Hi, and welcome to another edition of Dodgers Dugout. My name is Houston Mitchell and today we celebrate the pitching career of Don Sutton.
Sutton died Tuesday at his Rancho Mirage home after a long battle with cancer.
When people talk about the greatest Dodgers pitchers of all time, Sutton’s name rarely comes up quickly. It’s always Koufax, Drysdale, Fernando, Hershiser, Newcombe, Kershaw. All great pitchers. But Sutton is the guy who leads the Dodgers in many all-time pitching categories.
As you all know, I am currently asking readers to submit their list of the 10 greatest moments in Dodger history. Each of the above pitchers has been named on at least two ballots. Sutton hasn’t been on any I’ve counted so far. When we did the “25 greatest Dodgers of all-time” voting in 2018, Sutton finished 18th, and was sixth among pitchers.
When you think back on Sutton’s Dodgers career, it’s hard to think of a specific memorable moment. And that’s not an insult, in an odd way it’s a tribute to his career. He took the ball every fourth or fifth day, year after year, and did his job without attention. But the Dodgers went to the playoffs four times in his career, and came close in other seasons, and Sutton was a big part of that.
Sutton also has an unusual claim to fame: He pitched on the same staff as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, on the same staff as Burt Hooton and Tommy John, and on the same staff as Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser.
Sutton joined the Dodgers in 1966 and left them after the 1980 season. He won at least 11 games every season. He pitched at least 200 innings every season. That’s extraordinary. Let’s break it down:
1966: 12-12, 225.2 IP, 2.99 ERA, 110 ERA+
1967: 11-15, 232.2 IP, 3.95 ERA, 78 ERA+
1968: 11-15, 207.2 IP, 2.60 ERA, 106 ERA+
1969: 18-18, 293.1 IP, 3.47 ERA, 96 ERA+
1970: 15-13, 260.1 IP, 4.09 ERA, 94 ERA+
1971: 17-12, 265.1 IP, 2.54 ERA, 127 ERA+
1972: 19-9, 272.2 IP, 2.08 ERA, 162 ERA+
1973: 18-10, 256.1 IP, 2.42 ERA, 144 ERA+
1974: 19-9, 276 IP, 3.23 ERA, 106 ERA+
1975: 16-13, 254.1 IP, 2.87 ERA, 119 ERA+
1976: 21-10, 267.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 110 ERA+
1977: 14-8, 240.1 IP, 3.18 ERA, 121 ERA+
1978: 15-11, 238.1 IP, 3.55 ERA, 99 ERA+
1979: 12-15, 226 IP, 3.82 ERA, 95 ERA+
1980: 13-5, 212.1 IP, 2.20 ERA, 161 ERA+
Average: 15-12, 249 IP, 3.07 ERA, 111 ERA+
Sutton was never the best pitcher in the league, leading the NL in ERA in 1989 (2.20) in games started (40) in 1974, in shutouts (9) in 1972 and in WHIP three times (1972, 1975, 1980). He finished in the top five in Cy Young voting five times (1972-76) and was a four-time All Star.
Sutton also came back for a final season with the Dodgers in 1988, when he went 3-6 with a 3.92 ERA in 87.1 innings before he was released on Aug. 9. In between he pitched for Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland and the Angels. His biggest career moments (striking out his 3,000th batter, winning his 300th games) did not come while he was with the Dodgers. But he always considered himself a Dodger, and wears a Dodger cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Sutton is also in the top 10 in the following Dodger pitching categories;
Games started, 533
Home runs allowed, 309
Batters faced, 15,567
Earned runs, 1,311
Games pitched, 550
WAR for pitchers, 50.5
Wild pitches, 86
Complete games, 156
Walks + Hits/IP, 1.123
Hit batters, 62
Sutton often gets overlooked when people talk about great Dodgers, but it didn’t bother him. “I am 100% convinced that if I had spent most of my career anywhere but with the Dodgers, I would not have the record, not have the Hall of Fame, not have the life I enjoyed,’” Sutton told The Times’ Bill Plaschke in 2017. “All those Dodger people gave me all of that. It’s my alma mater, and all the good I had in baseball came from them.”
Sutton was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 and had his number (20) retired by the Dodgers the same year.
“I don’t have any fantasy or thought of being the best pitcher in Dodger history,” Sutton said in 2017. “But I would like to think I got everything I could get out of what I was gifted with.”
I could go on about Sutton, but why should I when Jon Weisman did it as well or better than I could. Weisman wrote a terrific book on Dodger pitchers titled “Brothers in Arms”, and has put the chapter devoted to Sutton up for free on his Dodgers Thoughts blog. You can read it here. Here’s a quick excerpt:
“The star of Sutton’s ensemble was his curveball—an “incredible curveball,” teammate Charlie Hough emphasizes. “He crimps his index finger atop the ball,” wrote Jim Murray, “which makes the ball appear to dive for the ground like a crashing airplane. He can throw this malicious mischief for a strike.” But Sutton learned not to lean on it too heavily.
“‘This goes back to Red Adams,’” Tommy John says. “‘Don had a great curveball, outstanding curveball, and Red kept telling him, ‘You’ll be a better pitcher when you use your fastball more.’ And when Don started using his fastball and getting guys out with his fastball, it made his already outstanding curveball even better. And then he came up with a little cutter that he could throw in on lefties. Don was an outstanding pitcher and outstanding competitor.’”
“Yet for all his steadfast ability, Sutton’s personality and presence in Los Angeles revealed themselves to be as complicated as his pitching repertoire. Longer than any other Dodger pitcher, he was the centerpiece of serious trade talks. Several times, newspapers reported his departure as imminent. These weren’t just wild rumors — often, Dodger executives and Sutton himself openly discussed the possibility of him leaving town. He frequently wondered aloud if the grass were greener elsewhere, either playing for another team or moving onto another profession, namely broadcasting. In practically the same breath, he unabashedly admitted how much he valued his rising place in the Dodger record books. He could be charming and unnerving in the same conversation.
“‘He’s very complex,’” Adams said.
Final farewell for Tommy Lasorda
A private funeral for Tommy Lasorda was held this week at Dodger Stadium, with his coffin residing on the mound before one more trip around the Stadium he loved so much.
Justin Turner update
Nothing new to report. Turner would like four years. Dodgers would like two years. Hmmm, how can we compromise there? How about two years with a mutual option for a third year?
Goodbye Pedro and Alex
Didn’t mention this in the previous newsletter because of the focus on Lasorda, but two members of last season’s team definitely won’t be returning this season.
Pedro Báez, the longtime Dodger reliever who raised the blood pressure of many fans, signed a two-year deal with the Houston Asterisks. Alex Wood signed a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants.
Báez took a lot of grief from Dodger fans (and from me) for being unreliable in pressure situations, but he pitched in 355 games over seven seasons and was a key part of the bullpen most of those seasons. I’m not heartbroken to see him go, but he deserves more respect than he got and let’s wish him well the rest of his career, except against the Dodgers.
Wood, who was with the Dodgers from 2015-18 before being dealt to the Cincinnati Reds, came back to the Dodgers last season as a free agent and went 0-1 with a 6.39 ERA. However, he pitched great against Tampa Bay in the World Series, giving up two hits and striking out five in four innings. In fact, several Dodgers fans wanted him to start Game 6 instead of Tony Gonsolin. Wood pitched in relief in that game and struck out four in two scoreless innings.
As for those fans who emailed me unhappy that a Dodger would sign with the hated Asterisks or Giants, well, there are more important things to worry about. Dusty Baker played for the Giants. So did Orel Hershiser and Duke Snider.
The current 40-man roster:
Don Sutton’s Hall of Fame induction speech. Watch it here.