Monday, May 18, 2015

Koufax knew K's, from both ends of bat

No doubt about it, Sandy Koufax knew strikeouts. In 12 major league seasons (1955-66) he threw 2,396 of them. That puts him at #42 all-time, #15 among left-handers. His career record is 9.3 K's per nine innings; good enough to lead the NL six times and the major leagues three times.

But Koufax also knew strikeouts from the other end of the bat.

In his rookie season of 1955, Koufax never went to bat without striking out. In his 12 games that year, Koufax was 0-for-12, with 12 K's. Those whiffs included six times caught looking, a missed bunt and a fouled bunt.

Moreover, the Dodgers' record in Koufax's dozen games in 1955 was 2-10. The only games Brooklyn won when Koufax pitched in 1955 were the complete-game two shutouts he threw. To be fair, as a bench-sitting bonus baby, Koufax was mostly used in '55 as a mop-up pitcher in games in which the decision was already determined.

It was seven games into his second season, June 3, 1956, before Koufax ever got on base or put wood to ball in a meaningful way. His former teammate Russ (The Mad Monk -- one of baseball's great nicknames) Meyer, then with the Cubs walked him in his first AB. Koufax also grounded out and was struck out looking by Meyer in that game, and walked again in the ninth off Vito Valentinetti. Koufax won the game 4-3 for his first victory of 1956.

Koufax's first major league hit came in his next game, June 8. He started in Cincinnati but was not in on the decision in a 4-6 Dodgers loss, Facing Johnny Klippstein, Koufax struck out in the third and in the fifth got a ground-ball single.

He got one more hit in 1956, off Willard Schmidt in St. Louis in his July 22 4-3 win over the Cardinals. That brought his career BA to .071.

0-for 1957
Once again in 1957, Koufax went hitless. In 26 at-bats over 34 games he had neither a hit nor a walk, though he did score one run. On Aug. 1 at Wrigley Field, Koufax reached first base on a throwing error, worked his way around on singles by Jim Gilliam and Carl Furillo and scored on a Gil Hodges home run. He won that game 12-3.

At that point in his career, his batting average was .032.

For the 1958-64 seasons, Koufax hit .090, between .064 and .122. He averaged just under 65 strikeouts per season. 

In 1958 he got his first extra-base hit, the first of nine doubles he'd rap in his career. The initial two-bagger came Aug. 7, again in Chicago, in his 3-1 win over the Cubs. Serving up the double was Marcelino Solis. 

Koufax never hit a triple. He had two home runs, both in Milwaukee. In 1962 he had a solo shot off Warren Spahn, and in 1963 he hit a three-run blast to take a 1-3 lead against Denny Lemaster.

In 1965, the reason(s) for which I've found no explanation, Koufax went nuts with the bat. He more than doubled his lifetime BA by hitting .177. It was second on his Cy Young seasons and the Dodgers won the World Series that year against Minnesota.

Koufax had not appeared in the 1955 or 1956 World Series against the Yankees. He was 0-for-2 against the White Sox in 1959 and 0-for-6 versus New York in 1963. He got his lone post-season at bat in the 1965 Series against the Twins, an RBI single off Jim Perry in Game 5. He was again hitless in the 1966 Classic versus the Orioles. Overall, in 19 at-bats in four World Series, Koufax hit .053 with one walk and eight strikeouts.

For his regular-season major league career, Koufax batted .097. He struck out 386 times in 776 at-bats, walking 43 times. 

Surprisingly, Koufax has only the fifth-lowest batting average among Hall of Fame pitchers, though those below him were all primarily relievers, with far fewer at-bats. The numbers . . . 

Pitcher                       AB   H   BA     SO
Tommy LaSorda        14    1   .071       4
Hoyt Wilhelm            432  38   .088   166   
Bruce Sutter             102    9   .088     50
Satchel Paige           124  12   .097     32 
Sandy Koufax           776  75   .097   386

As hapless as he generally was with a bat, Sandy Koufax was masterful with the ball. It was his pitching that earned him legions of fans, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, three World's Champion rings and a pair of World Series MVPs. All that, and one of the best nicknames of his generation: The Left Hand of God.

It is one of baseball great misfortunes that arm troubles forced him to cut short his major league career at the age of 30.

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