Friday, January 22, 2010

Lefty Grove vs. Sandy Koufax & Randy Johnson

Who was the greatest left-handed pitcher in history? My money is on Lefty Grove. This issue came up in a Joe Sheehan piece titled By Any Measure: It's no tall tale: The Big Unit was the greatest lefthander of them all. SABR members were told about it in a recent email and it got mentioned in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog. So here is my take on the issue.

In the table below, I summarize each pitcher's career. Here is what the abbreviations mean:

WS = Win Shares (created by Bill James)
WAR = Wins Above Replacement (from Sean Smith)
PW = Pitching Wins (from Pete Palmer via Retrosheet)
ERA+ = ERA adjusted league average and park effects (from Baseball Reference)


Grove does very well. WS might take into account clutch performance or high leverage situations. Grove pitched in relief in about 25% of the games and had alot of saves for his era. This could be bumping up his WS. Koufax and Johnson did not pitch much in relief. But Grove has such a big lead, it might not matter.

Grove pitched until he was 41 and Johnson until he was 45. If I drop Johnson's last 4 seasons, his ERA+ is 151, just slightly ahead of Grove. But then Johnson gives up about 5 WAR and over 500 IP.

The next table shows the best 5 consecutive seasons for each pitcher. Peak value should be included in any evaluation along with career value. Again, Grove looks very good.


This might not be fair to Johnson. For whatever reason, modern pitchers don't pitch as many innings as those in the past. Grove's 5 highest IP seasons add to 1,421. For Koufax it is 1,447 and for Johnson it is only 1,285. If we increased his totals in the above graph by about 10%, he would still trail Grove.

Now the best 3 consecutive seasons.


Grove looks very good again. If we gave Johnson a 10% bump, he would pass Grove, but in only one measure, WAR, and not by much.

We should also look at how they each did in the pitcher cotrolled stats. In the next table, HR shows how well they each did in preventing HRs. Grove gave up 43% fewer HRs than the average pitcher during his career (that is what the 143 means, from the Lee Sinins Complete Baseball Encyclopedia). The number in parantheses is where each pitcher ranks among lefties with 2,000+ IP since 1920.

SO/BB is strikeout-to-walk ratio relative to the league average. The 211 for Grove means his ratio was 2.11 times the league aveage.


This looks very good for Grove. If I dropped the last 4 seasons for Johnson, he gets 122 for HR and 180 for SO/BB, still well below Grove.

The next table shows the same stats for each player over what was probably their best 5-year stretch. For Grove it was 1928-32, for Koufax it was 1962-66 and for Johnson it was 1998-2002. Grove again dominates.


During these years, Grove's park allowed about 50% more HRs than average, Koufax's about 40% fewer and Johnson's was about average. Grove had an ERA+ of 174, Koufax 169 and Johnson 178. A slight edge for Johnson, but I don't think enough to overcome Grove's big leads in so many other cases.

If we simply compare the relevant stats to the league average, Grove seems to have performed better than the other two whether we consider career value or peak value.

3 comments:

lou said...

Well there is little doubt of Grove, or Koufax place in baseball history, as they were the most dominate pitchers of their respective eras, can the same be said of Johnson,, who had plenty of competition for this title. As to a five year span of greatness only Mr. Grove and Koufax can be compared even remotely, Johnson is a pick-em, his value to the 1990-2000 s can't be denied he unfortunately can not be compared to either Grove or Koufax.......

lou said...

Sandy Koufax was from 1962 Till 1966 the absolute most dominate, most respected and Honored player not just pitcher of that time, he did lose once in awhile due to the fact that his team was the worst offense in baseball att. The Dodgers wheree last in homeruns, batting avg. Runs scored, RBI, Slugging pct, on base pct., in fact the only offensive category that they were competive in was stolen bases. Yet Mr. Koufax won three Triple Crowns in pitching, led baseball in both earned run avg. and strikeouts in all five seasons thru 1966 when he retired due to a condition which could have left him without the use of his left arm,
few know that Mr. Koufax had a tumor the size of a calif. Naval orange removed from his shoulder after the 66' season or that for most of that season he could only throw one pitch, the opposition however was aware and it made little difference, ask any player who faced Koufax what they thought of him and all will answer Respectfully! He was and still is a Man in every sense of the Term! We who were fortunate enough to have met him will always remember his kindness and dignity, and wonder how someone so talented could be so Humble! I for one will always honor Sandy Koufax the way he would want it, quietly, privately and mostly with those who feel the SAME!!!!

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

I disagree. I think Johnson can be compared and the numbers show this.

And I don't think "Sandy Koufax was from 1962 Till 1966 the absolute most dominate."

Those numbers are partly park illusion. Go to this link

Koufax links

To find links that show that Koufax did not have the best 5 year period