Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 9, 2005
BASEBALL: Instant Gratification
Jim Caple asks the timeless question of peak vs. career value, "Who would you rather have, Sandy Koufax or Bert Blyleven?":
Say you are a general manager in an alternate universe and you can choose a clone of either the 19-year-old Koufax or the 19-year-old Blyleven, knowing ahead of time that both will perform exactly as they did in our major leagues. Wins, losses, ERA, innings -- all those stats on the backs of their Topps baseball cards will be exactly duplicated. The key aspect to keep in mind, however, is that free agency is still banned in this alternate universe. In other words, you'll not only get the pitcher for the start of his career, you will have lifetime rights to him (just as the Dodgers did with Koufax). He's your indentured servant for as long as his arm can still pitch.
It's a worthwhile debate, but of course, in the real world, you know and I know that any GM would choose Blyleven. Why? Well, both pitchers came up at age 19, bringing the best curveball of his generation to a winning team - Koufax for the Dodgers, winning their first World Championship, Blyleven for the Twins, winning their second straight division title. But from age 19 to age 24, Bert won 95 games (while losing 85), throwing 1611.1 innings with a 2.78 ERA (ERA+ of 134). Over the same age period, Koufax won just 36 games (while losing 40), throwing just 691.2 innings with a 4.10 ERA (ERA+ of 101). Any GM would take the instant payoff.
Then, of course, Koufax became Koufax. Interestingly, through age 30, when their arms gave out, the two had about the same number of career wins: Blyleven 167, Koufax 165. That's hardly to suggest that they were even: Bert had lost 148 games to Koufax's 87, and had a 2.95 ERA (ERA+ of 128) in 3000.2 IP to Koufax's 2.78 ERA (ERA+ of 131) in 2324.1 IP. In other words, the volume vs. quality debate was already in place.
The difference: Koufax retired after age 30. Blyleven, who missed most of his age-31 season (1982) with an arm injury, had modern medicine on his side, and returned to be the best starting pitcher in the AL in 1984 (19-7 for a last place team), be the last man to throw 290 innings or 20 complete games in 1985, pitch for a World Champion in 1987, and go 17-5 as late as 1989. In short, Blyleven had a second act to his career that Koufax never got, and had several of his best seasons in his 30s. You wonder, had he pitched 10 years later, how that would have been different.