19to21: October 15, 2007
The Stark Truth Regarding the Career of Sandy Koufax
19 to 21
No, that’s not the number of great baseball books published each year, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
There are unquestionably hundreds of baseball books published each year. Some are pretty good. Many are mediocre, either being poorly written or poorly researched. Some are pretty bad. A few are great. Many are not. And there are just a handful that you know are going to be good before ever reading them. Well written and researched. How do you know that? Typically, by the name on the dust jacket… Bill James, John Thorn (who indeed has a new book scheduled for 2008), Rob Neyer, Pete Palmer, Charles Alexander, David Nemec are such names that come quickly to mind. All have tremendous track records in writing great baseball books. Books that inform, entertain, stir up controversy and discussion. Great baseball books.
Rarer still is a book by a first-time author that you know will be great. But, when said baseball author has been writing clever, informative, witty, entertaining and original copy since, oh say about 1979 or so, well, you’ve got a pretty good idea that his first book is going to be a winner. The only question is, Jayson Stark, what took you so long?
To run a brief recap of the man of the hour, the author of “The Stark Truth,” (Triumph Books) Jayson Stark, broke in as baseball writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979, starting a 21-year run that had Philly baseball fans (as well as those who read him in Baseball America for 20 or so years) in turn informed, entertained and often amused. The master of the “Notes” column (or Rumblings and Grumblings, as he calls it), a collector of way out box score lines, a writer without parallel (his readers all know there’s no one quite like him), a collector of home run trivia and other vital facts, a “traditional” sportswriter with an appreciation for and an understanding of sabrmetrics (and its limitations), Jayson Stark had Inky readers opening their sports sections every day (or at least every day during the baseball season) to see what he had to say on the National Pastime. Even after he jumped ship to go to ESPN and ESPN.com as a senior writer in 2000, Stark kept his own unique style, just bringing same to a larger audience, although it may be true that said audience, upon first seeing him on ESPN, may have thought that Bernie Carbo had given up hairdressing and had gone into TV sports. (They were separated at birth, don’t you know…)
OK. So what’s all the fuss about? How good is “The Stark Truth?” Put it this way, if you have to steal your kids’ lunch money to buy a copy, do it today and tell them to cadge for nickels on the streetcorner, or trade their baseball cards for food. Other than producing a work that is Classic Stark, the first-time author has written a baseball book that arguably performs the three most important functions of the genre. No, not hitting, fielding and pitching; but informing, entertaining and stirring up discussion. Indeed, Stark’s subject/subhead, “The Most Overrated & Underrated Players in Baseball History,” is one of those topics that’s likely to make other baseball authors (including this one) slap themselves up side the head and exclaim, “now why didn’t I think of that!?”
And that’s where Sandy Koufax comes in. After a witty Introduction on how to be underrated (e.g., Spend Your Career in the Central or Mountain Time Zones), Stark starts off with the Stark truth about two of the “greatest” pitchers in recent baseball history, Koufax and Nolan Ryan, whom he labels the most overrated left-handed and right-handed pitchers of all time. Whoa! Talk about a way to start a discussion. Even Stark’s explanation/codicil that you can still be great and overrated (Or underrated, for that matter.. his most underrated lefty of all time is Babe Ruth!) probably hasn’t saved him from being flooded with e-mails calling him everything but a Philly Cheesesteak for daring to impugn or otherwise sully the reputations of a 300-game winner with seven no-hitters and the greatest pitcher of the 1960s (if not the post-World War II Era.) But you know something? He’s right. While there have been many who have debated Ryan’s greatness (as opposed to his longevity and spectacular moments), no one dares question Sandy Koufax. Or should they? Let’s look at the facts and Stark’s arguments.
Stark’s basic point is that there were two halves to Koufax’ career… and that everybody seems to have forgotten the first half, at least when they’re judging Koufax’ place in the Pantheon of Peerless Pitchers. That’s not to say that Koufax wasn’t the dominant pitcher, the Alpha Male, of the early- and mid-1960s, just that you have to judge his entire career to have a balanced view of his greatness. And, for the first six years of his 12-year career he was, well, average. As Stark points out, from 1955 to 1960, Koufax went 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA and almost 13 baserunners (a lot of them via walks – he gave out 5.3 free passes per game) per nine innings. Even taking into account the fact that half of his games in those years were pitched in Ebbets Field and the Coliseum, that’s still not very good. Here are his Adjusted ERAs for those years (recalling that ERA+ does take into account the home park of the pitcher.)
1955 135 (in just 42 innings though)
That’s just about a league-average pitcher. In fact, if you use just his plain old ERA (admittedly somewhat unfair, because he did pitch in two parks that were very tough on his ERA) for those years, as Stark also points out, he had the second-highest in baseball among pitchers who threw as many innings as he did – below only another Bonus Baby, Chuck Stobbs.
Although Stark is as prone to romanticizing as the rest of us (particularly when it comes to Andy Van Slyke), he is also astute enough to point out that Koufax’ legend has been blown all out of proportion by his too-early retirement, the sort of scenario that is just made for romanticizing and overratedness (if there is such a word.) If you don’t believe it, look up the record of one of his right-handed overrated pitchers, Dizzy Dean, whose career ran to almost the exact parallel of Koufax, and who, along with Koufax, is in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that, together, they won nine fewer games than Don Sutton (who took forever to get in the Hall).
W L G IP H W SO ERA ERA+
Dean 150 83 317 1967 1919 453 1163 3.02 130
Koufax 165 87 397 2324 1754 817 2396 2.76 131
Although both were the dominant pitchers in baseball for four years of their respective 12-year careers, neither one is in the top 30 for career ERA+ (Koufax is 31st, Stark points out – as noted, he knows his sabrmetrics), and neither is anywhere near the top 100 in career wins (Koufax in 195th). Sure, they were both great pitchers, for four years each, just one-third of their short careers. And that made them both Hall of Famers? Koufax practically by acclamation?
Well, we’re not here to debate who is in the Hall of Fame, and, for that matter, that’s not what Stark is debating in “The Stark Truth.” Moreso what he is doing is starting debates with both his overrated and underrated choices – five of each for each position, including relief pitchers and DHs (which leads to the question, how can you underrate someone who doesn’t even set foot on the field), and three worthies for each category for each team. (Yes, there have been three underrated Devil Rays.) Once you get into the book – which takes about one page – you’ll find yourself sorely tempted to skip ahead to see who ole Jayson has nominated for underrated and overrated at the various positions. Bob Feller? Steve Carlton? Lee Smith? Hoyt Wilhelm? Yogi Berra? Roger Bresnahan? Ernie Banks? Gil Hodges? Hank Greenberg? Dick Allen? Craig Biggio? Rogers Hornsby? Derek Jeter? Stan Musial? Duke Snider? Tris Speaker? Frank Robinson? They’re all in here. (Now you have to go out and buy the book to see if they’re overrated or underrated.) And while you may not agree with all of Stark’s choices (mainly because there’s no way anyone will agree with all of these – but that’s the point, too), keep in mind they are based on current public perceptions of the players in question.
Meanwhile, don’t lose sight of Stark’s creative writing and thinking while debating/arguing over his overs and unders. Any Stark offering on baseball is to be enjoyed, and “The Stark Truth” is no exception. Who else would google “Chili” to find that Chili Davis was the only human being (assuming you don’t count the “Red Hot Chili Peppers” and I don’t think anyone does) the first 200 entries? Who else would include Roger Bresnahan so he can tell the story of Dave Bresnahan (who happened to also provide the inspiration for one of the great scenes in Darryl Brock’s “If I Never Get Back”)? Has anyone else writing baseball noticed the huge drop-off in the soon-to-be-richer Andruw Jones’ fielding statistics? Jayson has, and it nets Jones the number one overrated centerfielder spot. Who else is the world’s foremost authority on Ralph Kiner, possibly the only baseball announcer (as Stark points out) to mispronounce his own name on the air? Who else could work Oats DiBacco into an essay on Dave Winfield? And who’s in charge of the Overratedness (hey, there is such a word)Watchdog Force? Jayson Stark.
About the only question of baseball underrated/overrated Stark doesn’t address in “The Stark Truth” is the glaring omission by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes annually on the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award that honors a baseball writer (or in some years, writers) "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing" and, in effect, places them in the baseball writers’ version of the Hall of Fame. Namely, why hasn’t Jayson Stark won this award? In that regard, he is surely underrated.
-- John Shiffert