Remembering Don Sutton

Don Sutton, the Hall of Fame pitcher, has died at the age of 75 after a long fight against cancer. Sutton was a mainstay of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff, but nearly began his career with Charlie Finley’s Oakland As. Imagine an As staff with Sutton plus Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, and Rollie Fingers.

How did Oakland miss out on Sutton? The story, from Whitey Herzog who tried to sign Sutton for Finley, is that the pitcher wanted a signing bonus of $16,000. But Finley had just paid several bonuses to pitchers and balked at springing for another one.

Hoping to salvage the deal, Herzog told Sutton that Finley loved colorful nicknames. If Sutton had one, it might help revive the deal. The young pitcher reportedly replied, “Tell him my name is Pussyface Sutton if you want, just get me the money.”

Fortunately for the Dodgers, it didn’t happen. The Pussyface nickname is still available.

Sutton was a highly-regarded pitcher during his time with the Dodgers (1966-1980) and thereafter with several other teams. However, he was considered a tier below the top pitchers of the time — Hunter, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, and Steve Carlton.

That’s mainly because his wins and ERA, the dominant stats of the time, didn’t match those of the four pitchers mentioned above. Sutton never led the league in wins and led it only once in ERA. He made only four all-star teams. He never won a Cy Young award.

In the end, however, Sutton had more career wins than three of the “big four” pitchers from his era. Only Carlton edged him out — 329 to 325.

This suggests that Sutton’s major claim to fame is his durability and longevity. He certainly was durable. It is said that Sutton never missed a turn in the rotation in 756 big league starts. And those 756 starts are more than any pitcher in MLB history, except for Cy Young and Nolan Ryan.

But a close look at Sutton’s stats suggest that he was an elite pitcher, not just a very good one for a long time. Four times, he had the lowest WHIP in the National League. WHIP stands for walks and hits per inning pitched. In Sutton’s time, the statistic wasn’t kept (or if it was, it wasn’t prominent). But now, it is rightly regarded as important — the pitcher’s equivalent of on-base percentage.

Tom Seaver led the league in WHIP three times. Catfish Hunter twice. Jim Palmer once. Steve Carlton never. (Looking to the next era, Greg Maddux led the league in WHIP four times. Roger Clemens led it three times.)

Sutton’s post-season record was mixed. He was brilliant in league championship series (he pitched in five of them), but often ineffective in the World Series (he pitched in four). He did have a few outstanding Series starts, though.

One of Sutton’s most important starts occurred not in the post-season, but on the final day of the 1982 regular campaign. Sutton was with Milwaukee then. The Brewers had acquired him late in the season to help them down the stretch in their pennant drive.

On the final weekend of the season, they had a four game series with the Baltimore Orioles. The Brewers needed to win only one of the games to become AL East champions.

They lost the first three. Thus, they had to win the final game or else the Orioles would claim the division title.

That game featured Sutton vs. Palmer. Palmer lasted only five innings. Sutton lasted eight. Though often pitching with runners on base, he allowed only two runs. He departed after the Brewers scored five runs in the top of the ninth to clinch a 10-2 victory.

Sutton summed up his performance this way:

I’m not going to overpower anybody. I’m probably not going to be that over-impressive. But if I can keep’em off stride, then that’s the key for me.

His self-assessment was too modest. To keep batters off stride, Sutton had five major league caliber pitches — fastball, curve, slider, screwball, and changeup. His curveball was one of the best in the game, as befits a pitcher who grew up admiring Camilo Pascual for his curve. Sutton could throw it for a strike and would do so at any point in the count.

Opposing hitters accused him of sandpapering and otherwise doctoring the ball. If he did, he was never caught.

On the personal side, Sutton reportedly was an introvert, and not easy to get close to. He revered his first manager, Walter Alston, the strong silent type, but clashed with Tommy Lasorda. True to his humble Alabama roots, he thought Lasorda was too glitzy — too Hollywood.

Of Lasorda, who died earlier this month, Sutton would later say, “One regret I have is that Tommy and I never took a day, just the two of us, and sat down and explained our personalities to each other.”

Sutton could be honest to a fault. He told the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell that, while the baseball world loves Steve Garvey, “the All-American boy,” Reggie Smith was the Dodgers best player. According to Sutton, Smith didn’t get the attention he deserves because he doesn’t “smile all the time.”

Garvey confronted Sutton over his comments and the two fought.

When Sutton was granted free agency, he left the Dodgers for Houston. His first season there, he and Nolan Ryan led the Astros to the NL West playoffs (held that year because of the prolonged strike) against the Dodgers. But Sutton was unable to participate in that Series, which the Dodgers won. LA pitcher Jerry Reuss left the ex-Dodger incapacitated when he hit him on the knee with a pitch at the end of the regular season.

Sutton eventually returned to Los Angeles, but with the Angels, not the Dodgers. He helped pitch the Angels to the AL West championship in 1986. In his one playoff start that year, he faced Roger Clemens. Sutton, age 41, allowed one run on four hits in six and one-third innings. The Angels won it in the eleventh inning.

After “keeping em off stride” for 23 seasons, Sutton retired at the end of 1988. Ten years later, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Sutton became a baseball broadcaster. He worked mostly for the Atlanta Braves, but did a short stint providing color commentary on television for the Washington Nationals.

Sutton’s commentary wasn’t colorful (he hated the term color commentary). It was knowledgeable, understated, and honest, which is the way I like it. The fierce personality that drove him to greatness as a pitcher and to clashes with teammates and management (not just in LA) remained well below the surface in the broadcast both.

The sardonic wit he displayed when he said Charlie Finley could call him Pussyface did too, with rare exceptions.

As one Washington baseball reporter put it, Sutton “believed it was his duty to spread his knowledge to everyone he encountered, to make sure the next generation of ballplayers and broadcasters were as smart about the game as he was.”