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An appreciation of Don Sutton’s longevity

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The Hall of Fame former Dodgers pitcher turns 75 today

Los Angeles Dodgers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Don Sutton turned 75 years old today, so let’s take time to appreciate one of the constants in Dodgers history.

His career spanned 23 seasons, and was a link between generations. Sutton began as a rookie in a starting rotation with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and ended his career in a rotation with Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. When Sutton was released by the Dodgers in August 1988, it was to make room for Ramon Martinez.

Sutton was around so long that some of his numbers are staggering:

  • 756 starts (3rd all-time; only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan started more often)
  • 5,282⅓ innings (7th)
  • 3,574 strikeouts (7th)
  • 58 shutouts (10th)

It might be easy to look at that last number and think 58 shutouts aren’t that many, but that’s two more shutouts than the Dodgers have had in total dating back to 1996.

Sutton pitched his first 15 years with the Dodgers before signing as a free agent with the Astros for the 1981 season. All 15 years with Los Angeles saw Sutton pitch at least 200 innings, a milestone he reached 20 times in his first 21 seasons. The only year he fell short was that strike-shortened first campaign in Houston, when he pitched 158⅔ innings despite a third of the season lost to a labor dispute, well on pace to hit 200 again.

One of the criticisms of Sutton is that he was a compiler. He didn’t have a lot of black ink, though he led the NL in WHIP four times, strikeout-to-walk ratio three times, ERA and shutouts once each. Among 300-game winners in the modern era (excluding the PED-stained Roger Clemens), Sutton had the longest wait to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. He was elected to Cooperstown in 1998 in his fifth year on the ballot, matching the wait by Phil Niekro one year earlier. But there’s something to be said for answering the bell every day.

Nobody has more seasons throwing 200 innings than Sutton, who has one more year than Niekro and Young, and two more years than Walter Johnson and Greg Maddux. Sutton never led the league in innings, but he ranked in the top 10 in the National League 10 times, including nine times as a Dodger. I mean, look at this tiny font size Topps had to use on the back of his 1987 baseball card:

Sutton was eighth in innings pitched in the 1970s, a decade that saw 20 pitchers each 2,000 innings. During his first tenure with the Dodgers (1966-80), Sutton ranked fifth in MLB in innings pitched.

He was also effective in the postseason, with a 3.68 ERA in 15 postseason games, including a 3.34 ERA in 10 October starts with the Dodgers. Sutton was 5-0 with a 2.13 ERA in the 1974 and 1977 postseasons — including a Game 1 shutout and eight strong innings in the clincher in the 1974 NLCS — but fell to 0-3 with a 7.13 ERA in 1978.

Sutton started opening day seven times for the Dodgers (1972-78), and pitched eight scoreless innings in four All-Star Games. He started and won the 1977 All-Star Game with three scoreless frames.

Sutton is the Dodgers franchise leader in seasons pitched (16), wins (233), losses (181), starts (533), shutouts (52), innings (3,816⅓), and strikeouts (2,486). To put those starts in perspective, Clayton Kershaw is third in franchise history with 344 starts, and if he keeps up his 27-start average from 2017-19, it would take him seven more seasons to match Sutton’s Dodgers output, and it would still be 223 starts behind Sutton’s career total.

756 starts. 5,282⅓ innings. It’s hard wrapping one’s head around those totals coming from a single pitcher. Don Sutton was always ready to pitch.