the anatomy of an ace

26 Oct

Sandy Koufax was a more hallowed name than Babe Ruth where I grew up, so it seemed bizarre, impossible and downright disrespectful to discover that the “the left arm of god” was overlooked by scouts and mediocre and wild at the starting gun of his career. But it also seemed typical.

How many pitchers dwell in obscurity through drafts and struggle through minor league systems before “figuring it out?”

The elements that make up an ace are that rare combination of physical genius rubbing shoulders with pitching intelligence. It’s a diamond in the rough and more often, the body is in steep decline by the time the mind catches up. But every so often the two elements merge and there’s brilliance on the mound.

We’re spoiled these days with Michael Wacha of the Cardinals do amazing things with a simple fastball and change up. We enjoyed Matt Harvey’s break out season before injuries shelved him. It’s not the first time young arms and old man intelligence have merged. I always think of Dwight Gooden when it comes to exploding onto the baseball scene. The Met’s young ace peaked at 21 years young after compiling two incredible seasons as a New York Met.

Gooden was a good, if not great  pitcher for another 10 years, but nothing like his maiden voyage seasons. Nowadays, pitch counts keep pitchers from overtaxing their arms, but maybe pitch counts do more harm than good. Maybe it causes pitchers to try too hard in a small sample.

Koufax was limited in terms of innings for his first 6 years not so much to preserve his arm, but more for failure to execute pitches. So what happened to him between 1961 and 1962 that set in motion a string of five consecutive seasons inspiring “the left arm of god” to be born?” The numbers are staggering.

In 1377 innings between 1962 and 1966, Koufax struck out 1444 and walked only 316.  I don’t think anything magical happened. It was a mind catching up with a body and a discipline and temperance to endure outings when the no hit stuff was not there. Koufax simply walked far fewer batters.

You Tube gives us Koufax Game 7 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins. Both Koufax and the Twin’s Jim Kaat were pitching on two days rest.

Koufax had refused to pitch Game 1 of the series because it fell on the same day as Yom Kippur. As a result, Don Drysdale got shelled, inspiring the memorable quote from an anonymous reporter to Dodger’s manager Walter Alston. “I bet you  wish Drysdale was Jewish too.

Koufax pitched game 2 and lost, but then bounced back in games 5 and 7 tossing back to back complete game shutouts on two days rest. Koufax struck out 10 batters in each game and allowed three hits in game 5 and four in game 7.

The irony of Koufax’s career is that once he did figure it out, the Dodgers drained him. His arm was dead at 31 years young and he called it quits. He’s probably remembered more than others because he walked away as the best pitcher in baseball and never faded into mediocrity.

Here’s the YouTube game from 1965 in its entirety. The camera angles are not great, but it’s good enough to enjoy Koufax throwing a high fastball that batters could not catch up to. In this game, he didn’t throw that 12-6 curve ball too much, but when he does, it’s truly a sight to see, dropping from shoulders to dirt in a millisecond.

Vin Scully and Ray Scott have the call and that’s interesting because Scully was the Dodgers regular season play by play guy and Scott was the Twins. There were no specially assigned broadcasters for the World Series. Also , Maury Wills-the Dodgers lead off hitter didn’t wear a batting helmet.

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4 Responses to “the anatomy of an ace”

  1. glenrussellslater October 26, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    I’m glad you posted that. I’m looking forward to watching it. Thanks.

    The pitcher that comes to mind for me as a diamond in the rough is Nolan Ryan. He was so wild while pitching for the Mets, and very erratic. But they traded him to California, and you know what happened then! If you have a pitcher who can throw that fast, you don’t dispose of him, no matter HOW wild he is. You gamble on his development. In Ryan’s case on with the Mets organization, it would have been a development worth investing in. Yes, he was always wild, even during his no-hittters. But not AS wild as he was with the Mets.

    The Dodgers were smart enough to hold onto Koufax through thick and thin. In the late 50s, when he started out with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he couldn’t find the plate at all. The Dodger organization was smart enough to not get rid of him, and to be patient with him. Boy, how it paid off for them!

    Glen Russell Slater

    • steve October 26, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

      Thanks Glen. Great point about Ryan. If i`m not mistaken he is the all time leader in both strikeouts and walks. It`s both a testament to his wildness and ability to escape jams with incredibly overpowering stuff.

  2. glenrussellslater October 26, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Yeah, I’m interested in seeing this, partly because I love baseball history, and partly because it’s five years before I became a real baseball fan, hardly missing any Mets games on the TV or radio, and, once in a while, in Shea Stadium’s upper deck. THAT was always the most exciting for me! Just being at Beautiful Shea and seeing that beautiful green grass at Shea and the excitement and proudness I felt when I saw Tommie Agee lead off in the bottom of the first inning. It didn’t matter to me that we were in the upper deck (known as “General Admission”. $1.20, as I recall.) I never got to see the great Koufax pitch before now; the closest I came was that Koufax was a color commentator on the NBC Game of the Week on television. (I guess it was the backup game, because it was usually Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek) once a week. He didn’t last long; he was terribly boring. I even realized it back then. Maybe he lasted in the NBC broadcast booth for a year or two.)

    I always regretted not seeing Sandy pitch; he retired very young, in 1966.

    Glen Russell Slater

    • steve October 26, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

      Thanks Glen. I`m hesitant to compare Kershaw to Koufax because this game 7 from the 65 series is the only time I`ve been experienced, but the half dozen times I seen Kershaw, he`s been very unhittable with the exception of this year`s NLCS game against the Cardinals.

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