Hall of Fame cases: How much does Johan Santana's career look like Sandy Koufax's?
In the regular season, it's actually comparable and we'll show you how
Well, now I've gone and done it. I mentioned Johan Santana and Sandy Koufax in the same breath, so I'm already public enemy number one for a large segment of baseball fandom.
Give me a chance here, though, please. Johan deserves it.
Look, as we go through each Hall of Fame candidate here on CBS Sports, this is Johan Santana's day. He's not going to make the Hall of Fame. He's probably going to fall off the ballot this year, too, because he's currently tracking less than two percent. It's a shame he isn't going to get a longer look, because I think his case is stronger than that. That's why we're going with the Koufax vs. Santana thing.
Remember when Johan was Johan freaking Santana? For a five-year stretch (four with the Twins and one with the Mets), he was inarguably the best pitcher in baseball. He won two Cy Youngs, finished third twice and fifth once.
Unfortunately, Santana didn't end up piling up the counting stats that would help his Hall case due to his arm not holding up. He made just 21 starts after his age-31 season.
There is a peak-level Hall of Famer with lesser-than-usual counting stats as a precedent and it's another southpaw: Koufax.
Koufax was inarguably the best pitcher in baseball for a five-year stretch himself. He also couldn't keep it going due to his arm not holding up. He didn't throw a pitch past his age-30 season.
Still, Koufax is a Hall of Famer due to five seasons. That's it. Overall, he was 165-87 (.655) with a 2.76 ERA (131 ERA+), 1.11 WHIP and 2,396 strikeouts in 2,324 1/3 innings (9.3 K/9).
Johan's career line isn't drastically different: 139-78 (.641), 3.20 ERA (136 ERA+), 1.13 WHIP, 1,988 K, 2,025 2/3 IP (8.8 K/9).
Looking at the raw numbers is tough, because Koufax played in a much more pitcher-friendly era (note that ERA+ helps us adjust for the league differences and Santana's is higher) and back in his day, pitchers started much more often and worked later in games. This is where the difference in wins comes up.
Koufax was just a marginal pitcher for the first six years of his career. He was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA (100 ERA+) in those six years. In 1961, he was an All-Star, going 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA (122 ERA+). He led the majors with 269 strikeouts.
And then, he went out and earned the nickname, "The Left Arm of God."
The following five seasons, Koufax led the league in ERA every single season. He led in wins three times, strikeouts three times, innings pitched twice, WHIP four times and strikeout rate four times. He won three Cy Youngs. All told, he produced a 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+, and keep this figure in mind more than the actual ERA due to the heightened pitching environment) in those five seasons.
This is going to sound kind of close, though. It's a poor man's Koufax, but it's in the ballpark.
Santana didn't see regular work in his first three seasons, but in 2003, he busted out down the stretch. That season, he appeared in 45 games, starting 18. He went 12-3 with a 3.07 ERA (148 ERA+), 1.10 WHIP and 169 strikeouts in 158 1/3 innings.
And then, he went out and became Johan freaking Santana.
The following five seasons, Santana led the league in ERA three times, wins once, strikeouts three times, innings pitched twice, WHIP four times and strikeout rate three times. He won two Cy Youngs. All told, he produced a 2.82 ERA (157 ERA+) in those five seasons.
See? He's behind but not that far behind. In fact, on Koufax's baseball-reference.com page, scroll down the similarity scores (who was most statistically similar for career) and you'll see Santana fifth. Santana has a higher career WAR (51.4) than Koufax (49) and is better with JAWS as well.
Given this, I believe Santana should be getting a greater look when it comes to his Hall of Fame case. If we can look at a player and say there were similarities between him and Sandy Koufax, certainly there's reason to look harder, no?
It should be noted that there's massive separation between these two, however, when we loop in the postseason.
Santana pitched to a 3.97 ERA in 11 postseason appearances and never made the World Series.
Koufax pitched to a 0.95 ERA in eight postseason appearances, won three rings and two World Series MVPs. In seven starts in the World Series, he had four complete games and two shutouts.
Sandy Koufax is an obvious Hall of Famer who got 86.9 percent of the vote in his first try. Johan Santana's going to fall off the ballot in his first try and he might even get fewer votes than Johnny Damon. Koufax was certainly better, but the gap between them isn't vast enough to be 85 percent worth of Hall of Fame votes. Santana deserves better.
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