Sandy Koufax is the most legendary Jewish athlete of all time. Over a five-year explosion of dominance, the hard-throwing southpaw achieved true greatness—an amorphous term whose lines become defined when considering Koufax’s decision to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because of Yom Kippur. Koufax’s acknowledgement that some things are just more important than baseball still resonates—a half-century later. The High Holiday no-show now overshadows Koufax’s Game 7 gem against the Twins to clinch the series. It even overshadows the fact that he was the championship MVP.
But how does Koufax’s career compare with that of Clayton Kershaw, the left-handed Dodgers ace and the best pitcher in Major League Baseball over the last five years?
As a recent column by ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle explains, now is the perfect time for comparing Kershaw and Koufax, partly because of the relative brevity of Koufax’s career. Kershaw—who at the age of 29 has three Cy Young awards—is about two years younger than Koufax was before an arthritic elbow forced him into premature retirement just weeks after appearing in the 1966 World Series. “If the arguments about Koufax and Kershaw right now are too close to call, this is probably the last year we can have that debate, if it’s not too late already,” Doolittle writes. “Because Kershaw shows no sign of slowing down, and with each passing season he sets a new standard for Dodgers pitchers.”
Between 1961 and 1966, Koufax reached a level of greatness—statistically speaking and otherwise— that few other athletes have even touched. In fact, he was nearly unbeatable. During his six-season peak, Koufax developed one of history’s most lethal curve balls, fired off four no-hitters—including a 1965 perfect game, just the fourth since World War I—won 129 games, set a single-season strikeout record that stood through the mid-’70s, and won three World Series rings, along with three Cy Youngs and an MVP award.
“The argument for Koufax is dominance over a four- to five-season period—Yogi Berra was said to have quipped, ‘I can understand how the guy won 25 games, what I don’t get is how he lost five’)—at a time when pitchers were asked to do more than they are now,” said Marc Tracy, the former editor of this here website and a current college sports reporter for The New York Times who co-edited Jewish Jocks, a book about Jewish athletes.
Koufax has another, seemingly paradoxical advantage over the younger Dodgers lefty. Koufax struggled with an arthritic elbow and retired at the peak of his abilities: In his final season, he won 27 games, and posted a 1.73 ERA over a now-stupefying 323 innings pitched. Koufax never suffered the indignities of a long decline, and his story possesses elements of romantic suffering and renunciation that Kershaw’s probably never will, with medical science and pitching staff management being what they are these days. Koufax is a mythological figure in a way that an active player could never be—in the context of a detailed statistical comparison of Koufax and Pedro Martinez, sports writer Dave Fleming speculated that more poetry had been written about Koufax than about any other baseball player.
In short, Koufax was briefly perfect, and he owned the big games like few other pitchers have. Thrilling a pitcher as Kershaw may be, he still has yet to pitch in the World Series.
And yet, the statistical case for Kershaw is convincing, clear-cut even: Per BaseballReference.com, Kershaw has 55.7 wins above replacement (WAR) to Koufax’s 53.2, a statistic that shows he has been the more cumulatively valuable player. Kershaw holds the advantage in ERA+ (ERA adjusted to account for both ballpark differences and the average ERA in a given league), walks and hits allowed per inning (WHIP), and strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Kershaw actually possesses the best ERA+ of any starter in baseball history.
Kershaw is facing harder competition than Koufax, too. John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, recalled the book Pitching in a Pinch written by Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson in 1912, in which he writes that he would throw at 3/4ths effort through the bottom half of the lineup, saving his best stuff for the enemy’s most dangerous hitters. Mathewson played in the early 1900s, but even through the ’60s there were batters that an ace pitcher could dominate with relative ease. That’s not entirely true anymore, said Thorn, and the sport’s rising talent level means there are virtually no easy outs these days.
“Kershaw is facing better opposition that Koufax did,” said Thorn. “Stars are stars, but one through 25 [in the roster], today’s players are better.”
“The argument for Kershaw is he already has had a better career than Koufax, accounting for duration,” said Tracy. And [he] is as good when adjusted for what pitchers are asked to do now. I am inclined to give the edge to Kershaw.”
Their viewpoints, of course, are likely to disappoint and even enrage the nostalgists out there.
Baseball rewards statistical accumulation and long-term consistency, but strikeout and home run totals aren’t really the point of it. Championships are only kind of the point of it: Sports are inevitably about the chase for True Greatness, the intangible genius of body, mind and spirit, thrown into moments of maximal drama and gravity.
Not that Kershaw hasn’t touched absolute greatness—he did throw the single most impressive no-hitter of all time—but Koufax embodied greatness about as thoroughly as any athlete ever has. As his footnote of a 1965 World Series MVP demonstrates, with a player like Koufax, the myth and its meanings even begin to obscure the already impressive accomplishments on the field. Perhaps it will be that way for Kershaw a few decades down the line. He’s probably only halfway through his career, after all. Kershaw also has had the added benefit of having Koufax around: The hall of famer has consulted with the Dodgers since 2013, and even worked with pitchers during Spring Training at one point.
“We make up stories, and we believe in them so firmly that we share them and repeat them, and they take on a certain venerability and a veneer that make them seem akin to truth,” said Thorn. Comparing Kershaw and Koufax is “interesting,” he admits, “but not if you engage in the illusion that you’re going to land on an answer.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.