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Sandy Koufax, Dodgers, 1955-66

For the first time in this series, I have come across a bit of a challenge as to who to put as the number one lefty of the era. Hal Newhouser, Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax all put up remarkable numbers during their time. But two of these players had very short peaks, one had a bucketful of World Series rings and the other played across three decades. None of this makes for easy comparison.

Let’s take a look at Spahn and Koufax first. The primary issue between Spahn and Koufax, of course, is valuable longevity versus short term brilliance. Koufax’s peak of six years is regarded by many to be the greatest peak of any pitcher in history. But Koufax really only had those six years of brilliance. Spahn, on the other hand, never came close to such elite performance in any one season. However, he performed at all-star caliber for more than twice as long as Koufax did. Koufax struck out batters at a higher rate, but Spahn walked fewer. Koufax had over 300 strikeouts three times, whereas Spahn never even reached 200. But Spahn pitched 245 more complete games in his career, with a WHIP that was only .08 higher than Koufax’s.

Warren Spahn, Braves: 1946-64, Mets/Giants: 1965

Interestingly, Spahn lead the NL in strikeouts just as many times as Koufax (four), and the same with WHIP (also four times). Spahn also lead the NL in shutouts four times (whereas Koufax did it three times) and in complete games, his specialty, nine times. Koufax lead the NL in CG twice.

When we turn to the postseason, Spahn performed very well, starting six games in his career and finishing with an ERA, WHIP, strikeout and walk rate all better than his regular season averages. His ERA and FIP were 3.05 and 3.22. But then we see what Koufax did and it is astounding. Koufax started seven playoff games, for an ERA of 0.95 and FIP of 1.41. His strikeouts and walk rates were also better than his career averages.

Another way to take a look at the value of these pitchers is take a look at WAR/200 innings. Essentially, this takes the stat “Wins Above Replacement” from Baseball Reference.com and averages it over 200 innings. This will account for Spahn’s longevity and Koufax’s not-so-great seasons. What we see is that Koufax had a 4.69 WAR/200, while Spahn had a 3.56.

So given his six years of utter dominance, his superior postseason performance and his lower ERA-, FIP- and higher WAR/200, I believe Koufax was better than Spahn.

Next, let’s take a look at Whitey Ford, and see how he compares to Spahn. Right off the bat, we see that Ford had better ERA- and FIP- rates. Ford finished with 75 and 88, respectively. Spahn’s were 84 and 94. But when we take a look at K/9, BB/9 and K/BB ratios, we see that Ford had more strikeouts, Spahn fewer walks, and their K/BB rates both came to 1.80. Spahn’s WHIP is also lower than Ford’s, though barely, at 1.19 to 1.22. So if their K/BB and WHIP rates are a wash, and Ford wins ERA- and FIP-, then he has the current lead.

Whitey Ford, Yankees: 1950-67

Ford, being on the great Yankees teams of the 50’s and 60’s, obviously had more postseason opportunities. But totals aside, in his 22 starts his ERA and FIP were 2.71 and 2.69, respectively, both significantly better than Spahn’s (listed above). Like Spahn, Ford’s K/BB ratio vastly improved in the World Series, but his jumped to 2.76, while Spahn’s was 2.46. So again, Ford has the edge.

Surprisingly, Spahn has the higher WAR/200, at 3.56 to Ford’s 3.49. All of those quality innings and complete games in the National League in the late 40’s and early 50’s (before Ford’s time) added up to some serious WAR value for Spahn. Ford also lead the league in complete games and WHIP just once a piece, and never lead in strikeouts. As is often the case, the lines get gray when comparing players from different eras and leagues (though of course Spahn’s later career overlapped with Ford’s for quite a long time). But there seems to be a considerable difference in Spahn’s relative value in the 7-8 years before Ford showed up.

I cannot help but give massive credit for Spahn’s dependability and consistency. Though Ford’s numbers exceed Spahn’s best years, I have to declare the two a tie. Right now, Koufax leads the pack. So what about Hal Newhouser?

Hal Newhouser, Tigers: 1939-53, Indians 1954-55

Newhouser was to the mid 40’s what Koufax was to the mid 60’s. Newhouser dominated the AL from 1944 to ’48, and pitched well in the years before and after. He boasts a career ERA-/FIP- of 76/80, both of which are better than Spahn’s, and he beats Ford in FIP-. In ERA- he is barely behind Ford’s and Koufax’s rate of 75. What knocks Newhouser back to 4th on this list is that the guys above have a better K/BB and WHIP, and all, even Koufax, had a longer peak. Newhouser didn’t get as much postseason work as the others either, and didn’t do particularly well when he did.

But Newhouser’s 5 year peak included ERA- and FIP- numbers that matched Koufax’s peak, and he was awarded back to back MVP awards in ’44 and ’45, which demonstrated his perceived impact at the time.

So for this era, I would rank them as Koufax #1, Spahn and Ford at #2, and Newhouser 4th.

    ERA- FIP- K/BB WHIP Best ERA-/FIP-
1. Sandy Koufax

75

75

2.93

1.11

53/62

2. Whitey Ford

75

88

1.80

1.22

56/65

(tie) Warren Spahn

84

94

1.80

1.19

53/75

4. Hal Newhouser

76

80

1.44

1.31

52/56

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