The Cruel Curveball Science of Sandy Koufax


Koufax bringing the four-seamer. No pitcher ever used better body mechanics. In this photo, his hips, which were sideways to the hitter until his front foot landed a fraction of a second ago, have just completed most of a rapid, powerful spin toward the batter; they will now lock as the torso rapidly follows in its own rapid rotation, generating his tremendous arm speed. His back is bent sharply back at the waist here, like a leaf spring loaded; this too helped generate power as he came forward. His enormous stride — his feet are incredibly far apart, and his back knee will almost hit the ground with the force of his movement forward and down — makes it harder to control the body. This (and some mental adjustments) is part of why Koufax took several years after turning pro to fully control his pitches. During this period, the first five years of the 1960s, Koufax was almost unhittable. Every batter was overmatched.

In honor and anticipation of Opening Day, I bring you Sandy Koufax, which is really all any baseball fan should need.

This post mashes up two separate entries I filed three years ago about Sandy Koufax, who is — don’t argue, you’re wrong — the greatest pitcher ever.* I’ve taken parts of both those posts, one about the curveball, one just about Koufax, and combined them.

There’s some science here, about the curveball; Koufax had a nasty one, best one in the game, along with the best fastball in the game. Then there are a couple mind-blowing Koufax stories. If you want just the mind-blowings stories, scan down and look for the bold print that marks the beginning of each.

From Post 1: The Curveball Illusion, September 2009

I always look forward to the Illusion of the Year contest, but this year brings a special treat: a new explanation of how the curveball baffles batters.

Just a few days ago, during BP, my friend Bill Perreault threw me one of those really nasty curves of his, and though I read it about halfway in, I was still ahead — and still unprepared for the sudden slanting dive it made at that last crucial moment. The good curve does that: Even when you have that millisecond of curveball recognition beforehand, it still seems to take, atop the curvy movement you’ve already detected, a sharp, sudden bend just before it reaches the plate, as if some invisible hand gave it a tap.

This wonderful “illusion” put together by Arthur Shapiro, Zhong-Lin Lu, Emily Knight, and Robert Ennis explains how that happens. I can’t link to the illusion, so for the full story you have to check it out yourself. But the gist is that  the curveball kills you two ways: first, through actual movement; and second, through an extra perceived movement — illusory — that further complicates the task of getting the tiny strip of sweet spot on your bat onto the ball. (The sweet spot on a bat is about a half-inch tall and maybe 4-6 inches long. You have to get that tiny oval, which is over 2 feet away from your accelerating hands, onto the ball …. at just the right moment, and with the bat accelerating, or you’re probably out. Which is why you’re usually out.)

The extra perceived movement rises from a difference between the neural dynamics of central vision and those of peripheral vision. This effect of this difference is that a baseball that is rotating horizontally but falling straight down as it comes toward you will appear to fall vertically if you’re looking straight at it — but appear to move sideways if it’s in your peripheral vision. So the little sideways jump that messed me up so bad when Bill threw his curve occurred when the ball moved out of my central vision and into my peripheral vision. This in turn happens because your eyes simply can’t keep up with a pitch as it approaches you and effectively accelerates its path across your field of vision. The ball goes from moving at you to moving past you. At the crucial moment — the last few feet of the ball’s half-second, 60-foot trip  to the plate — you must of necessity switch from seeing the ball with your central vision to seeing it with your peripheral vision.

To add to your troubles, it is in this tenth of a second or so that the curveball also moves the most in reality. On TV you can see this late break in shots from the center-field cameras. As a pitcher, you can see this late break from the mound. (Life offers few satisfactions so great.) So just as the ball’s real downward and sideways motion is greatest, the curve’s apparent break is exaggerated by visual dynamics. That’s why Bill’s curveball was so untouchable. That’s why hitters who’ve been fooled by a curveball often wear a look and a posture that suggests they think the world unfair. It is unfair: Their own visual dynamics have just multiplied a nasty trick the pitcher played on them.

All of which reminds me of a great story Jane Leavy told in her splendid biography of Sandy Koufax. In the 1963 World Series, Koufax had to face the terrifying Mickey Mantle. The book on Mantle, Leavy explains, was never ever ever throw him the curve.  Mantle was so strong in his upper body and arms that even if you fooled him badly and got him to commit his hips too early, he could still crush the ball as long as his hands were still back. So don’t throw him the hook. Just don’t. And if you can throw 100 mph, like Koufax could, why throw the curve?

Because you’re Koufax.

So in the first game in which they meet — Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, Dodgers v Yankees — Koufax faces Mantle three times. On the first at-bat he strikes out Mantle throwing nothing but fastballs.

Mantle’s second time up, Koufax gets two strikes on him. Everyone in the park is thinking heat. But Koufax shakes off the fastball sign once, twice. Catcher catches on, puts down two fingers to call for the curve. And Koufax’s curve was a horrid thing to a batter, possibly the best curveball ever, a nose-to-toes diver that just killed batters, flummoxed them utterly, destroyed their minds.  Yet still, he’d been told NOT to throw this thing to Mantle. So he decides he’s going to. And he does.

Ball comes in eye-high, just buzzing … and just before reaching the plate it dives, crossing the plate at Mantle’s knees. Mantle flinches, just the tiniest bit, but never moves the bat. Ump calls strike three. Mantle, as he walks away, reportedly said to the catcher and ump, “How the fuck is anybody supposed to hit that shit?” And walks back to the dugout.**

You can see this last pitch and Mantle’s reaction starting at 4m58sec in the video below. His strikeout is immediately followed by Maris’s.


From Post 2: Curveball Deception and Koufax as God

1. Here’s an NPR story that includes a podcast with highlights from Vin Scully calling the first of Koufax’s no-hitters, on June 20, 1962. Emerged in a guy’s basement in 1990.

  1. Koufax story I read a few years back, either in Leary’s bio of him or perhaps an Angell piece. Koufax, retired almost 20 years and in his 40s, was pitching batting practice to the Dodgers (whom he often helped coach) between post-season series in the mid-1980s. This was the great-hitting Dodger line-up with Sax, Garvey, Baker, Cey, and others. Koufax is just throwing easy minor-league 45-year-old man fastballs for BP, letting the hitters groove their swings. One of the hitters calls for the famous curveball. This Koufax usually didn’t throw, lest it aggravate his elbow. But this hitter wanted to see the thing, see if he could hit it, so Koufax indulges him.

This is a major league hitter who knows what pitch is coming, batting against a man in his mid-40s.

Curve comes in, drops like a stone — a swing and a miss.

Hitter calls for another. Same result.

Several more; the same.

By now the hitter’s teammates, watching, are in hysterics. They’re howling. The batter gives up, walks off, tells his buddies, Fine then, you try it. And one by one they do. This great Dodger line-up comes up, every hitter knowing what pitch he’s getting, and no one can connect. Koufax is 45 or so — and with one pitch, pre-announced, he is unhittable.

No wonder Mantle said what he said.

As the story goes, manager Lasorda walked out to the mound and, using the pretext he wanted to protect Koufax’s arm, asked him to stop — but to Koufax he said, Cut it out already, I don’t want my hitters mentally destroyed just before a post-season series because they can’t hit a one-pitch man in his 40s.

3. Koufax under pressure. This is one of the most astounding bits of sportsdom I’ve ever read.

In the Don Drysdale entry in Bill James’ brilliant, endlessly fascinating Historical Baseball Abstract, James set out to evaluate the charge that Drysdale was an underperforming pitcher — one who lost a lot of games he should have won. He finds for Drysdale, arguing that Drysdale simply appeared to underperform because he was pitching next to (and, worse, usually the day after) his teammate Koufax, who was an overperforming pitcher.

But can you really overperform when you have stuff like Sandy’s? James looked at the numbers to find out. He focused on what percentage of the time each pitcher won games at different levels of run support and compared those percentages to the statistical averages for such run support throughout Major League Baseball. Because MLB teams average about a bit over 4 runs scored a game, for example, an average MLB pitcher who gets 4 runs of support will win just under half his games, and of the games in which his team scores 5 runs, he’ll win over half.

So James takes both Drysdale’s and Koufax’s games in 1963 and 1964, when both were at their peaks, and compares how they did in close games and at different levels of run support. He finds that Don Drysdale generally won the games he should have, given the run support he actually got: He won more than half of those in which he got 4 runs of support, for example.

Then James bore down deeper.

[I wanted] to see if there was a pattern of Drysdale’s losing the close games or anything. What fans will often say about certain pitchers is that “the guy’s a loser. You give him three runs, he allows four. You give him one, he’ll give up two.” Drysdale in 1964 had a poor record in one run games (2-7). That’s a little unfair, because you lost four games 1 to 0, but there you have it; he pitched well when the other guy — usually Juan Marichal, who used to pitch against Drysdale a lot — was pitching a shutout. He was 5-3 in one-run games in 1963, so for the two seasons as a whole he was 7-10 in one-run games. He was also 3-8 in games decided by two runs, so that’s not an illustrious record those two seasons, even though he was 27-15 in other games — but remember, those were seasons in which he was “under efficient,” whereas in other seasons he was “over efficient.” It must be assumed that he probably won most of his close games in 1962 and 1965.

But really, he won, even in those seasons, about as often as you could reasonably expect, given his offensive support. Given five or more runs to work with, Drysdale’s record over those two seasons was 23-1, which is pretty near perfect. Given four runs to work with, he was 7-5, which is so-so. Given three runs to work with, he was 4-6, which is pretty decent. Given two runs to work with, he was 3-6, which is excellent…. He won all the games that he should have won, and he split the ones that he should have split.

But Koufax, James explains, actually got harder to beat as he received less run support.

While I was doing Drysdale, I figured I might as well do Koufax, too. Read these figures carefully. Given five or more runs to work with, Koufax was 18-1, about the same as Drysdale. Given four to work with, he was 8-2. That’s sensational — you get four runs and win 80% of the time, you’re doing the job.

Given three runs to work with, Koufax was 9-0. Given just two runs to work with, Koufax was 6-3. And given only one run to work with, Sandy Koufax won three out of four decisions.

Think about it. Given one, two or three runs to work with, Koufax was 18-4. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment.

So Drysdale couldn’t match that. Well, who could?

When Koufax’s team wasn’t scoring, he simply choked the other team to death.

*I’m going with Bill James peak-performance meaning of that phrase here, i.e., who, at his peak, was most dominating . Koufax wins as best pitcher ever, just as Mantle likewise wins, measured peakwise, the Greatest Center Fielder award.

** After that same game, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra said, of Koufax’s 25-5 won-lost record that year, “I can understand how he won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”


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4 responses

  1. Thanks a lot for the article. I grew up in Australia where I followed cricket and never heard much about baseball. But, as a gift I received a terrific book called the “Glory of Sport” which collected articles from the world’s best sportswriters about their favorite sporting moments. One of them was a great story by Jim Murray about the brilliance of Sandy Koufax, and I’ve enjoyed reading about him every since. 

    My favorite part of your article is the story about Koufax taking out the whole Dodgers line-up as a 45 year old using just one pitch.

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