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Does a player with a short peak, big home boost and benefit from illegal conduct belong in the Hall? One already is

Updated on June 19, 2013

Recently I read a brief article about Larry Walker, the outfielder for the Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies who had some outstanding seasons in the late 1990s-early 2000s. The article concerned the validity of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.

The writer thought probably not, since Walker had such drastic home/road splits with the Rockies. The theory was that he was unduly helped by playing in a ballpark geared for hitters and for putting up his numbers in an era when hitting dominated.

There is no doubt that Walker’s numbers were helped quite a bit, as you can see in the chart below. And there’s no doubt that his numbers in 2001 when he batted .350 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs weren’t as impressive then as they would have been in 1981 or even 1991. So maybe he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.

Larry Walker splits in Colorado 1995-2003

 
G
PA
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BB
SO
TB
BA
OBP
SLG
Home
570
2,401
2,050
544
790
174
29
152
512
73
16
273
272
1,478
.385
.465
.721
Away
562
2,256
1,918
326
536
114
12
100
316
51
24
286
364
974
.279
.382
.508
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Other writers also decried the chances of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa for the much-talked about reason that they gained an unfair competitive advantage through illegal means. And maybe they shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame either.

Then there is the matter of length of greatness. Both Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly had brilliant, but short peak performances, in both cases five years. The critics feel that five years of brilliance isn’t enough to earn election. And maybe, like the others, they don’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

One player with all those shortcomings is in the Hall

But what if I told you that the Hall of Fame already has enshrined a player who had a career with only five great seasons, whose success was greatly enhanced by his home/road splits as well as the era that he played in and that it is widely known that he gained a competitive advantage through illegal means?

Maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. It’s been widely documented that the various veteran’s committees have voted in personal favorites, players who weren’t merely borderline Hall of Famers but in some cases not much more than borderline ballplayers. Even the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) has voted in a few players considered at the extreme bottom of Hall of Fame worthiness.

The player I’m referring to, though, was elected on his first ballot and has since been revered as not only a true Hall of Famer, but as one of the all-time greats.

The player in question here is Sandy Koufax.

Koufax not like other phenoms

From conversations I’ve had, it seems that many people have assumed that Koufax was always a great pitcher, that he was one of those young phenoms like Tom Seaver or Roger Clemens or Bob Feller.

Seaver and Clemens had led their teams to the World Series by the time they were 24 and already had set the ground work for Hall of Fame careers. Feller was already a legendary pitcher by age 22 and then lost three prime seasons to World War II.

Koufax, too, was deemed a young phenom with an electric fastball but with about as much control as Charlie Sheen in a roomful of hookers. The Dodgers signed him as a “bonus baby” just shy of his 19th birthday.

Under the rules of the time, if a team signed such a player they had to immediately put him on the Major League roster (I believe this was an effort to keep some of the biggest teams from stockpiling their minors with all the talent).

Barely an average pitcher early on

So at age 19 in 1955, Koufax was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In his first season he appeared in 12 games, struck out 30 and walked 28. The next season, in 16 games, he struck out 30 and walked 29. Control, you see, was an issue.

When he was 22 in 1958 he finally earned a spot at the back of the rotation, getting 26 starts. He struck out 131, walked 105 and led the league with 17 wild pitches in just 158 innings – a wild pitch per every nine innings pitched.

His numbers hovered around that area until he became a full-fledged starter in 1961, at age 25, and he showed a bit of his potential. He led the league in strikeouts that year with 269 and cut his walks just a bit, down to 96, but he gave up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. He finished with an 18-13 record but an ERA of 3.52. It was better but he was still basically an average pitcher.

From average to superstar in one year

And then in 1962 he became great. And for those five seasons, 1962-66, he became legendary. He earned the nickname The Left Hand of God. He led the league in ERA each of those seasons and in strikeouts three of them.

Here is a look at his numbers from 1955-61 compared to his stats from 1962-66.

Koufax before and after

 
W
L
ERA
G
CG
ShO
IP
H
R
ER
HR
BB
SO
HBP
WP
WHIP
SO/BB
1955-61
54
53
3.94
216
37
7
947.1
795
464
415
115
501
952
8
51
1.368
1.90
1962-66
111
34
1.95
181
100
33
1377.0
959
342
298
89
316
1,444
10
36
0.926
4.57
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Obviously a huge difference. An astonishing difference. And they were dragged down a bit by his 1962 season. His last four seasons in the majors he had a combined 92-27 record with a 1.86 ERA, 1,228 strikeouts (309 per season) and a WHIP of 0.909.

Maturation and Dodger Stadium helped the change

So what happened to Koufax that his numbers improved so drastically?

Part of the explanation, of course, is his maturation as a pitcher. Having been on the Major League roster early in life, he didn’t get the necessary innings and instruction that the minor leagues would have offered. As he got in more work over the years he was bound to improve somewhat, which I believe was evident in his 1961 season.

But I think there are some other explanations that come into play, the biggest being that in 1962 the Dodgers moved into Dodger Stadium. Throughout its history, Dodger Stadium has been celebrated as a pitchers’ park. Balls don’t carry well there. For years the best hitters’ park was considered to be in Atlanta, the worst was in Los Angeles.

Change in attitudes toward offense

There was more at work, though. In 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had assaulted the record books, both chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record (which Maris, of course, broke with 61 homers while Mantle, hobbled the last three weeks of the season, finished with 54).

But it wasn’t just Maris and Mantle. Six members of the Yankees hit 20 or more homers. Harmon Killebrew and Jim Gentile each hit 46 round trippers, Rocky Colavito 45 and Norm Cash 41. Cash batted .361. Maris and Gentile each had 141 RBIs, Colavito 140.

In the National League, the offense wasn’t as dramatic but Orlando Cepeda belted 46 homers with 142 RBIs, while Willie Mays had 40 homers. But for the first time since 1929, no NL pitcher who qualified had an ERA below 3.00.

It was part of a continuing trend toward more offense in baseball. And for reasons I don’t quite understand the powers of baseball – owners and the media – have never liked a lot of offense. In their minds, fans prefer a 2-1 or 3-2 game over a 10-8 game with eight homers, despite evidence to the contrary.

When offense ticked up in the 1910s, the owners instituted a mushier ball. It wasn’t until about 1930, when they recognized the popularity of Babe Ruth and his homers, that they allowed offense to surge again.

Then when things threatened to get out of control again – players getting too offensive minded – they pulled back again and you had the pitchers’ era of the 1960s. In 1963 the strike zone was expanded – it had been from the armpits to the top of the knees, but was changed to the top of the shoulders to the knees (no top or bottom of the knees mentioned).

Dodgers fudged on mound dimensions

Many people wrongly assume that the rules were changed to increase the height of the mound, too. In fact, it was 15 inches then as it had always been.

Except that teams began to fudge a little. One park might raise theirs to 16 inches, another to 18 inches. It was illegal but much like steroids in the 1990s, there was no enforcement. It brought about the desired result – less offense – so no one was going to check the mounds.

It has been documented in a number of sources, and was apparently well known at the time, that the Dodger Stadium mound was the tallest in baseball, in some years as high as 20 inches, a full five inches over the limit.

A perfect storm for Koufax

And all of this resulted in a perfect storm for Sandy Koufax.

Here are the career home/road splits for Koufax from 1955-61, and then from 1962-66 when he called Dodger Stadium home.

Koufax home/road splits before and after

 
W
L
ERA
G
CG
ShO
IP
H
R
ER
HR
BB
SO
HBP
WP
WHIP
SO/BB
1955-61 Home
22
26
4.27
104
16
3
442.2
390
234
210
70
232
464
5
29
1.405
2.00
1955-61 Away
32
27
3.66
112
21
4
504.2
405
230
205
45
269
488
3
22
1.336
1.81
1962-66 Home
57
15
1.37
86
56
23
715.1
446
132
109
35
142
754
5
15
0.822
5.31
1962-66 Away
54
19
2.57
95
44
10
662.2
513
210
189
55
174
690
5
21
1.037
3.97

As you can see, the numbers are quite different. But let’s look at a yearly breakdown of home/road games from 1962-66.

Koufax home/road splits 1962-66

 
W
L
ERA
G
CG
ShO
IP
H
R
ER
HR
BB
SO
HBP
WP
WHIP
SO/BB
1962 Home
7
4
1.75
13
7
2
102.2
68
26
20
6
25
118
1
1
0.906
4.72
1962 Away
7
3
3.53
15
4
0
81.2
66
35
32
7
32
98
1
2
1.200
3.06
1963 Home
11
1
1.38
17
10
6
143.2
83
22
22
5
23
144
2
0
0.738
6.26
1963 Away
14
4
2.31
23
10
5
167.1
131
46
43
13
35
162
1
6
0.992
4.63
1964 Home
12
2
0.85
15
12
6
127.2
82
16
12
5
18
124
0
4
0.783
6.89
1964 Away
7
3
2,93
14
3
1
95.1
72
33
31
8
35
99
0
5
1.122
2.83
1965 Home
14
3
1.38
20
14
6
170.0
89
32
26
8
31
208
2
8
0.706
6.71
1965 Away
12
5
2.72
23
13
2
165.2
127
58
50
18
40
174
3
3
1.008
4.35
1966 Home
13
5
1.52
21
13
3
171.1
124
36
29
10
45
160
0
2
0.986
3.57
1966 Away
14
4
1.96
20
14
2
151.2
117
38
33
9
32
157
0
5
0.982
4.91

Koufax benefitted greatly from home park

It’s obvious that Koufax benefitted greatly from Dodger Stadium. In 1962, his ERA at home was 1.78 runs better at home than on the road; in 1963 it was 0.93 better; in 1964 it was 2.08 better; in 1965 it was 1.34 better. The closest home/road split came in 1966 when his ERA showed only a 0.44 improvement at home.

Koufax won the ERA title every year from 1962-66, but if he had pitched overall only as well as he did on the road, he would have won only one title, in 1966. In 1962 he would have finished 14th, 2nd in 1963, 10th in 1964 and 6th in 1965.

His WHIP numbers (walks and hits per innings pitched) were also much better at home than on the road (except for 1996 when it was virtually identical), as was his strikeout to walk ratio.

Other Dodgers benefitted from high mound too

It wasn’t just Koufax – teammate Don Drysdale also enjoyed significantly better numbers at home. Claude Osteen went from a superior road pitcher with Washington to enjoying a big boost at home once he was traded to the Dodgers in 1965.

You would expect most teams would have added inches to the mound to give their pitchers an advantage at home, but it didn’t seem to follow the course. Bob Gibson, another great pitcher of the era, usually put up better numbers on the road. Juan Marichal, another contemporary of Koufax, sometimes put up better numbers at home and sometime better numbers on the road during the same time period.

Was Koufax really a no-doubt HOFer?

So while in most minds Koufax is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and for many people the greatest lefthander ever, the reality is that he fails on most of the standards that are now being used to keep others out of the Hall. His span of greatness was only five years, the same as for Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and others. His period of greatness coincided perfectly with an era when pitching was dominant, and he played in a ball park that helped him a great deal in achieving those numbers, the same argument, from a hitting standpoint, that is keeping Larry Walker from receiving serious HOF consideration. And he undoubtedly was helped by illegal means (whether he was a party to the raising of the mound or not), the same argument people use against Bonds, Clemens and others.

It wasn’t that Koufax lacked talented. Obviously, he had to have a lot of ability to take advantage of the conditions presented to him. As I noted, he was making improvements in 1960 and 1961. Even without all the changes, he might have continued to improve and post some high pitching numbers.

Without advantages, how would career have gone?

But until those changes took place, do you know who Koufax was on his way to becoming? Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, only without the cool nickname. Like Koufax, Mizell was a lefthanded power pitcher plagued by wildness. He spent most of his career with St. Louis in the 1950s, with a few seasons for the Pirates and half a season with the hapless 1962 Mets.

In his nine-year career, Mizell was 90-88 (.506 winning percentage), with a 3.85 ERA and WHIP of 1.383. Through his first seven seasons, Koufax was 54-53 (.505), with a 3.94 ERA and WHIP of 1.368. Koufax’s strikeout to walk ratio was a little better but not much, 1.90 compared to 1.35 for Mizell.

I wonder if, given the same advantages as Koufax, if Mizell would have turned into one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Or was there something unique about Koufax that enabled him to take advantage of his good fortune in a way others wouldn’t have?

Pitching conditions changed after 1968

After the 1968 season – the one in which Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average, Bob Gibson recorded a 1.12 ERA, Denny McLain won 30 games and seven pitchers posted ERAs under 2.00 – the powers-that-be decided they’d gone a little too far. The strike zone was restored to the armpits to the top of the knees, and the mound was lowered to 10 inches, the height it’s been ever since.

Some pitchers, like Marichal and Gibson, continued to thrive under the new conditions. Drysdale didn’t. His ERA shot from 2.15 in 1968 to 4.45 in 1969, and he was done, leaving baseball at age 32.

We don’t know how Koufax would have fared in these new conditions. He retired after the 1966 season, arguably his best. He was only 30 but suffered from chronic arm problems.

Ironically, the high mound that led to his prowess may have also led to the arm problems. Some studies have shown that higher mounds cause increased pressure and ultimately damage to the arm.

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    • e-five profile image

      e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      Another great article, Gary. I studied the career of Koufax a bit, having grown up a Dodger fan, and I had always assumed that he had just found his control beginning sometime around 1960-61. I'd never heard that the mound height was an issue. There's also the undeniable fact that large market players tend to become mythologized more than smaller market players, as you illustrated with Vinegar Bend.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      This is one of the best baseball articles I've read on HP. History and stats. You made some great points about Koufax. Would the writers/voters of today vote him in? I would put Murphy and Mattingly in too. Voted up.

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