Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence: Battle for baseball’s second greatest left hander
Recently, we two lifelong Dodger fans welcomed the new baseball season, celebrating the game’s greatest left-hander of all time, Vin Scully, the masterful broadcaster, now calling his 67th and final season of Dodger games this year.
But as Dodger fans from two generations, we disagree on who’s the second-greatest left hander ever: Sandy Koufax or Clayton Kershaw.
Both pitchers have won three Cy Young Awards, and each has been recognized as the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Only four starting pitchers in history won both awards; the other two were the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe and the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson.
Their career statistics are also similar. Koufax compiled a 2.76 earned-run-average across 12 seasons while averaging 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings and a winning percentage of 65.5. In Kershaw’s eight seasons, he has a 2.42 ERA, 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a 67.3 winning percentage.
Stylistically, they’re also similar. Koufax was known for the best fastball-curveball combination ever, plus a forkball and change-up. As Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan says, his fastball and curve were so good, he could tell you which one he was about to throw and you still couldn’t hit it.
Kershaw, who’s faced the lofty challenge of being compared to Koufax since he was drafted at age 18, is known for a similar fastball-curveball combo, and he’s added a slider in recent years.
Koufax’s signature high leg kick made every pitch look like a work of art. Kershaw is less artistic, but personifies poise under pressure.
For Ron, though, there is no debate. Koufax, his favorite athlete ever, pitched when men were men. A man pitched every fourth day and finished what he started. Over his 12 years, Koufax threw 137 complete games. His four no-hitters have been surpassed only by Nolan Ryan, who pitched for 27 years. And Koufax’s last no-no was a perfect game.
Geoff concedes the game was purer and more impressive in the era of the four-man rotation, but counters Kershaw is a rarity who regularly asks to pitch on short rest. He’s also led the majors in complete games the past two years despite the silliness of modern pitch count limitations.
Kershaw has been consistently good since he got to the majors at age 20. He’s never had a losing season, nor a full-season ERA higher than 2.91. Koufax’s story, however, is really a tale of two careers.
Koufax’s final six seasons were arguably the most dominant stretch of any pitcher in history, but his first six were nothing remarkable. Signed by Brooklyn as a Bonus Baby in 1955 at age 19, Koufax didn’t become “The Left Arm of God” until 1961. In 1955-60, he compiled a 36-40 record with a 4.10 ERA as the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball.
However, in spring training in 1961, catcher Norm Sherry suggested he not throw quite as hard as he could. In 1961-1966, he went 129-47 with 2.19 ERA. He went out on top, retiring after his greatest season ever at age 30 and becoming the youngest Hall-of-Famer ever.
The chronic arthritis in his pitching arm from being overworked forced Koufax to hang up his spikes prematurely. Modern surgical techniques likely would have extended his career. But he left his heart, soul and everything else out there on the mound, and all America mourned.
Off the field and in the clubhouse, both men were noble leaders and great role models for youngsters. Both won and lost with class and grace.
Kershaw married his high school sweetheart, Ellen, with whom he has regularly traveled to Zambia where they have founded an orphanage and led other humanitarian efforts.
The ever-modest Koufax, who met his first wife, Anne, in 1968 after having retired, never mentioned to her he had played baseball and was famous. She found out on her own days later. To his surprise, she was also no stranger to fame; she was the daughter of actor Richard Widmark.
Kershaw has yet to appear in a World Series, the stage where Koufax always shone brightest. But at just 28, Kershaw still has many years left in his legacy.
The Koufax-Kershaw debate will rage for decades to come. But at least we can agree on, “Go Dodgers!”
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.