October 9, 2016


The Incomparable Career of Sandy Koufax : Fifty years ago, the legendary Dodgers pitcher played his final game, marking the end of one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history. (GREGORY ORFALEA  OCT 6, 2016, The Atlantic)

Five things happened in 1961 that caused one of the great turnarounds in sports history.

Just before spring training, Koufax had a tonsillectomy. He stopped eating. He lost 20 pounds and arrived at Vero Beach for the first time significantly underweight (184 pounds). It forced him to work out harder to gain muscle mass; soon he was in the "best shape of my life." Secondly, his pitching coach, Joe Becker, showed him that his fastball had a slight tail into left-handed batters making it easier for them to smack the ball into right field for a hit. So he was apparently taught a kind of cutter or "slurve"--"a curve that broke a little away from the lefty, as well as down," like a slider, a little-known secret in his arsenal.

Thirdly, Koufax engaged the services of the team's statistician Allan Roth, a sort of early sabermetrics guy. Roth noted that Koufax's big bugaboo was still walks. He walked five batters a game; the league average was three. So Roth made the obvious suggestion: better control. But for the big boys like Hank Aaron (who had a lifetime batting overage of .358 versus Koufax), Vada Pinson, and Roberto Clemente--all with lightning wrists--the solution was more specific: a first pitch strike. This was a risky proposition. Batters who hit Koufax's first pitch batted a whopping .349. But then Roth showed Koufax a completely new statistic: "the count on which a decisive pitch is made." That meant when the batter either walks, strikes out, or hits the ball. Koufax was surprised by what Roth had found; if he was ahead of the count for the decisive pitch, batters only hit .146 against him. His advantage was overwhelming. Solution: Get ahead on the first pitch.

A fourth key lesson was tossed out by the Dodgers outfielder Wally Moon. When he was on the Cardinals, Moon said it was common knowledge that Koufax tipped his pitches with a man on base. His hands would lift higher in the stretch position for a fast ball than for a curve. Koufax fashioned a smaller rise to hide that. In the fifth and final lesson, Koufax's roommate at the time, a reserve catcher named Norm Sherry, told him to "take the grunt" out of his fastball. This was the hardest lesson for Koufax, because when in doubt, the only thing he felt separated him from everyone else was his blinding speed, and here Sherry was telling him to lose his advantage. But it worked. Easing up just enough, Koufax was able to locate his fastball much better, making the difference, as Vin Scully would often say, between a thrower and a pitcher. Reining himself in saved his career.

Thus began the five-year anni mirabili. 

Posted by at October 9, 2016 5:56 PM