Sandy Koufax is rightfully considered one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. His run from 1963 to 1966 – before his career was cut short by injury – is one of the best four year stretches of pitching in the history of the game, and his dominance is why he was elected to the Hall Of Fame the first time he was eligible in 1972. He might not have had the career length of other all-time greats, but his peak was so good that it was impossible to come to any other conclusion than that he belonged in Cooperstown.
It’s time we say the same thing about Roy Halladay.
At this point in his career, he’s at a similar place to when Koufax had to hang them up. Koufax pitched in 397 games, while Halladay has pitched in 363, but Halladay has thrown 100 more innings because he spent less time in relief early in his career. Halladay is just shy of 10,000 batters faced in his career, while Koufax retired at a little under 9,500. Their career lengths are currently very similar, and if Halladay had to retire tomorrow, he could point to Koufax as a comparable player in terms of quantity of innings.
Halladay isn’t viewed as being as dominant as Koufax was in large part due to the difference in strikeouts. Koufax once struck out an amazing 382 batters in a season, and he has 550 more career whiffs than Halladay even while throwing slightly fewer innings. However, dominance shouldn’t just be viewed through the lens of strikeouts, and if we expand our look beyond just that one measure of pitching, we find that Halladay stacks up with Koufax very well.
If we look at ERA relative to the league average (ERA- here on FanGraphs), you’ll notice that Halladay actually has a slight advantage. He’s been 28 percent better than average given the environment he’s pitched, while Koufax was 25 percent better than average for his time frame. Koufax’s raw ERA is over half a run lower, but the game was different in the 1950s and 1960s, and Koufax benefited a higher mound than what Halladay has had to pitch off of.
Of course, ERA measures more than just pitching, since it includes the impact of a pitcher’s defenders as well. This is somewhat minimized over a multi-thousand inning sample, but it’s still useful to look at the components that a pitcher is mostly in control over – walks, strikeouts, and home runs. These are the variables that make up FIP, of course, so we can look at FIP relative to league average to see if either of them benefited from their teammates more than the other.
The answer? Not really. Both were 25 percent better than their league average in FIP as well. Halladay’s ERA is marginally better than his FIP would suggest, but that’s more due to the sequencing of when he’s given up his home runs than great defense from his teammates – his career BABIP is .292, just slightly better than league average compared to the norm during his career.
Over the course of their entire careers, spanning similar lengths, it’s tough to argue that Koufax was significantly better than Halladay. Of course, the legend of Koufax isn’t based on his entire career, but on just how great he was over the final four years of his career. From 1963 to 1966, Koufax posted a ridiculous 1.86 ERA, 42 percent better than the average pitcher during that period. He made Juan Marichal – the next best pitcher over those four years – look like chump change. It really was an historically dominating run.
That said, Halladay is currently in the midst of a run that isn’t too far off the mark. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, he’s posted a 2.63 ERA – a mark that doesn’t sound as crazy as Koufax’s mark, but it’s 38 percent better than the league average of the last 3 1/2 years, pretty close to Kofuax’s ’63-’66 stretch.
His consistency over those four years is pretty incredible as well – since 2008, his ERA- by year: 64, 63, 60, 62. He hasn’t carried the same crazy workload that Koufax did in his final four years, but he’s still the biggest workhorse of the current era – a guy you can count on for nearly 250 innings per season, year in and year out.
Koufax’s run was a little bit better than what Halladay is doing now, but Halladay was better than Koufax in early career performance. Both were the best pitchers of their time, and both are legitimately among the greatest who ever lived. None of this is meant to disparage Koufax – I just think it’s worth pointing out that Roy Halladay has had a very similar career to date. He’s almost going to Cooperstown even if he never takes the hill again, but he shouldn’t just get in – he should be recognized as an inner-circle guy. Those of who weren’t alive in the 1960s didn’t get to see Koufax in person, but we’ve seen something pretty similar in Roy Halladay… and he’s not done yet.
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