Johan Santana’s Cooperstown Case: The Koufax Argument
Image courtesy of Gregory Fisher-USA Today SportsPart 1: Johan Santana's Cooperstown Case: The Puckett Clause
At the end of the 1960 season, Sandy Koufax had pitched almost 700 innings at the big league level. He had a 4.10 ERA with a 1.43 WHIP. He was not a Hall of Fame pitcher but he was only 24-years old. Over the next six seasons, Koufax would dominate on the mound like few had done before. During that stretch, Koufax posted a 2.19 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP while striking out more than a batter an inning. He had punched his ticket to the Hall.
Koufax became the youngest ever inductee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was able to accomplish this feat because he retired at the height of his pitching prowess. Following his age-30 season, he stepped away from the game. Elbow problems and arthritis caused him worry about his golden left arm. He rode off into the sunset with a Hall of Fame resume.
Like Koufax, Santana took some time to reach “ace” status as a starting pitcher. Minnesota acquired Santana as part of the 1999 Rule 5 Draft. This meant Santana was required to stay on the Twins 40-man roster for the entire 2000 season. Between 2000 and 2001, he pitched 129.1 innings out of the Twins bullpen to the tune of a 5.90 ERA and a 1.71 ERA. His change-up wasn’t full developed and it was hard to imagine the type of starter he would become over the next decade.
While Koufax walked away from the game on his own terms, Santana didn’t step away from the game so lightly. Santana tried multiple comebacks with organizations like Baltimore and Toronto before finally calling it a career. As I mentioned in the first piece in this series, many trace the beginning of the end for Santana to his no-hitter in 2012.
Many comparisons have been written about the similarities between Koufax and Santana. Pitching at Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s was much different than pitching at the Metrodome in the early 2000s. Baseball is an ever-changing game and it’s lazy to look at simple numbers like ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts to try and get a full picture of a pitcher.
Baseball Reference has the ability to neutralize pitcher’s numbers to align with different eras. Santana pitching at Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s would result in some statistical numbers that are usually only seen in video games.
While Koufax pitched in an era of pitching dominance, Santana’s era was known for offensive dominance. Since the expansion era (post-1993), Santana’s 136 ERA+ ranks sixth among starting pitchers. Take a look at the names ahead of him: Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Brandon Webb, and Chris Sale. Martinez is already in the Hall. Kershaw and Sale look well on their way. ERA+ has Santana ranked higher than Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, two recent Hall of Fame inductees.
Jay Jaffe literally wrote the book on who should and shouldn’t get into Cooperstown. His JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system) takes a player’s career WAR averaged with their 7-year peak WAR. Using this system, Santana ranks 85th which is three spots higher than Koufax. Santana’s JAWS is higher than 15 enshrined starters in Cooperstown.
At age 31, Santana was headed to the Hall. His shoulder gave out, he was forced under the knife, and his career took a different path. However, his WAR through his age-31 season ranks in the top-40 all-time. Only 24 Hall of Fame pitchers rank higher than Santana with Koufax coming in at number 30.
Does the Santana and Koufax comparison hold up? Should the same logic that was applied to Koufax be applied to Santana? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.