Last month, the Dodgers honored their Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax by unveiling a statue of him out in the center field plaza, right next to his old teammate Jackie Robinson.
Sandy Koufax was so dominant in his generation that he was dubbed “The Left Arm of God.” Likewise, Clayton Kershaw, the current Dodger franchise great, is a modern Los Angeles sports icon and considered the best pitcher of his generation.
In the history of the Dodgers franchise, these two pitchers sit at the top of the list as the club’s most dominant pitchers. But, as Kershaw ascends to the top of various Dodgers franchise pitching records, the question arises, Is Clayton Kershaw the greatest pitcher in Dodgers franchise history, or is Sandy Koufax still the GOAT?
The goal of this article is to analyze the best stretches, the best individual seasons, and the overall careers of Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax to get a complete multifaceted look at the two franchise greats.
The Best Stretch
At the peak of their primes, Kershaw and Koufax simply dominated Major League Baseball. However, the role of the starting pitcher has changed in the decades between when Koufax’s career ended and when Kershaw’s began. Pitchers during Koufax’s career were asked to pitch a larger proportion of a game’s innings compared to today’s starting pitchers.
It wasn’t uncommon for starting pitchers in the 1960s to start roughly 40 games a year and total around 300 innings pitched, whereas today’s starting pitchers will make about 30 starts per season and reach about 200 innings pitched. For that reason, I found it necessary to compare Kershaw’s six peak seasons to Koufax’s five peak seasons to get a comparable amount of innings pitched and games started between the two pitchers.
Here we can see just how similar these two pitchers’ best stretches were to each other. I’m not a fan of blindly looking at pitcher wins as a comparison because some of those decisions are simply out of their control. For example, a team might be leading while the pitcher is on the mound, and then when relievers blow that game, starters get a no-decision. The reverse can also happen, with a starting pitcher leaving the game while his team is trailing, only to be saved in the late innings of the game by a productive offense.
Kershaw had 43 no-decisions during his best stretch, and Koufax had 31 no-decisions. So, despite the production of the individual starting pitchers, their win-loss totals were dependent on the rest of the team’s production. Wins and losses simply don’t clearly indicate a pitcher’s worth.
The stats that truly matter when comparing two starting pitchers are ERA, WHIP, ERA+, and Games Started. A pitcher’s number one job is to prevent the other team from scoring runs. ERA, which calculates how many earned runs a pitcher allows on average per nine innings, is the best stat to show how effective a pitcher is at preventing earned runs.
WHIP, or walks and hits per inning pitched, is a good stat that indicates how well a pitcher limits men on base. Games Started is also important because, as the old hard-working saying goes, the best ability one can have is availability.
Based solely on ERA, Koufax had the better peak. His 1.95 ERA is stellar, but some might believe that a difference of 0.11 runs, which is the difference between his peak ERA and Kershaw’s peak of 2.06 ERA, is splitting hairs. However, it should be noted that Koufax’s minuscule peak ERA is with 100 more innings pitched than Kershaw.
Although Kershaw has a slightly higher ERA and 100 fewer innings pitched than Koufax during these stretches, the peripheral numbers show that Kershaw was simply the more dominant pitcher. His 0.908 WHIP vs. Koufax’s 0.926 WHIP, his 1.8 BB/9 vs. Koufax’s 2.1 BB/9, and his 10.0 K/9 vs. Koufax’s 9.4 K/9 show that Kershaw was simply better at limiting free passes to batters, better at giving up fewer hits per inning, and better at striking out more batters per nine innings than Koufax.
With HR/9 and H/9 numbers practically identical between the two, the only reasons I can see that Kershaw has a higher stretch ERA is perhaps due to poorer team defense or worse luck at times than Koufax.
Finally, just looking at their ERA+, a stat which MLB defines as “taking a player’s ERA and normalizing it across the entire league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks and opponents. It then adjusts, so a score of 100 is league average, and 150 is 50 percent better than the league average,” Kershaw’s 179 ERA+ is better than Koufax’s 167 ERA+. This means that Kershaw was 79% better than league average during his stretch, and Koufax was 67% better than league average.
While both pitchers had outstanding, ridiculous numbers, Kershaw’s stuff had more dominant results, albeit in a slightly smaller sample size than Koufax. Also, I don’t think Kershaw ever gave up an inside-the-park home run to a horse, so…
Best Stretch Winner: Kershaw
Best Individual Season
Koufax and Kershaw are considered two of the best pitchers in Dodgers history, accumulating various career milestones and accomplishments while donning their blue caps. They both have had MVP and Cy Young Award-winning seasons. Still, even in their best and most decorated seasons, it can be argued that the best individual single season by a Dodger pitcher was actually Zack Greinke‘s 2015 season.
By ERA, ERA+, and WHIP, Greinke’s 2015 season bests both Koufax and Kershaw’s best campaigns. However, there is a major difference between Greinke and Kershaw’s seasons and Koufax’s 1966 season. That difference is the number of innings pitched by Koufax. Koufax hurled baseballs for 323 innings that year, a number that most likely will never be matched in today’s game.
While his inning totals are impressive, it’s important to give props to some of Kershaw’s impressive numbers, including his 10.8 K/9 and minuscule 0.857 WHIP.
Kershaw did have the best individual moment when comparing the two pitchers’ individual seasons, when he tossed a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies.
Despite the no-hitter, it’s just too hard to ignore Koufax’s lower ERA when he pitched about 125 more innings than Kershaw that year.
With the clarity of hindsight, it’s also impressive to note that in Koufax’s 1966 season, the final one of his career, he was able to put up those fantastic numbers while dealing with what would end up being career-ending pain in his throwing elbow.
Best Individual Season: Koufax
Best Overall Career
This comparison is difficult for a few reasons; first, Kershaw is still active, so his stats could improve or decline between now and when he calls it a career. Second, unfortunately, Koufax’s career was cut short at 30 due to debilitating elbow pain. So, while Kershaw has already passed Koufax in certain career numbers like strikeouts and innings pitched, I will try to analyze their careers in regards to league dominance, individual accomplishments, and postseason success.
Both Kershaw and Koufax have won three Cy Young awards for being the best pitcher in their league, and both pitchers have won one league MVP for their 2014 and 1963 campaigns, respectively. Kershaw has also been named to the All-Star team eight times so far in his career compared to Koufax’s seven selections.
Koufax is a member of the Hall of Fame, and there isn’t anything that suggests that when Kershaw calls it a career, he won’t be a first-ballot Hall–of–Famer too.
Looking at league dominance, both pitchers have led their leagues in ERA five times, both pitchers have led their leagues in WHIP four times, and Koufax led the National League in strikeouts four times compared to Kershaw leading the National League in strikeouts three times.
Diving into the stats of the table above, Kershaw’s ERA+ shows that he is currently 55% better than league average for his career. In contrast, Koufax’s ERA+ shows that he was 31% better than league average over his entire career.
Two stats that stand out when looking at this table are WHIP and BB/9. Kershaw’s WHIP is .100 less than Koufax’s WHIP, and Kershaw’s BB/9 is 1.0 less than Koufax’s BB/9, indicating that Kershaw’s been a more accurate pitcher throughout his career while limiting hits to the same degree that Koufax did.
Koufax was more dominant in the last half of his career, but Kershaw has been a consistent top-tier pitcher for almost his entire career up to this point.
Finally, a comparison of these two pitchers’ careers wouldn’t be complete without looking at their playoff performances over the years.
Despite the narrative that Kershaw isn’t a competent postseason pitcher, he has had his fair share of solid and even great playoff performances over the years.
|2013||NLDS g1||Oct 3||LAD||@||ATL||W,6-1||W(1-0)||7.0||3||1||1||3||12||0||26||124||77||19||76|
|2013||NLCS g2||Oct 12||LAD||@||STL||L,0-1||L(1-1)||6.0||2||1||0||1||5||0||20||72||44||9||70|
|2015||NLDS g4||Oct 13||LAD||@||NYM||W,3-1||W(1-1)||7.0||3||1||1||1||8||1||25||94||62||8||74|
|2016||NLCS g2||Oct 16||LAD||@||CHC||W,1-0||W(2-0)||7.0||2||0||0||1||6||0||24||84||55||6||78|
|2017||WS g1||Oct 24||LAD||HOU||W,3-1||W(3-0)||7.0||3||1||1||0||11||1||24||83||57||8||78|
|2018||NLDS g2||Oct 5||LAD||ATL||W,3-0||W(1-0)||8.0||2||0||0||0||3||0||26||85||63||10||81|
|2018||NLCS g5||Oct 17||LAD||MIL||W,5-2||W(2-1)||7.0||3||1||1||2||9||0||25||98||69||18||74|
|2020||NLWC g2||Oct 1||LAD||MIL||W,3-0||W(1-0)||8.0||3||0||0||1||13||0||27||93||67||22||88|
|2020||WS g1||Oct 20||LAD||TBR||W,8-3||W(3-1)||6.0||2||1||1||1||8||1||21||78||53||19||71|
The table above shows what I consider to be nine of Kershaw’s best playoff starts. In his brightest moments, he was able to be either a lockdown pitcher for six or seven innings or an absolute untouchable force for eight innings.
However, he is unfairly known as a poor playoff performer because he has had some notable clunkers on the mound over the years, especially against the Cardinals, Astros, Red Sox, Cubs, and some other scattered performances among his 30 career playoff starts. Sixteen of Kershaw’s 30 career playoff starts have been at least quality starts, when a starting pitcher pitches at least six innings and allows three earned runs or fewer. In 11 of his 30 career playoff starts, Kershaw has allowed one run or fewer.
By no means has he been untouchable in the playoffs, but Kershaw has given the Dodgers solid to great performances in over half of his career playoff starts en route to helping the team win their first World Series title since 1988 in 2020.
While Kershaw has had his struggles and eventual breakthrough as a World Series champion in 2020, his playoff performances don’t hold a candle to Koufax’s performances in October.
|1959||WS g5||Oct 6||LAD||CHW||L,0-1||L(0-1)||7.0||5||1||1||1||6||0||25||68|
|1963||WS g1||Oct 2||LAD||@||NYY||W,5-2||W(1-0)||9.0||6||2||2||3||15||1||36||130||87||32||79|
|1963||WS g4||Oct 6||LAD||NYY||W,2-1||W(2-0)||9.0||6||1||1||0||8||1||33||115||85||22||79|
|1965||WS g2||Oct 7||LAD||@||MIN||L,1-5||L(0-1)||6.0||6||2||1||1||9||0||25||88||58||16||62|
|1965||WS g5||Oct 11||LAD||MIN||W,7-0||W(1-1)||9.0||4||0||0||1||10||0||29||88|
|1965||WS g7||Oct 14||LAD||@||MIN||W,2-0||W(2-1)||9.0||3||0||0||3||10||0||33||132||86||27||88|
|1966||WS g2||Oct 6||LAD||BAL||L,0-6||L(0-1)||6.0||6||4||1||2||2||0||26||50|
In the table above, I listed Koufax’s seven career postseason starts. Although the road to a World Series title in October only consisted of one round back in Koufax’s playing days, his abilities shined bright. Four of his seven career postseason starts were complete games, including complete game shutouts of the Minnesota Twins in games five and seven of the 1965 World Series to give the Dodgers their fourth franchise championship, and Koufax his second World Series MVP.
Koufax would end up being a part of three World Series-winning squads for the Dodgers over his 12-year career, and he would end up posting a 0.95 ERA in 8 games pitched or 57 total innings pitched in the postseason.
If this were an article where I chose which Dodger starting pitcher I would prefer to have in a playoff game, Koufax would be my choice over Kershaw every time. However, Kershaw has put in more years, more quality numbers, and a larger quantity of numbers as a pitcher in the regular season for the Dodgers.
His longevity over Koufax and the fact that he has one World Series championship under his belt while continuing to be in contention for more titles each year just slightly puts Kershaw on top.
Best Overall Career: Kershaw
Koufax and Kershaw are considered to be two of the best pitchers in Dodgers franchise history. Koufax’s new statue is located right next to Jackie Robinson out in the center field plaza, but in the years to come, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kershaw has a statue out there with those two legendary players.
Koufax shined bright in his career, and even though it was cut short by injuries, he was a force to be reckoned with for 12 years.
With his dominant left-handed curveball, Kershaw has been compared to Koufax for his entire career. As his career progressed, Koufax became a friend and mentor to Kershaw. At Koufax’s statue unveiling, he had a few words to say about his good friend.
“In the years and generations to come, I hope a kid sees this statue and asks his mom or dad about Sandy Koufax, and I hope that they tell him he was a great pitcher, but more than that, he was a great man who represented the Dodgers with humility, kindness, passion, and class,” Kershaw said. “And for every rookie who sees this statue for the first time and asks, ‘Was he any good?’ I hope the veterans tell him simply that he was the best to ever do it.”
When Koufax had his turn to speak at the ceremony, he had his own thought about who the greatest Dodger of all time is.
“Well, there’s a lot of talk these days about the greatest of all time. GOAT used to be a bad thing, now it’s ‘greatest of all time.’ Well, that’s the end of the discussion. Vin Scully is the greatest of all time.”
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