Monday, December 13, 2010

Sandy Koufax's Perfection

Finally got a chance to get through the Tiger Woods-covered "Perfect Issue" from ESPN the Magazine (Dec 13, 2010 issue), and in it there was a great article from Peter Keating about Sandy Koufax and his own feat of perfection, about which Keating writes, "no matter how you compare the 20 perfect games in MLB history, Sandy Koufax's 1965 masterpiece masterpiece stands out as the most impeccable" (link for insider only):

Perfection is multifaceted. Like a perfect diamond, a perfect game glints at various angles, inviting us to appreciate its beauty from any number of vantage points: the stories of players involved, historical context, statistical achievement. But no matter how you look at the collection of gems in which opponents have gone 27 up, 27 down -- and there have been only 20 in 142 years of professional baseball -- one jewel stands apart: On Sept. 9, 1965, Dodgers lefthander Sandy Koufax pitched history's most perfect perfect game.

With so little to separate the greatest pitching performances in history, how do we decide which was the most perfect of all? How do we choose the most sparkling from among 20 games of No: no hits, no walks, no hit batsmen, no errors?

Do we look for dominance? Well, Koufax struck out 14 batters, the most in a perfect game. He mowed through a Cubs lineup that featured all-time greats Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams.

Evidence of greatness? Some might say Don Larsen's perfecto in the 1956 World Series for the Yankees stands above the rest. But he was a journeyman with a career 81-91 record. Koufax threw a no-hitter in every season from 1962 to 1965, establishing his Hall of Fame cred and proving himself to be the most dominant pitcher of his era.

How about margin of error? Incredibly, the starting pitcher opposing Koufax, Bob Hendley (who had a career 48-52 record), was almost perfect himself that night. He surrendered just one hit and one walk, which led to one unearned run, picking up one of baseball's all-time toughest losses. The two pitchers in that game stranded just one baserunner, a record, and gave up two total bases, which is tied for the fewest ever. The win kept the Dodgers a half game behind the Giants in the heat of a wild, five-team pennant race that LA would eventually win on its way to the World Series title.

And if you don't believe the anecdotes, believe the numbers, because this is a case in which statistical analysis confirms rather than debunks a legend. Using Game Score, a metric developed by Bill James to compare pitching starts, we can easily see why Koufax's performance is special. The formula for Game Score is simple enough that you can figure it out from a box score: Start with 50 points and add one point for each out a pitcher gets and two points for every inning he completes beyond the fourth. Then add one point for every strikeout and subtract one for every walk. Subtract two points for every hit, two for every unearned run and four for every earned run.

Game Score is calibrated so that an average start will score around 50, and an outstanding start will hit 75 or higher. Roy Halladay's perfect game in May against the Marlins had a Game Score of 98. Koufax scored 101, the highest ever recorded for a perfect game (and the second highest for a nine-inning game, behind only Kerry Wood's 20-K one-hitter for the Cubs against the Astros in 1998). Hendley's score was a not-too-shabby 80. Small wonder that in a 1995 survey, members of the Society for American Baseball Research named the Koufax-Hendley battle the greatest game ever pitched.

The article is awesome, detailing Koufax in general and this game in specific in ways I had not known. And there's this capper at the end of the article, which gives me chills:

Perfection is inspirational, as when a perfect sunset guides a painter. And Koufax's artistry led Vin Scully, calling the game that night for KFI radio, to describe the ninth inning so dramatically that the verbatim transcript of his call has been anthologized as baseball literature. It's a good thing, too, because there is no video of this game, so Scully's description is the most vivid report we have. "You can almost taste the pressure now," the legendary broadcaster said. "Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it, too, as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on and steps back up to the plate ... There's 29,000 people in the ballpark and a million butterflies."

In the ninth, Krug struck out swinging to lead off the inning; pinch-hitter Joey Amalfitano went down swinging for the second out; then, three pitches after Koufax threw a fastball to pinch-hitter Harvey Kuenn so hard his cap flew off, Kuenn swung and missed to seal the perfect game. "On the scoreboard in rightfield it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels," Scully said. "And Sandy Koufax, whose name will always remind you of strikeouts, did it with a flurry. He struck out the last six consecutive batters. So when he wrote his name in capital letters in the record books, that 'K' stands out even more than the O-U-F-A-X."

It's fitting that the most perfect perfect game also has one of the most perfect calls. Wow.

photo: AP Images


Fuego Bob said...

My dad took me to see this game. I was able to watch Sandy Koufax pitch his perfect game on my birthday. I couldn't believe my eyes as I waited to get my car oil changed and saw this article in the ESPN magazine. To my suprise it was Lou Johnson who walked and not Maury Wills who made the unearned run. I thought for sure it was Wills who got the walk. And I did not recall him coming in on an error throwing to third base. It's funny how memories get skewed over time. I do remember the other pitcher pitching a one hitter and knowing that I had witnessed one of baseball's greatest pitching moments. I never understood why this pitching achievement done by both pitchers was not talked about more often. So I was glad that finally this pitching duel was now the most perfect game ever.
Thank you for posting this article. I still have the 45 record, team picture, and an autographed baseball commemorating that day... a Danny Goodman special. Hearing Vin Sculley speak those memorable words has to be the most perfect ending of the most perfect game ever.