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August 29, 2020 / Nat Anacostia

Max Scherzer compared with Sandy Koufax

Last night, the MASN broadcast mentioned that Scherzer had tied Sandy Koufax with 97 10-strikeout games, placing them fifth on the all-time list.* In the post-game interviews one of the reporters also mentioned that Scherzer has now pitched almost exactly the same number of innings as Koufax. So I thought it would be interesting to do a little comparison of the pitchers.
*Ahead of them on the list were Pedro Martinez with 108, Roger Clemens with 110, Randy Johnson with 212, and Nolan Ryan with 215. (To be fair, it’s not clear that their list covered pre-World War II pitchers, for whom game-by-game data gets spotty; I suspect that Walter Johnson would belong on the list if all the data were available.)

When I first got interested in baseball as a boy in the early 1960s I lived in Los Angeles and was a Dodgers fan. I didn’t attend a lot of games at Dodgers Stadium, but I did get to go to a game that Koufax pitched (a 4-hit shutout as I recall). There weren’t a lot of games on television in those days either (maybe 15 to 20 games a year), but I watched them when I could and listened to the rest on the radio. Koufax was obviously one of my childhood heroes.

While it’s interesting to look at their statistical similarities, it’s worth emphasizing that their pitching styles were entirely different. Koufax, of course, was left-handed and threw three pitches—a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a change-up, and mostly relied on the first two. His delivery was over the top, which gave his fastball vertical lift and his curveball downward drop. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a similar left hander (though we could talk about Kershaw). Of course, you’re familiar with Scherzer, who mixes up maybe six different pitches and relies on an excellent fastball and slider (and more recently, a cutter). While we don’t have reliable radar gun data for Koufax’s era, I’d guess that his max fastball speed was similar to Scherzer’s (that is, around 97).  

Baseball-Reference has a table showing similarity scores (which are based entirely on the similarity of their statistics). On Koufax’s page, Scherzer is shown as his second most similar pitcher (behind Kershaw). On Scherzer’s page, Koufax is his sixth most similar (number one is Ron Guidry). It should be noted that their similarity score of 906.8 indicates that while they are somewhat similar, they aren’t that similar. One indication of an all-time great is that no one’s statistics are highly similar to theirs (such as a similarity score of 950 or above), which is true for both Koufax and Scherzer. (For example, Anibal Sanchez has six pitchers with similarity scores above 950, whereas Scherzer’s most similar is 931 and Koufax’s is 913.) 

Here’s a comparison of their career statistics. As you can see, with the exception of raw ERA (but not ERA+) they are very comparable.

Max Scherzer vs. Sandy Koufax    
CareerWLPctERAIPSOERA+WHIPSO/9rWAR
Scherzer17390.6583.212327.127471321.09610.659.5
Koufax16587.6552.762324.123961311.1069.353.1

There are some other interesting parallels. Both pitchers have won three Cy Young Awards (though to be fair, Koufax’s awards were all unanimous and won during the period when the award covered both leagues). Koufax pitched 12 seasons. Scherzer is now a month into his 13th.

Does that make Scherzer a Hall of Famer? While I think Scherzer is well on his way to Cooperstown, I don’t think the comparison with Koufax’s career statistics is enough by itself. The reason is that Koufax is not in the Hall because of his career statistics but despite them. We need to look at the shape of Koufax’s career and how his peak seasons drove him into the Hall.

Both pitchers took a while to become established as stars. Koufax was signed as a bonus baby—meaning, under the rules of the time, that he had to go directly to the big-league roster at age 19 and spend his first two years there without any time in the minors. He never would play in the minors, but he spent his first three seasons in Brooklyn as a long relief/spot starter/low leverage pitcher. Scherzer was drafted out of high school in the 43rd round but went to college instead. Three years later he was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 1st round, spent one season in the minors in high A and AA, then debuted with the D-backs at age 22 in April 2008. He split his time that season between AAA and the D-backs, where he was also used as a long relief/spot starter. In 2009 he moved into the rotation, and the following season he was traded to the Tigers

Over Koufax’s first six seasons he averaged 115 innings, 29 games, and 17 starts. His record was 36–40, and his ERA was 4.10 (ERA+ of 100). Scherzer’s early years were better than that (52–42 over his first five seasons with an ERA of 3.88 and ERA+ of 110), but he was just a solid second or third starter and not yet an ace.

Koufax’s final six seasons (1961 to 1966) were what made him a Hall of Famer and a legend. It’s worth remembering though that his raw statistics were given a boost, first in 1962 by the Dodgers move from the Coliseum to Dodgers Stadium, which at the time was a fairly extreme pitcher’s park,* then in 1963 by an expansion of the strike zone. So Koufax’s raw ERA post-1962 is lower than Scherzer’s, though quite a bit of the difference washes out when we look at ERA+. Koufax from 1961 to 1966 went 129–47, ERA of 2.19, ERA+ of 156, averaging 272 innings, 37 games, and 35 starts per season. Scherzer from 2013 to 2019 (7 seasons) went 118–47, ERA of 2.82, ERA+ of 149, averaging 212 innings, 32 games, and 32 starts. During those seasons Koufax completed 115 of his 211 starts and had 35 shutouts, whereas Scherzer completed 10 of his 223 starts and had 5 shutouts.
*When looking at Koufax’s career statistics, however, we should also keep in mind that Ebbetts Field was hitters’ park and the LA Coliseum was absolutely terrible for left-handed pitchers.

Turning to advanced statistics, Koufax’s FIP from 1961 to 1966 was 2.16—far ahead of runner-up Bob Veale with 2.55. In comparison, Scherzer’s FIP from 2013 to 2019 was 2.81, which ranked third behind Kershaw (2.55) and DeGrom (2.78). Scherzer actually has a higher strikeout rate over his prime seasons (11.3/9-IP) than Koufax (9.4/9-IP), and a similar walk rate (2.1 for Scherzer vs. 2.3 for Koufax), but Scherzer’s home runs-allowed rate has been quite a bit higher (1.0 for Scherzer vs. 0.6 for Koufax). Of course, both strikeouts and home runs have risen substantially since the 1960s.

Another key difference is that Koufax pitched in four World Series (1959, ’63, ’65, and ’66) and the Dodgers won three of them. Scherzer has made it to the WS twice and has one ring. Furthermore, Koufax’s WS performance was incredible – a 4–3 record in 8 games and 7 starts (4–1 in the Dodgers’ 1963 and ’65 championships), 57 IP, with a 0.95 ERA, 2 shutouts, and 4 complete games. And of course there’s also the extraordinary story of Koufax skipping Game 1 in 1965 to observe Yom Kippur. Scherzer’s postseason performance has been good but more ordinary with a 7–5 record in 22 games and 18 starts, 112 IP, with a 3.38 ERA and no complete games. In the Nats’ championship World Series, Scherzer’s performance was essential (the Nats’ won both of his starts), but with his 3.60 ERA the team also had to depend on some timely hitting and solid relief.

I think Scherzer is very likely to make the Hall of Fame, but his seven peak seasons, though dominant, have not been as dominant as Koufax’s six-year peak, and Scherzer doesn’t have the World Series legend of Koufax. Nevertheless, I think Scherzer is in a good position to remain one of the top pitchers in baseball for at least another two or three seasons. And even if his performance drops back a bit, in another three or four seasons he will start reaching career totals that will make him a lock for Cooperstown. For example, his 2747 strikeouts places him 24th on the leader board. If he passes Maddux at 3371, he’ll be in the top ten. Barring major injury, that total pretty much seems inevitable.

I feel very lucky to have seen and been a fan of both of these incredible pitchers in their prime.

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