Kershaw, Greinke recall LA's great one-two punches
Rotation mates draw comparisons to Koufax-Drysdale, other pairs
LOS ANGELES -- Catcher and comic A.J. Ellis has a wise-guy reply whenever the home-plate umpire asks him which Dodgers pitcher is taking the mound.
"Koufax or Drysdale," Ellis deadpans.
Ump Jim Wolf asked the question, and Ellis gave the answer this month during a game in Cincinnati. Reds slugger Joey Votto, the next batter up, was nearby and offered his preference, having gone 0-for-3 against Clayton Kershaw earlier in the game.
"Give me Drysdale," Votto said. "I've already faced Koufax tonight."
When the Dodgers added Zack Greinke to a rotation already headed by Kershaw, it sure seemed like a replication of the pitching formula that carried the franchise to three World Series appearances -- and two rings -- in a four-year span from 1963-66.
A lefty-righty, Cy Young-winning pair of dominant aces in their prime isn't a bad thing to replicate. Nobody exactly said the prototype was Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, but why wouldn't it be?
"I don't think any team ever had a better one-two pitching punch than we had with those two," their late catcher, John Roseboro, wrote in his autobiography.
Current Dodgers president Stan Kasten ran the Braves when they had Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, so it's no coincidence that his first season in charge of the Dodgers, he would direct general manager Ned Colletti to use Guggenheim Baseball's deep pockets and sign the best starter available. For $147 million, they got Greinke.
Kershaw and Greinke, Cy Young winners in 2011 and 2009, are as close as the Dodgers have come to Koufax and Drysdale since Koufax and Drysdale. Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser pitched together, but their Cy Young Awards came seven years apart.
"I don't think they've matched Sandy and Don, but they're probably the closest we've seen in a long time," said Maury Wills, the All-Star shortstop and leadoff hitter for Koufax and Drysdale.
That the Dodgers could claim three pairs of Cy Young winners in rotations of the 1960s, 1980s and 2010s underscores a franchise reliance on pitching that predates World War II. In the organization's first 50 years, the staff finished first or second in ERA seven times. In the 72 years that followed, the Dodgers' staff ranked either first or second in ERA 38 times and are among the leaders again this year.
Dodgers have won 10 Cy Young Awards, a string that started with Don Newcombe in the award's inaugural season of 1956 and includes three plaques for Koufax, the living legend of Dodgers pitching greatness, and one for Big D. Five other Cy Youngs were won elsewhere by pitchers trained in the Dodgers' farm system -- three by Pedro Martinez, one each by Rick Sutcliffe and Bob Welch.
For an organization that has changed coasts, changed a nation's social consciousness with Jackie Robinson and recently changed owners again, there is something that seemingly never changes -- the Dodgers' reputation for unparalleled pitching.
How did one organization strike it so rich and keep the pipeline flowing, except for brief interruptions, for so long? Koufax a few years back offered MLB.com a theory, a baseball version of Darwinism that evolved from the Branch Rickey days, when the Dodgers and Yankees could afford to out-man the opposition and possessed a broader development base from which emerged quality and quantity.
"I think their success is a function of natural selection," said the Hall of Fame left-hander, now a special advisor to the chairman. "They had 25 Minor League ballclubs and 700 Minor League players in camp. They had so many players that they cornered the market. It was survival of the fittest. The ones who reached the Major Leagues had to be the best to survive a test like that. And the Dodgers could afford that many players and that many teams."
When the First-Year Player Draft evened the playing field for smaller-market clubs in the 1960s, the Dodgers shifted focus and became dominant signing talent in the Caribbean, like Ramon and Pedro Martinez. Forays into Asia in more recent decades landed Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Takashi Saito and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
And now, after nearly a decade of spotty acquisitions and limited international presence, the Dodgers are back to hoarding pitching, with Guggenheim Baseball Partners making it possible to add the 29-year-old Greinke to the 25-year-old Kershaw.
The debate over when this wacky season turned around for the Dodgers usually splits between the arrival of Yasiel Puig and the return of a healthy Hanley Ramirez. But that also coincided with Greinke pitching like Greinke, which didn't occur until early July because of a sore elbow in Spring Training, a month out with a broken collarbone and a month more of inconsistent starts as he worked his way back into shape.
"When Zack became Zack again, Kershaw was already doing his thing and that gave us the one-two punch," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "So it's not only the games they pitch, but as they go deep in their starts, there's less pressure on the bullpen and the relievers are more effective when they're needed. Early on, with Zack out and our fourth and fifth starters jumbled, we had to use the bullpen a lot.
"So Zack comes back, then we trade for Ricky [Nolasco] to go along with Hyun-Jin, and we're four deep. But it does go back to your big guns. And when you get people the caliber of Kersh and Zack, you just expect you're going to win that day."
Through their last starts, Kershaw leads the Major Leagues with a 1.93 ERA and Greinke is fifth in the National League at 2.74. Kershaw is second in the Majors in WHIP, Greinke third in winning percentage. Kershaw leads in innings pitched and is third in strikeouts. Kershaw was the NL Pitcher of the Month in July, Greinke winning in August.
"These guys are the total package," said Honeycutt. "They handle the bat, field their position, control the running game. Their mental preparation is off the charts. Two very professional guys that understand not just pitching, but a lot more than that. They think of the team first. They are very into the game. To have two like that, it's a luxury for me."