Sutton's numbers still boggle the mind

Late Hall of Fame pitcher never missed his turn in the rotation

January 20th, 2021

The baseball world suffered yet another profound loss Tuesday, when it was announced that Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton had passed away at the age of 75. A true baseball lifer, Sutton’s time in the big leagues literally spanned several generations and eras -- both as a pitcher for 23 seasons and then as a celebrated broadcaster for several more decades.

Sutton’s legacy is that of both a brilliant and uber-consistent moundsman. After retiring in 1988, he still ranks among MLB’s top 10 pitchers all-time in starts, innings pitched and strikeouts and belongs to a group of 24 300-game winners. Effort was as indelible to his legacy as any victory or punchout he ever recorded.

“When I was getting on the bus to go to my first professional Spring Training with the Dodgers,” Sutton told the Los Angeles Times in 2017, “my father, who was a farmer and construction worker, put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Son, there’s always going to be somebody better than you, but don’t let anybody outwork you.’ I never forgot those words.”

Sutton stayed true to his father's advice -- and then some. While he was never baseball’s greatest superstar in any given year, the sheer breadth and volume of his career achievements is still staggering to this day. Here are a few quick facts you should know about the on-field legacy Sutton leaves behind:

• Sutton logged 16 total years in a Dodgers uniform and matched consistency with excellence. While the Dodgers’ history is as overflowing with all-time pitching talent as any franchise in baseball -- from Dazzy Vance and Don Newcombe, to Koufax and Drysdale, to Hershiser and Valenzuela and all the way through Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler -- it’s still Sutton who sits atop the Dodgers’ all-time lists in wins (233), innings pitched (3,816 1/3), shutouts (52) and strikeouts (2,696). Kershaw, who is 170 strikeouts behind Sutton, could soon pass him in that category. But given pitcher usage trends in the modern game, it's hard to see Sutton being displaced in any of those other three stats.

• Few pitchers have ever featured the toughness and durability of Sutton, whose 756 career starts still rank third on MLB’s all-time list behind Cy Young (815) and Nolan Ryan (773). Remarkably, Sutton is believed to have never missed his turn in the rotation due to injury, illness or any other reason.

“I never wanted to be a superstar, or the highest paid player,” Sutton told Baseball Digest in 1985. “All I wanted was to be appreciated for the fact that I was consistent, dependable, and you could count on me.”

• Sutton could have waited one more summer to enter the inaugural MLB Draft in 1965, but he enjoyed a strong enough relationship with Dodgers scouts that he signed with the club for an estimated $15,000 in ‘64. Sutton debuted two years later in a rotation that included superstars Koufax, Drysdale and Claude Osteen, but he easily held his own and struck out 209 batters -- the most by any National League rookie since Grover Cleveland Alexander punched out 227 in 1911.

Twenty-two years later, Sutton signed with the Dodgers as a free agent and bookended his career pitching alongside a pair of next-generation Dodgers legends in Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser. Those two pitchers were five and seven years old, respectively, when Sutton debuted in the Majors. Sutton was on World Series-winning Dodgers rosters in both his first and final seasons, though he didn’t pitch in either year’s postseason.

Indeed, Sutton’s long and winding path was partially defined by the plethora of elite teammates he had along the way. Those teammates included 13 future Hall of Famers, from another ageless wonder in knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm (born in 1922) to wunderkind Robin Yount (born in 1955).

• When you’re as talented as Sutton was and you never miss a start, you start to string together some truly incredible streaks. He reached the 200-inning mark in 20 out of 21 possible seasons (the most 200-inning campaigns in history), with that run interrupted only by the 1981 players’ strike. For context, a total of 42 pitchers (including Sutton) tossed at least 200 innings during his 1966 debut. In MLB’s most recent full campaign in 2019, just 15 pitchers reached that benchmark.

Sutton also struck out at least 100 hitters in 21 consecutive seasons between 1966 and ‘86, a streak matched only by Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Nolan Ryan. And while he reached the 20-win mark just once in his career (‘76), Sutton won at least 10 games in a record 21 different campaigns.

• Sutton’s career total of 5,282 1/3 innings ranks seventh on MLB’s all-time list, and it is the fourth-highest total by any pitcher that began his career in the Live Ball Era behind the late Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry. That total becomes even more staggering when you consider it’s over 1,000 innings more than the final total for Randy Johnson (4,135 1/3), nearly 1,500 more than Jack Morris (3,824) and nearly 2,000 more than contemporary workhorses Bartolo Colon (3,461 2/3) and Mark Buehrle (3,283 1/3).

If one removes Colon (who hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2018) atop the current active leaders list in innings pitched, the owner of the next-highest total, Justin Verlander, is still 2,294 1/3 innings shy of Sutton’s mark. That means the 37-year-old Verlander would have to average 200 frames a season for more than another decade to catch him.

• While Sutton never took home a Cy Young Award, he did finish top five in NL Cy Young voting in every year between 1972 and ‘76 for L.A. Per FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Sutton was bseball’s sixth-most valuable pitcher in that span behind a group of five fellow Hall of Famers in Bert Blyleven, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan. Sutton also paced the NL in WHIP four different times and captured the 1980 ERA title in ‘80 with a Major League-best 2.20 figure.