This One’s Personal: Sanford Koufax vs. Randy Johnson…pffft

November 15, 2011

(This article was first published on datum » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

I couldn’t let this one go. The conclusion draw here by this author that Randy Johnson was “the best pitcher of all time” was not something I could allow to slip through the cracks. Johnson was awesome. Incredible to watch. Always delivered on a great game without a doubt. But by all measures not the greatest pitcher of all time AND not even the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. Any reasonable person knows that this distinction belongs to Sandy Koufax. The problem, that we all know, is that Koufax’s career was cut short because he was playing at a time when no one was limiting young pitchers the way the do now in order to save their arms to lengthen their careers.  He left at the height of his game, and, if you watch his press conference when he made the decision it’s quite understandable.

So then how do we judge a 21 year major league career against a 12 year career.  I propose two methods of doing so.  We can compare their seasons by Age which creates a bit of an issue because Koufax was forced to join the team at 19 because of some rules around how he was drafted that don’t exist anymore and Johnson didn’t come up to the majors until he was 24.  So this limits us to 7 seasons: Ages 24-30.  The other way to approach it is to compare their stats by career year which will give us 12 years to look at keeping in mind that Johnson had considerably more time to hone his skills in the minors.

The charts below are using the ggplo2 R package with no doctoring of the images. I’ve also kept it strictly to the stats used in the above mentioned post: Strike Outs and ERA. While the XY-aspect of the plot should be obvious (Strike Outs against Age or Career Year), the thickness of the lines also represents their respective ERAs.  Lets see how this compares first by Age then by Career Year.

By age Koufax is the clear winner.  He had more time in the majors than Randy at that point but the point of being in the minors is to get prepared for major league baseball. That begs the question then if minor league experience is better than just being dumped right in? By career year I’d say that on first glance it looks pretty even but when you look closer at all of Sandy’s sub-3 and sub-2 ERA seasons plus his huge number of strikeouts in his year 11 season I’m also going to go ahead and give this one to Sanford.

One of the things Johnson is so lauded for is his high number of cumulative strike outs.  So let’s do the same thing.  First by Age then by Career Year:

I don’t even have to comment this.  Koufax = Winner.  The question is always out there about what could he have done if he hadn’t blown out his arm.  We’ll never know.  But just because he didn’t get to put up the cumulative numbers that some players have doesn’t mean he should be excluded from the “Greatest Pitcher Ever’ or ‘Greatest Left Hander Ever’ debates.

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