of his career innings in Dodger Stadium, on balance I think Sandy is slightly overrated—especially since so much of his reputation was built on the Dodger Stadium years.

No question Sandy was great.  Perhaps just not QUITE as great as his reputation.

As an aside, Sandy’s road ERA from 1962-1966 was actually slightly HIGHER than Juan Marichal’s.  Part of that was because some of Juan’s road games were in Dodger Stadium.

If we take out all Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park games, Sandy was slightly the better of the two.

At least except that Juan pitched more innings.

But if anyone told you Marichal might have been much closer to Koufax during Sandy’s prime than one would first realize, wouldn’t you have been a bit surprised?

Incidentally, Don Drysdale also benefitted greatly from pitching in Dodger Stadium.  Nearly every Dodger who did so back then when home plate was 10 feet farther from the fences did so.  As did opposing pitchers.

Dodger Stadium was an extreme pitchers’ park.

12 years ago

SharksRog, read my post from yesterday.

WPA/LI takes the run environment into account.  Whether it does so perfectly is another matter.

12 years ago

These studies generally don’t adequately address Kiufax’s huge IP advantage. He had 350 more IP than Pedro. If you cherry picked his best 1022 IP and compared it to Pedro’s 1022 IP – now that would be interesting.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

Interesting point, Gary. OTOH, achieving a higher WPA/LI in less innings is pretty impressive.

Bob Sanchez
12 years ago

Well, if you cherry-picked any pitcher’s best IP, you could just stack up perfect innings!  I’m not sure what that would prove.  It would be interesting to see which pitcher has the most!

Cyril Morong
12 years ago

I have done some research on a related note. It is not as sophisticated as what Dave has done since it is not clutch-based. But I did not find that Koufax had the best peak.

Bert Blyleven: As Dominating as Sandy Koufax


How Good Was Sandy Koufax Outside of Dodger Stadium? (I compared him to Gibson, Marichal and Bunning)


The Best Five-Year Pitching Performances Since 1920 Based on Fielding Independent ERA


The Best Five-Year Pitching Performances


12 years ago

I know that the traditional view is that a pitcher on a contending team has an advantage over one on a loser but I would like to submit something different. From 1910 through 1927, Walter Johnson rather famously pitched for losers. Over that period his Senators averaged finishing out of 1st by 18.66 games. Some of their worst years they were out of contention as they broke from Spring Training. Now according to the traditional view a pitcher would have a difficult time posting a great record under those conditions but if the pitcher is a great talent as Johnson obviously was that talent along with some personal determination could allow him to be very successful because there was no great stress or pressure on him. If Walter had a bad day in July did it really matter? And how many teams were getting up for the Senators, even with the great Walter Johnson on the hill? So the superior individual can succeed without ever facing the gut wrenching pressure that a pitcher, such as Koufax faced every time he stepped on the mound. Failure at that level is magnified and is much harder to deal with than a guy pitching for the who cares Senators. Along with Quarterbacks and goalies, pitchers face more pressure than any other team athlete. In fact, Johnson didn’t have to deal with the ultimate game changer, the thing that has turned up the stress level for every pitcher since Ruth, the homerun. So it is my view that a pitcher that has to be good has demonstrated something that someone who doesn’t have to be that good hasn’t.
This is not to denigrate Johnson. On the rare occasions that the Senators were good he was just as great and that is precisely why he is revered.
Where exactly Koufax fits on a list of the greatest I wouldn’t hazard a guess, but he is on that list. As you look at that last 6 years of his career, I include his 18-13 1961 season, a season Bert Bleyleven would have gratefully taken, it was a stunning performance precisely because of the tremendous pressure and stress, the need to be at his best every time out, on every pitch that elevates him into the greatest pantheon. It was only 6 years, but what a 6 year stretch it was.
On a final note, while it is true that Koufax received better run support than the other pitchers on the Dodger staff, I doubt that that was what he was thinking as he stepped onto the mound. The Dodgers of 1964 through 1966 scored more runs than only 2 other NL teams, the expansion Mets and Astros. He was thinking, I hope I get 3 today. And while people these days like to question the value of the W-L stat, what he and Drysdale did with that support was stunning.

12 years ago

My point was that Koufax threw an additional 350 more IP than Pedro during his 5 year peak. Pedro’s superior rate stats have to be somewhat offest by that. I mean we are talking 70 IP a year more for Koufax. That’s Pedro plus a 70 inning a year reliever. Each player had some advantages to the era they pitched in, but I would give Koufax the slight edge in peak based on the IP disparity.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

It’s a good point, gary.  I was thinking about how to correct for that—one thing to do would be to add innings to Pedro’s total, assuming they regress to some sort of a WPA/LI/IP level based on the two years before and after the year in question.  Something like that.

Actually, the best thing to do would be to set WPA/LI against a replacement level instead of against average.  That would take some work…

12 years ago

It looks like RSSA will always favor pitchers from high scoring eras because those from low scoring eras will not be able to get enough separation from their peers.

During Pedro’s 1997-2001 peak, 13 pitchers logged more IP than he did. He pitched fewer IP than Brad Radke, Darryl Kile, Aaron Sele and Jon Lieber – just to name a few. Also, 38 pitchers started more games than Pedro from 1997-2001. Koufax ranked 4th and 8th respectively in IP and GS during his peak.

12 years ago

No question Sandy Koufax pitched a lot more innings per season in his peak than did Pedro Martinez.  The game is different now.

Sandy’s innings during those five years pale compared to those of Walter Johnson.  In the first five years of Walter’s peak, he averaged 80 more innings per season than did Sandy.

In his entire 10-year peak, Walter averaged almost 70 innings per season more than Sandy.

It was a different game.

Meanwhile, the run environment during Sandy’s peak was somewhere around halfway between the run average during Walter’s peak and Pedro’s peak.

Many will argue on Koufax’s behalf that Walter pitched in the dead-ball era.  But Pedro pitched in the steroids era, which as much higher-scoring compared to Sandy’s era as Sandy’s was compared to the dead-ball era.

Sandy was a great pitcher who prime was sadly cut short.  He likely is somewhat under-appreciated in the first seven years of his career and somewhat overrated during his five prime seasons.

Meanwhile Pedro was amazing for seven straight years, and Walter pitched like a mad man for the entire decade of the ‘10’s.

Walter’s innings were cut in half in 1920, the first year after the dead-ball era, so I’m guessing he was injured that season.  He was still an outstanding pitcher thereafter, but never again did he dominate for anywhere near such a long period of time.

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

It looks like RSSA will always favor pitchers from high scoring eras because those from low scoring eras will not be able to get enough separation from their peers.

@gary, you should read the comments in Saturday’s post, as well as the link to the article about ERA+.

12 years ago


But Pedro didn’t even dominate within his era in terms of IP and GS. By comparison, Grove led the majors in IP from 1929-33 and was 5th in GS.

Yeah, we all get it – Koufax pitched in a pitcher friendly environment and he must be punished for that and Pedro pitched in a hitter friendly era so he must be endlessly praised. Seems rather simplistic to me, but whatever.

12 years ago


I hate to sound like an anti-stat guy, but any methodology that ranks Roy Oswalt above Walter Johnson doesn not pass the smell test.

ERA+ definitely favors high scoring era pitchers. And even it it does not, we are ignoring the fact that preventing a run in 1966 is more valuable to a team than preventing a run in 1997.

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think any one formula is going to tell us whether Pedro 1997-2001 was really better than Koufax 1962-66. Certain trendy stats favor Pedro, and perhaps he was better, but to me they are close enough that reasonable people can disagree.

Finally, I’m not an old geezer reliving my youth through Koufax. He retired before I was born. In fact, a few months ago I was trashing Koufax on another forum, but that was an argument over career value rather than peak value.

12 years ago


Ignoring everyone but Sandy and Pedro now, let’s look at some of the various issues:

.  You make a very good point that Pedro wasn’t among the leaders in innings pitch, while Sandy led the NL in innings pitched in two of his five peak years.  Advantage Sandy.

.  Pedro pitched in a much tougher hitters’ era.  Advantage Pedro.

.  Pedro pitched in a much tougher hitters’ park.  Advantage Pedro.

.  Sandy had the lower ERA of the two.  Advantage Sandy.

.  Pedro’s peak lasted seven years, Sandy’s five (or actually 5 1/2 if one looks at the second half of 1961).  Advantage Pedro.

.  Pedro’s ERA+ was far better. Advantage Pedro (although perhaps redundant).

.  Sandy’s road ERA in a much lower-scoring era from 1962-1966 was 2.43.  From 1997-2001 Pedro’s was only 2.08 despite the steroids.  Pretty significant advantage Pedro.

.  Pedro’s road ERA from 1999-2008 (perhaps his TRUE five-year peak) was just 1.80.  In an era with a third more scoring, Pedro’s ERA was a quarter LESS on the road than Sandy’s.  HUGE advantage Pedro.

The strongest case for Sandy is his extra innings pitched.  I suspect that if one adds the average reliever ERA over the extra innings to Pedro’s ERA, he comes out a bit better for the era.  But there is also a loss from exposing the bullpen to more innings.

Some of those extra innings pitched by Sandy were era-related, but not all of them.

The strongest case for Pedro is that he blew Sandy away on the road (presumably in more neutral environments) even though he pitched in one of the highest-scoring era’s in baseball history while Sandy pitched in one of the lowest-scoring eras in the post-dead ball era.

As a kid I was blown away by Sandy.  He seemed to always win the last game of the season to keep “my” Giants out of the post-season.  I saw him pitch live many times, including the Marichal/Roseboro game (which was won by the Giants on an 8th-inning three-run homer from Willie Mays against Sandy).  I believe I saw Sandy’s no-hitter against the Giants on TV.

But the more I have learned about Sandy’s era and Dodger Stadium advantages, the more convinced I have become that as great as he was, he was overrated during his Dodger Stadium years.

During those five wonderful years, Sandy was still great—very great.  But not quite as great as the picture we painted of him because of the distortion of his Dodger Stadium ERA.

Give credit to Sandy for taking more advantage of Dodger Stadium than any other pitcher.  But the fact remains that in a much higher-scoring era, Pedro’s road ERA blew Sandy away.

12 years ago

By the way, I think I would take Walter Johnson’s much longer peak over either of them.  Greg Maddux had a long peak, as well.

But over a seven-year period was there ever a pitcher better than Pedro WHEN PEDRO pitched (giving that he was injured for half a season during that time and didn’t dominate in innings as Johnson and Koufax did)?

Given the era and the home parks, I’m not sure there has been.

I don’t mean to be bashing Sandy here, but there is considerable evidence that in the innings each pitched (which takes away perhaps Sandy’s greatest advantage), Pedro was better overall in his seven-year peak than Sandy was in his best five seasons.

And how do either of them compete with Walter Johnson’s 10-year peak?

Dave Studeman
12 years ago

ERA+ definitely favors high scoring era pitchers.  Did you read the article? A more helpful comment would highlight why you think the article is wrong.

Oswalt and Johnson are virtually even in both ERA+ and mERA.  If you don’t think he belongs up there, you shouldn’t like ERA+ either. Don’t forget that these are rate stats and don’t account for length of career.

Also, don’t forget that we’re always talking about relative value here.  We’re not trying to guess how so-and-so would have done in a different environment. We’re trying to compare value in different environments.

You’re right that not giving up a run is worth more in a low-run environment, but OPS+ doesn’t measure number of runs.  It measures the proportional difference in runs allowed.  Try plugging in the pythagorean formula for a 200 ERA+ in low and high scoring environments.  You’ll get the same result in all environments.  If you don’t, maybe my math is wrong!

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think any one formula is going to tell us whether Pedro 1997-2001 was really better than Koufax 1962-66.  Yes, that’s exactly what my post says.  We agree on that.

12 years ago

It’s darn tough for Sandy to compete with longevity lefties such as Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell and Lefty Grove for career, but I do believe that with the possible exception of Grove, he was better than any of them for peak.

There are so many things to consider with Sandy:

.  What if he hadn’t been a bonus baby and had been able to develop in the minors?

.  What if Norm Sherry (IIRC) had been around earlier to get Sandy to throw a little less hard in exchange for far better control?

.  What if Sandy hadn’t had to pitch his last couple of seasons when his arm was so bad his doctor was strongly recommending he retire?

.  Had Sandy been able to pitch longer, how much longer would his peak have lasted?  When would he have hit his decline phase, and how long and difficult would that have been?

Sandy was great, but like another marvelous southpaw named Herb Score, we never got to know how truly great they might have become over an entire career.

Either one might have become the top southpaw for career if given the proper chance.

12 years ago

Koufax was not exactly chopped liver on the road. His road ERA from 19622-66 was tops in the majors.

A more fundamental question – would it ever be possible for a pitcher in a low scoring environment to ever lay claim to a best peak argument? The deck seems stacked against them and in favor of guys who pitch in high scoring environments.

12 years ago

Sandy was excellent on the road during his peak.  He was unbelievable at home.

I see no reason why a pitcher in a low-scoring environment could’t have the best peak.

Between Pedro (high-scoring era), Sandy (medium-scoring era) and Walter (low-scoring era), I would give both Walter and Pedro the edge over Sandy for five-year peak (although all three—and a few others—are very close IMO).

For seven years, I would probably go with Pedro.  For a full decade, it seems to easily be Walter (at least among this trio).

So among the trio, both the guy in the low-scoring era and the high-scoring era arguably finish above Sandy for five years and beyond.

Even though it may be more difficult to put up a higher ERA+ in a low-scoring environment, Sandy’s ERA+ during his five peak seasons were 142, 159, 188, 160 and 190.  In a lower-scoring era, Walter put up a higher ERA+ in half Walter’s 10-year peak than ANY of Sandy’s five-season peak.

If one wants to argue that it is more difficult to put up a high ERA+ in a low-scoring era, suddenly Walter blows the socks off Sandy.  Using that argument, one could argue that Walter put up as many as 11 (!) five-year peaks that were better than Sandy’s.

If one wants to argue straight ERA+, Sandy loses to both Pedro and Walter.  If the criterion is innings pitched, Sandy blows away Pedro but loses sharply to Walter.  If we factor in that it is harder to put up a high ERA+ in a low-scoring era, Sandy might catch up to Pedro, but he gets blown away by Walter.

Was Sandy’s five-year peak the greatest ever?  I don’t think so.  When all factors are concerned, it is hard to argue against Walter among that trio.  And it becomes a bit tough to argue for Sandy over Pedro when Pedro’s straight road ERA was 25% lower than Sandy’s even though the overall league average was a third higher.

One could make an argument that on the road, Pedro was as much as TWICE as good as Sandy during that period (1 divided by (three-quarters times one-third).