Clayton Kershaw passes Sandy Koufax for most wins by a Dodgers lefty, but how does he compare to the Hall of Famer?
For most teams in the Major Leagues, a pitcher setting a franchise record for wins by a left-hander wouldn’t be a big deal. But the Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t like other teams, because they don’t have just an average lefty.
When Clayton Kershaw, 31, defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 16-3 at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, giving up three earned runs on six hits in six innings, he earned the 166th win of his Cooperstown-bound career. He’s now fifth all-time in wins for the Dodgers, but more importantly, it moved him past fellow lefty, Dodgers legend and claimant to the title of best pitcher ever, Sandy Koufax, for most by a left-hander in Dodgers history.
The significance of the achievement wasn’t lost on Kershaw. “It’s special, for sure. What Sandy means to this organization, what Sandy means to me personally, it’s an incredible thing. Something I never thought was going to happen,” he said in the Dodgers clubhouse after the game.
“It’s an honor for me. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Sandy.”
Comparisons to Koufax have followed Kershaw around since he made his Dodgers debut as a 20-year-old in 2008. It’s elite company to be in, a testament to Kershaw’s excellence for the past decade. Both have been similarly dominant through the prime years of their careers.
Koufax took a few years to learn how to master his pitches, but when he did he pulled off arguably the best five-year run any pitcher has ever had. Between 1962 and 1966, he went 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA and surpassed the 300-strikeout mark on three separate occasions. He led the Dodgers to three National League pennants in that span and gave up less than a run a game in six World Series starts.
Perhaps the biggest testament to how good Koufax was is what the players who had to hit against him thought of him.
“Hitting against Sandy Koufax is like drinking coffee with a fork,” fellow Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once said. In 1963, when Koufax went 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and a league-leading 11 shutouts, winning the first of three Cy Young Awards at a time when only one was given out, he and the Dodgers swept the juggernaut New York Yankees in the World Series. “I can see how he won 25 games,” Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said afterward. “What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”
Kershaw didn’t have to wait as long to become a dominant starting pitcher. By the time he turned 23, he was already the best pitcher in baseball after winning his first Cy Young Award in 2011. Since that year, Kershaw is second among pitchers in wins. His ERA is nearly .40 points lower than any other qualified starter (2.20; the late Jose Fernandez is second at 2.58). In Koufax’s prime, he had an ERA .6 points better than the Giants’ Juan Marichal. And like Koufax, Kershaw also won five ERA titles.
Where Kershaw gets the nod is the era he’s playing in. In the past five seasons dating back to 2015, teams are averaging 4.5 runs a game. When Koufax was dominating opponents, teams were scoring only 4.09 runs a game. Already in 2019, there have been 5,320 home runs hit across the Majors, 2,300 more than in any season of Koufax’s prime. Koufax also pitched on a mound that was raised 15 inches above the ground. After 1968, when pitchers became too dominant, the mound was lowered to 10 inches where it’s remained ever since.
Kershaw also edges out Koufax in longevity. He’s already older than Koufax was when he retired, his career cut short while still at the height of his powers by arthritis in his pitching elbow. There’s no telling what he would’ve accomplished had he been able to stay healthy. So far in his career, Kershaw has avoided that problem. Kershaw has started 338 games for the Dodgers, while Koufax made 314 starts.
But the biggest knock against Kershaw in his comparisons to Koufax comes in the form of championships. Koufax won three World Series titles with the Dodgers. For how dominant he was in the regular season, he was even better in October, holding opponents to a 0.95 ERA.
Kershaw, though, is still looking for his first ring. His struggles in the postseason have been well chronicled. His ERA in the last two World Series, both Dodgers losses, is 5.40. In Game 5 against the Houston Astros in 2017, Kershaw couldn’t hold on to a 4-0 lead and gave up six runs in less than five innings. When Koufax started Game 7 of the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins, he tossed a three-hit shutout while striking out 10.
The Dodgers currently led the NL West by 19 games and are favorites to go back to the World Series for the third straight year, so Kershaw may yet get another opportunity to erase that history. He made a bit of history on Tuesday night, giving him some bragging rights over one of the best pitchers who ever played.