Sandy and the Southpaws

Koufax's legacy lives on in a new generation of left-handed stars

June 27th, 2016

You can't help but admire the enormous leg kick, practically from here to the moon, that Sandy Koufax used to supercharge his fastballs. The videos from the early 1960s are grainy and decidedly low-tech, but despite the poor quality, there was no mistaking just what Koufax was able to do. He destroyed hitters with velocity, but paired it with a devastating curveball that broke ever so sharply. Koufax wouldn't just freeze opponents; he'd make them regret ever setting foot in the batter's box.
Every pitch in Koufax's arsenal would translate to today's game, which makes it even harder to believe that it's been 50 years since he retired. Left-handers have always held a special place in baseball history -- they are, after all, a rare species, comprising just 25 percent of active rosters -- but among them, it's Koufax who still represents the post-WWII gold standard.
Despite suffering from arthritis in his final two seasons, Koufax won 53 of 70 decisions. In '66, with the end in sight, he won 27 games. As if that wasn't enough of an exclamation point, in the last 26 days of his career, including the World Series, Koufax spun five complete games and posted a 1.07 ERA over seven outings.
As the late Ernie Banks told Sports Illustrated, "Sandy's curve had a lot more spin than anybody else's. It spun like a fastball coming out of his hand. And he had the fastball of a pure strikeout pitcher. Most of the time we knew what was coming, but it didn't matter. You still couldn't hit him."

No wonder the southpaws we admire today -- from Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale to Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel -- are up against an unforgiving comparison.
Koufax's legend lives on in the most logical place: Chavez Ravine, where Kershaw leads the Dodgers in much the same way Koufax did a half-century ago. Kershaw shies away from the comparison, preferring his own identity as a latter-day ace. But that's just old-fashioned modesty. Kershaw is a superstar, having won three Cy Youngs, an MVP Award and three strikeout titles since 2011. It's not crazy to put Kershaw and Koufax side by side, especially since the former was already a 20-game winner at age 23; Koufax's golden era didn't begin until his age-25 season.
Kershaw's best weapon, the curveball, hardly requires an introduction. But just in case you need one, famed Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully is happy to fill you in. Scully calls the pitch "Public Enemy Number One." Kershaw's hook comes straight out of a textbook, working on a 12-6 axis that messes with a hitter's sightline unlike any other pitch in the game.
"What makes (Kershaw's) curveball so tough to track is that he's got other pitches, too. You can't sit on it," says Mets veteran David Wright. "Even if it was just the curveball, it would give you trouble; it's huge. But he uses it to make everything else [in his arsenal] that much tougher."
It's the depth of Kershaw's curveball, which boasts a full 10-inch downward trajectory, that separates it from the pack. Hitters swear the ball is headed over the plate, only to watch helplessly as it ends at their feet. That radical change in direction, they say, is poison.
Praise like Wright's is universal throughout the National League, but Kershaw says there's a big difference between having great spin rate and knowing how and when to use it. Only in the last few seasons has Kershaw discovered that may mean deliberately bouncing a curve in the dirt. He's also figured out the calculus of proper sequencing between the curve and the slider, which he added to his repertoire in 2009. "I've got a pretty good idea of when to throw (the curve) and what to do with it. To me, that's been the difference. The idea is to give the hitter different looks."
Is that enough to turn him into a modern-day Koufax? You won't get Kershaw to touch that question, at least not until he's built a better resume in the postseason. Regardless, it's no stretch to say that he's not the only ace who bears resemblance.
If you look to the AL, only Sale comes close to the historic lefty in pure, untouchable, impossible-to-track stuff. Successful hitting is about timing and comfort, and there's nothing a batter hates more than an unpredictable pitch that dips out of the strike zone without warning. Study Sale's delivery -- all you need is one glance, really -- and you begin to understand why hitters dread facing him. The White Sox southpaw is the perfect storm of velocity, movement and asymmetry. Sale's stature -- 6 foot 6, 190 pounds and blessed with an 82-inch wingspan -- makes it hard enough to even see the ball leave his hand, let alone hit it.
Sale is the living, breathing definition of nasty, using a low, three-quarters delivery to pump two-seam fastballs in at nearly 95 mph. Chicago Manager Robin Ventura isn't exaggerating when he claims that facing Sale is "probably one of the most uncomfortable at-bats anywhere."
"Who'd want to hit against that?" he asks.

No surprise, then, that Sale led the AL in K's last season with 274. Even more remarkable is that, despite the crazy movement of his pitches, he walked just 1.8 batters per nine innings, displaying pinpoint control. In June 2015, Sale became the second pitcher since 1900 to whiff 12 or more batters while allowing one run or less in three consecutive starts. The other? Koufax, of course.
But while Koufax's delivery was a symphony of perfectly choreographed moving parts, Sale's mechanics are improv jazz. Its beauty is in its dissonance. Nothing in Sale's body language seems quite right until the ball has thundered into the catcher's glove and another hitter is on his way back to the dugout, defeated. According to PitchFx data, no pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2007 has created as much lateral movement as Sale, whose pitches span a full 10.85 inches.
"[Sale] and Kershaw are the two left-handers in baseball who can flat-out embarrass you," Jeff Francoeur told ESPN last year. "No disrespect to anyone else, but when you face those two guys, they can make you feel like you never played baseball before."
The Kershaw-Sale comparison is intense enough to make fans forget about the likes of Keuchel, Bumgarner and David Price, although doing so would be an unforgivable mistake. Keuchel, after all, is the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, not to mention a ground ball machine. He led the AL with a 61.7 percent ground ball ratio in 2015 and did it without even an average fastball. His four-seamer arrives at 89.6 mph, yet his mastery of the lower half of the strike zone allowed him to register nearly a strikeout per inning, en route to a 20-win season. The Houston ace is the anti-Kershaw, the anti-Sale, finessing hitters into swings-and-misses without actually overpowering them.
And Price, the runner-up in AL Cy Young voting, proved to be the difference-maker in the Blue Jays' run to the playoffs last season. The lefty went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA after he was traded to Toronto in late July, and he anchored the staff as the club secured its first division title since 1993. "No question we were a different team after David got here," says Manager John Gibbons. "You could just see how the guys reacted to him. No matter who we were facing, they knew we had a chance to win every time he took the mound."
Despite now wearing a division rival's uniform in Boston, Price possesses an untouchable legacy in Toronto. That's the reward for grace under pressure. Just ask MLB's other big-game southpaw: Bumgarner. Mad Bum channeled Koufax in 2014 when he posted a 1.03 ERA in the playoffs during a run of 52.2 frames across six starts and one relief appearance. When the Giants took a 3-2 lead over the Royals in the fourth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, they turned to Bumgarner to lock down the win.

Even now, nearly two years removed from that feat, Manager Bruce Bochy speaks of his ace's performance as larger than life. "[Bumgarner] was in control the whole way," Bochy says. "That's what you expect from a leader, someone who can say, 'Put it on me.' And he did."
Bumgarner became just the sixth pitcher to throw multiple shutouts in one postseason since 1960. And, yes, Koufax was one of them. Fans who were lucky enough to have seen Koufax would tell you he and Bumgarner have plenty in common as October powerhouses.
But for those too young to know, don't sweat it: Today's lefties are like throwbacks to the '60s. Think of them as personal time machines. Lucky us.
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