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Koufax's legacy paves the Dodger way

Mentorship molds aces dating back to Brooklyn
@kengurnick
April 30, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- He’s 83 years old now, more than a half-century out from his playing days, and his recent ballpark appearances have been trimmed to the postseason and Opening Day. But Sandy Koufax, the living legend of Dodgers pitching greatness, is always there in spirit, and his imprint is

LOS ANGELES -- He’s 83 years old now, more than a half-century out from his playing days, and his recent ballpark appearances have been trimmed to the postseason and Opening Day.

But Sandy Koufax, the living legend of Dodgers pitching greatness, is always there in spirit, and his imprint is everywhere.

He’s there in the retired jersey on the hallway wall outside the clubhouse. He’s there through a kinship with the greatest Dodgers left-hander since Koufax, Clayton Kershaw. And he’s there by proxy, having passed along his unmatched pitching knowledge to current coaches Rick Honeycutt and Charlie Hough, who bequeath it like DNA to the next Koufax and Kershaw, and the next generation of teachers.

Koufax’s greatness on the mound during the 1960s obscures the profound impact he’s had on the organization since then: as a Minor League instructor in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as a mentor to multiple eras of pitching coaches and as a resource for pitchers as gifted as Kershaw, as well as those striving to improve with the nerve to ask Koufax how, as Caleb Ferguson did last year with prodding from Honeycutt.

Is it possible to overstate the impact one icon has had on an organization that, for almost a century, has virtually trademarked great pitching?

“You’re more likely understating Sandy’s importance,” said Hough.

From Orel Hershiser to Eric Gagne to Kershaw, the players who have carried the Cy Young Award torch for the Dodgers cite the indelible stamp Koufax made on them and the entire organization.

"A lot of what is currently taught is Sandy,” said Hershiser, a Dodgers broadcaster during the season who moonlights in Spring Training as a pitching instructor, as Koufax once did.

“Because he accomplished so much, when you say, ‘This is what Sandy would say,’ or, ‘What Sandy taught me,’ or the way he did it, as a coach instead of showing somebody,” Hershiser continued, “that’s a name that has so much weight, you know as a coach you’ve got somebody’s ear. The resume is at such heights, you’ve got the combination to continue the legacy.”

Gagne, now a Minor League coach with the Rangers, said he draws teaching techniques from the many chats he had with Koufax.

“Sandy walks into camp, I mean, that’s just different than anywhere else,” said Gagne, the National League Cy Young Award winner in 2003. “The Dodgers pass down their knowledge from generation to generation. When you walk in here, you’re expected to be a good pitcher. Players in [the Dodgers’] system, coaches in their system, they’re looked at differently. It’s probably because they’ve had a chance to talk to Sandy for five minutes. It’s just unbelievable. Even in the Minor Leagues, guys here play The Dodger Way.”

The Dodger Way
And what is “The Dodger Way?”

It’s more than a catchy, self-serving slogan. “The Dodgers’ Way to Play Baseball” is the title of the 1954 textbook written by Al Campanis. Though he is now infamous for a controversial interview he did on Nightline in ’87, Campanis is one of the most vital Dodgers figures of the last century. He signed Koufax, was a middle-infield teammate of Jackie Robinson in the Minor Leagues and had the foresight to pioneer harvesting the talent-rich Caribbean. He also signed Roberto Clemente, who was lost in the Rule 5 Draft. As general manager, his Dodgers reached four World Series and won in ‘81. Most of the Dodgers playing on the ‘88 World Series winner were acquired when Campanis was general manager.

Campanis was a disciple of Branch Rickey, who conceived of and implemented the farm system to provide a uniform, organizational framework for acquiring and developing talent. In Campanis’ book, he acknowledges the lessons learned from Rickey, “with a special emphasis on pitching.”

So, this Dodgers obsession with pitching isn’t exactly new. In fact, if you remember a time when the Dodgers were not a pitching-rich organization, you probably have great-grandchildren.

The Dodgers floundered through the first half-century of the franchise's existence, when the pitching staff finished first or second in the NL in ERA only seven times. But the acquisitions of Kirby Higbe and Whit Wyatt by club president Larry MacPhail spurred a dramatic reversal in the early 1940s, and the Dodgers have been synonymous with pitching ever since.

Beginning in 1940 (a span of almost 80 seasons), the Dodgers’ staff has ranked either first or second in the NL in ERA 40 times, including last year, when it ranked first. Pitching is the Dodgers’ brand.

Their pitchers have won 12 Cy Young Awards (no other team has more than seven), a string that started with the late Don Newcombe in the award's inaugural season of 1956 and includes three plaques each for Koufax (‘63, ‘65, ‘66) and his protégé, Kershaw (‘11, ‘13, ‘14). The other five winners were Don Drysdale (‘62), Mike Marshall (‘74), Fernando Valenzuela (‘81), Hershiser (‘88), and Gagne (‘03).

Five additional Cy Youngs were won elsewhere by pitchers trained in the Dodgers’ farm system -- three by Pedro Martinez (1997 NL, ‘99 AL, 2000 AL) and one each by Rick Sutcliffe (‘84 NL) and Bob Welch (‘90 AL).

For an organization that has changed coasts, changed a nation's social consciousness and changed owners three times from 1998-2012, there is something that seemingly never changes -- the Dodgers’ reputation for unparalleled pitching.

"I always believed good pitching breeds good pitching," said Fred Claire, general manager from 1987-98. "There's a continuity to it. One era passes the baton to the next."

The Branch Rickey effect
But how did all this happen? How did one organization strike it so rich and keep the pipeline flowing, virtually uninterrupted, for so long?

Koufax offered a theory on the very beginning, a baseball version of Darwinism that evolved from the Rickey days, when the Dodgers and Yankees perfected the farm system to out-man the opposition and possess a broader development base from which emerged quality and quantity. Unlike the more streamlined farm systems you see today, there was a time when a team could have as many farm teams as it could afford, and Rickey took advantage of that.

"I think [the Dodgers’] success is a function of natural selection," Koufax once told MLB.com. "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."

At the peak in 1948, the Dodgers had a staggering 26 farm clubs. That was anywhere from four to 16 more affiliates than any other organization in the NL. The Yankees had a similar advantage in the AL. Rickey, the Dodgers’ president from ‘42-50, basically invented the farm system concept with St. Louis and implemented it with the Dodgers.

"Sandy's right. It was a survival of the fittest," the late Buzzie Bavasi told MLB.com 15 years ago. Bavasi was general manager from 1950-67, during which Koufax and Drysdale emerged as one of the most dominant lefty-righty tandems in history.

"The reason we had all those Minor League teams and players was for the competition,” Bavasi said.

“When a player came to our camp, he had to win a job. He didn't have one waiting for him. And when we had an injury or needed another player, we had plenty of them."

The hoarding of talent was just one of many scouting and player development advantages the Dodgers have exploited over the years, often in response to changes in the game's economic structure.

The search for talent led Rickey to break the color barrier, not only with Robinson but soon after with future Cy Young winner Newcombe and three-time Most Valuable Player Award winner catcher Roy Campanella.

When Walter O'Malley took over the club in 1950, he made Bavasi general manager and Fresco Thompson farm director, and by the middle of the decade, the Boys of Summer won the franchise’s first World Series -- the first of four in 11 years. By the mid-60s, Koufax and Drysdale were succeeded by future Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who carried it through the next decade until “FernandoMania” erupted.

"My theory, [which] I learned from Rickey, is that to be successful you have to have pitching and speed, especially at Dodger Stadium," said Bavasi. "With Sandy and [Maury] Wills, that's all we needed. Wills got on base and scored a run, Sandy shut them out. That was the formula."

Hough said the eventual move from hitter-friendly Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to Los Angeles’ pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium prompted management to double down on pitching and defense in constructing rosters. During the 1970s, when clubs banded together to cut costs by forming the Major League Scouting Bureau, the Dodgers retained their dedicated scouting staff and, in the words of former scouting director Logan White, who drafted Kershaw, "beat up on everybody."

Campanis, the general manager from 1968-87 and one of the game's legendary talent evaluators, expanded the organization's scouting in Latin America, particularly in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, unearthing gems like Valenzuela and Martinez.

In the 1990s, the logical progression took Los Angeles’ scouts to Asia, where they found Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Kazuhisa Ishii, Takashi Saito and Hiroki Kuroda. Today’s staff features Kenta Maeda from Japan and Hyun-Jin Ryu from South Korea.

"I believe the credit belongs to the scouting people," said Claire, whose autobiography, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," chronicles the era. “Credit goes to Ralph Avila and his staff for finding Ramon and Pedro Martinez, Pedro Astacio, Alejandro Pena and the others from the Dominican Republic. And to Terry Reynolds for signing Chan Ho. It is an organization that has always searched anywhere and everywhere for talented arms."

Evolving with the times
Most of the Dodgers’ current management and staff came from other organizations, but Honeycutt, the current pitching coach, has Blue in his blood.

Honeycutt pitched for the Dodgers in the 1980s and has worked for them for most of the past two decades. He has inherited the label of MLB pitching guru from one of his mentors, Dave Duncan, and is starting his 13th season as Los Angeles’ big league pitching coach after being the Minor League coordinator. Hough said Honeycutt teaches the same fundamentals that Koufax talked about, that Campanis wrote about and that Rickey imparted to his staff 75 years ago.

Kershaw, perhaps the best pitcher of his generation, is the first Dodgers ace to have Rapsodo and Trackman technology to measure spin rate and trajectory. He and Honeycutt, as a revered pitching coach, have in the last decade represented the bridge from old-school fundamentals to new-era analytics.

Kershaw is more old school, while acknowledging that the synthesis of data has its place in today’s game.

“No doubt the analytical side has definitely played a huge role in the way we do things around here now,” said Kershaw. “You can find certain guys through the analytics that might catch some guys that wouldn’t have had a chance 10 years ago, which is a really cool thing for some players. There are guys in this [clubhouse] that might not have been here before spin rates or whatever.”

It is rare these days when a pitcher, like Kershaw, spends his entire career with one organization. It is even rarer to have only one pitching coach during that career, but Honeycutt has held the Dodgers' job since 2006, the year Kershaw was drafted. In his playing days, Honeycutt studied under Koufax and Dave Wallace and pitching coach Ron Perranoski, who learned his lessons from Red Adams.

Honeycutt was a starting pitcher for Los Angeles, then was dealt to Oakland, where he began a new chapter as a reliever under the tutelage of the esteemed Duncan, whom Honeycutt remembers implementing a crude form of analytics by charting pitches and defensive positioning with pen and paper.

“What Dave taught me -- you’re the pitcher, do what you do well,” said Honeycutt. “[The A’s] took guys that were struggling and got them back on track, and that’s what we do here. When guys come [to the Dodgers], we go back, find when they were good and why they got away from it and try to get them back to that. It’s crazy to tell Kenley Jansen he’s got to be a four-pitch pitcher. You just don’t go that route. He had success in the big leagues without that. Do what you do and do it well. The main thing is, stay in your lane, go back to the basics.”

Honeycutt said he tries to blend the mechanics and analytics while staying true to his core philosophy on pitching. He’s a workaholic when it comes to game planning, poring over video for hours each day so nobody is caught off guard.

“When Zack Greinke was here, he tested you,” Honeycutt said. “If you gave him information, he wanted to make sure you were right. He asked me something one day during a game, and I didn’t have the answer and I’m like, ‘That’s never going to happen again.’ It’s not just one hitter, it’s every hitter. I don’t want to guess an answer, I want to know the answer.”

Attention to detail
On an early Spring Training day, Hershiser watched Honeycutt oversee a bullpen session for a young left-handed reliever.

“The bar is always raised around you in this organization,” Hershiser said. “I hear it from every pitcher that comes from somewhere else. The ideas are new and different. The priority of ideas is different. The attention to detail is different. The attention the pitcher gets is different.

“Your side work is a presentation of your skills in front of maybe 20 to 30 people when you consider the front office, the instructors, the technology people and the media. If you’ve ever been around, you know that’s not an exaggeration. You immediately know, boy, they value pitching. You’re not out on Field 4 with your old pitching coach. You are with people that have mastered this and have taught it and have done it themselves or been around people that have done it for a long time. It’s an event to throw a side session on a mound on the big league side at Dodger camp. That’s what this is about.”

While Kershaw is not the dominant force he once was, he has still figured out a way to get batters out without mid-90s heat. And as he transitions into the next phase of his career, he seems poised to pass the torch to right-hander Walker Buehler and lefty Julio Urías, both of whom could be the next great Dodgers ace. Or perhaps that person is someone else, a prospect you’ve never heard of that Honeycutt and Co. will discover and turn into a Cy Young Award winner. We’ve seen this franchise do it before.

“Everybody’s got hope here, everybody gets attention” says Hershiser. “It’s an amazing place to be.”

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.