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A Look at Sandy Koufax’s Career

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.

Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.


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