Longevity is a huge factor in Hall of Fame voting and Sandy Koufax is one of the rare pitchers elected without a long career. In any discussion of greatest pitchers ever, Koufax will be one of the first names mentioned. And rightly so. His performance from 1963 to 1966 was perhaps the most brilliant stretch of pitching in major league history.
I’m not going to suggest that Ron Guidry was as great as Koufax. But I’ll show you that he was surprisingly close.
Let’s start with the pinnacle of Guidry’s career, 1978. His performance then: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 248 strikeouts, 9 shutouts, was certainly the best year any pitcher has had since Koufax. In fact, you could argue that it was better than any year Koufax had. Koufax never lost as few as three games in any of his 20-win seasons. And his best ERA, 1.73 in 1966, was less than a run better than his team ERA that year (Koufax pitched in an era of fewer runs). Guidry’s 1978 ERA was nearly a run and a half better than his team’s.
Koufax had notably more strikeouts than Guidry (second in the league to Nolan Ryan). Koufax also had three years similar to Guidry’s 1978 season. Each of his Cy Young seasons, 1963, 1965 and 1966, was nearly identical to each other and to Guidry’s 1978 season.
But Koufax had only one other great season, 1964, when he was 19-4 with a 1.74 ERA in only 28 starts. He was pretty good in 1961 and 1962, but before that, he was mediocre. So Koufax’s Hall of Fame credentials are three all-time-great seasons, another great one and two pretty good ones.
Guidry had two seasons that were not as great as Koufax’s best three, but easily as good as Koufax’s fourth-best season: 1983 and 1985. Each year he won more than 20 games, lost less than 10 and finished high in the Cy Young balloting (Koufax was third in 1964; Guidry second in 1985 and fifth in 1983).
Guidry also had five other solid seasons where he was among the best pitchers in the American League, including a third-place Cy Young finish. Over a nine-year stretch, he was easily the best pitcher in the American League and rivaled only by Hall of Famer Steve Carlton as the best pitcher in baseball.
So his peak matched Koufax, but he couldn’t sustain that peak as long. But he was a good pitcher longer. He won a few more games than Koufax but had a higher ERA and nowhere near as many strikeouts. Without question, Koufax was a better pitcher, but if you can compare a pitcher to Koufax, he was a great one.
Let’s compare Guidry to two other Dodger pitchers in the Hall of Fame: Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. Guidry and Sutton had nearly identical career ERAs: 3.29 for Guidry and 3.26 for Sutton. Drysdale was better at 2.95, but he pitched in a time of lower scoring. Sutton played 23 seasons, Drysdale 14. Guidry played 12 full seasons and saw brief action in two more. Drysdale and Sutton racked up larger career numbers than Guidry.
But let’s compare greatness by comparing their best seasons: Every pitcher’s best year, then their second best years, etc.:
Best season: Guidry easily wins with his 1978 season. Drysdale’s best season was clearly his 1962 season, matching Guidry’s 25 wins in his best season. Both men won the Cy Young Award in their best seasons. But Drysdale lost nine games that year, had an ERA more than run higher than Guidry in ’78 and only had two shutouts. Guidry was second to Jim Rice in a narrow vote for Most Valuable Player. Drysdale was fifth in the MVP voting. Sutton’s best year was probably 1972, 19-9 with a 2.08 ERA and fifth in Cy Young voting, good numbers but nowhere near Guidry’s. Not even close. Huge advantage here for Guidry.
Second-best season: Guidry went 22-6 in 1985, with a 3.27 ERA, runner-up to Bret Saberhagen in Cy Young voting, even though Guidry had more wins, complete games and shutouts and a better winning percentage. Drysdale was 23-12 with a 2.77 ERA in 1965. Sutton was 21-10 in with a 3.06 ERA in 1976, his only 20-win season and his highest finish in the Cy Young voting, third place. The best you can say for the Dodgers is that these three seasons were all comparable. Drysdale’s 23 wins seem like a lot now, but he was third in the league, behind Koufax and Tony Cloninger, with four other pitchers winning 20 or more. Guidry led the league in wins, two ahead of Saberhagen, the only other 20-game winner in the American League that year. Guidry has a solid edge here.
Third-best season: Guidry was 21-9 with a 3.42 ERA in 1983, fifth in Cy Young voting. Drysdale’s third-best season is hard to choose. He nearly always was in double digits in losses. I have to go with 1968, when he had a mediocre 14-12 record but a strong 2.15 ERA and his record-setting scoreless-innings string and eight shutouts. Sutton had another 19-9 season, 1974, with a 3.23 ERA and fourth in Cy Young voting. Drysdale’s ERA that year was impressive, but remember what a miserable offensive season that was: Bob Gibson led the National League with an ERA of 1.12 and Drysdale was only 5th in ERA. Guidry had a solid advantages over Sutton in complete games (21 to 10) and walks (80 to 60) but Sutton had advantages in shutouts (5 to 2) and strikeouts (179-156). It’s close between Sutton and Guidry, but here’s why I give Guidry the edge: The Dodgers won 102 games and made it to the World Series that year. Sutton wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team (Andy Messersmith was). Guidry’s third-place Yankees won 91 games. His winning percentage was 138 points higher than his team’s (Sutton’s was 49 points higher than his team’s).
Fourth-best season: Guidry was 18-8 with a 2.78 ERA in 1979, third in the Cy Young voting. Drysdale was 17-9 with a 2.69 ERA in 1957. Again, pretty close, but Guidry had advantages in strikeouts (201-148) and complete games (15-9). Sutton was 18-10 and 2.42 in 1973, nearly matching Guidry in strikeouts (200) and complete games (14). Guidry’s winning percentage again was more than 100 points higher than his team. And his ERA led the league. Advantage again for Guidry.
Fifth-best season: Guidry was 16-7 with a 2.80 ERA in his breakthrough season, 1977, when he was seventh in Cy Young voting. Drysdale was 19-17 with a 2.63 ERA in 1963. In 1982, Sutton went 17-9 with 3.06, splitting the year between Houson and Milwaukee. Again, close, but a pretty clear advantage for Guidry.
Sixth-best season: Guidry in 1980: 17-10, 3.56. Drysdale in 1959: 17-13, 3.46. Sutton in 1971: 17-12, 2.54. Pretty close. But this is the first time we’re using a season where Guidry lost as many as 10 games. In fact, he had more seasons (five) with 15 or more wins and fewer than 10 losses than Drysdale and Sutton combined. And his winning percentages weren’t inflated by playing for better teams. Drysdale and Sutton both played for lots of league and division champions.
Seventh-best season: In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Guidry was 11-5 with a 2.76 ERA. Drysdale in 1964, 18-16, 2.18. Sutton in ’75, 16-13, 2.87. Again, Guidry is back in single digits for losses. Clear advantage for Guidry. Note that in seven straight matchups, Guidry has had a better winning percentage than both Drysdale and Sutton .
Eighth-best season: Guidry, 1982: 14-8, 3.81. Drysdale in 1960: 15-14, 2.84. Sutton in 1977, 13-5, 2.20. OK, still close. Maybe an advantage for Sutton here, but still all he does is match Guidry in winning percentage. In comparing winning percentages in their eight best seasons, Guidry wins 15 of 16 matches and loses once (if I was rigging this, I would have used Sutton’s 14-8 or 15-10 seasons here). Sometimes you could make a case for one of the Dodgers (who played in a great pitchers’ park) based on ERA or total wins. But winning percentage, which the ballpark doesn’t affect, isn’t even close.
So based on their eight best seasons, Guidry was a better pitcher than two Hall of Famers elected by the baseball writers (neither of these guys was a borderline Hall of Famer helped out by friends on a Veterans Committee). In five of the matchups, Guidry had a clear advantage. Twice it was close and you could make a strong case for Guidry having the best year. Finally in the eighth season, I’ll concede a slight advantage for Sutton.
Those were Guidry’s only winning seasons with double-digit wins. He developed late, not becoming a big-league starter until he was 26. And when he started to decline, he faded quickly.
Drysdale had one more decent season (13-10) and pushed his career win total over 200 with three losing seasons with double-digit wins. Sutton was a workhorse and had seven more winning seasons with double digits (15-13, 15-11 twice, 15-10, 14-8, 14-12 and 11-9). He had enough pretty good seasons to win more than 300 games, which ensures automatic enshrinement. Unless we’re selecting Hall of Famers for 15-11 seasons, Sutton and Drysdale built their Hall of Fame credentials, other than longevity, in those eight years when Guidry outpitched them both.
Of course, comparing Guidry to Drysdale, you have to discuss the differences in the eras when they played. But Sutton was pitching for all of Guidry’s career. They both finished in 1988. In the 10-season stretch (1977-1986) when Sutton and Guidry both started 25 or more games a year, Guidry had a clear advantage six times. (To be fair, though Sutton was pitching well in that stretch, it started just after Sutton’s best stretch of his career, 1972-76.)
Guidry led his league twice in wins and twice in ERA. Drysdale led his league once in wins and Sutton once in ERA. Each of them led his league in shutouts once. Drysdale led three times in strikeouts and neither of the others did. Guidry led the league once in complete games and twice in winning percentage. Sutton and Drysdale never led in either category.
Guidry and Drysdale each won a Cy Young Award. Sutton never did. Even with his shorter career, Guidry was an All-Star as many times as Sutton, four. Drysdale was an All-Star nine times.
Neither Sutton nor Drysdale won a Gold Glove. Guidry won five. Drysdale, of course, was an excellent hitter for a pitcher. Drysdale also was one of the most intimidating pitchers of his era, leading the league in hit batters five times.
All three men pitched a lot in the post-season (Sutton for the Brewers and Angels as well as the Dodgers). Here again, Guidry was best: 3-1 in the World Series with a 1.69 ERA, compared to 3-3, 2.95 for Drysdale and 2-3, 5.26 for Sutton. Guidry was 5-2, 3.02 overall in the post-season, Sutton 6-4 3.68 (Drysdale played before divisional play, so all his post-season play was in the World Series).
The simple and undeniable fact is that as great pitchers at their best, Drysdale and Sutton were a notch below Guidry. I’m not saying Sutton and Drysdale don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. They do.
Longevity matters. But so does winning. Guidry’s career winning percentage was 94 points higher than Drysdale’s and 92 points higher than Sutton’s. And his winning percentage wasn’t inflated by playing on great teams. Four times Guidry’s winning percentage was more than 100 points higher than his team’s. Drysdale, on the other hand, was more than 100 points lower than his team’s winning percentage when he had a 13-16 record for the first-place Dodgers in 1966.
That brings us back to Koufax, who carried the Dodgers that year. If Guidry was a top pitcher for longer than Koufax and was a greater pitcher than Drysdale and Sutton, even if he didn’t pitch as long, shouldn’t he join them in Cooperstown?
Update: This 2015 post by Matthew Kline makes similar points, also comparing Guidry to Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton. Guidry’s an easy call for the Hall of Fame unless longevity is the most important consideration for admission.