Don Sutton, RIP
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Don Sutton pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers when I was a kid, from 1966-1980, from Koufax to Valenzuela, then went on and on through 1988, winning a huge total of 324 games and making the Hall of Fame despite never being considered the best pitcher in the National League at any one point. He couldn’t quite throw the ball 90 mph, but he was amazingly consistent and healthy.

Sutton was the starting pitcher in 756 baseball games, third all time after Cy Young and Nolan Ryan. Sutton and Ryan wound up each winning 324 games, but Sutton was kind of the anti-Ryan: each game for Ryan was a heroic struggle of his 101 mph fastball vs. his wildness, and you often wondered why such a supremely gifted pitcher didn’t have a better win-loss record than Ryan’s. In contrast, Sutton’s fastball was about 88-89 mph and it came as a big surprise to many people when he stayed highly effective into his 40s and then they realized there was no way they could keep a guy who won 73 more games than Bob Gibson out of the Hall of Fame.

Ryan was an extremely durable pitcher, but he was put on the disabled list 13 times in his 26 year career. Sutton never went on the disabled list in his 23 seasons.

Sutton is said by several sources to have made 756 straight starts over 23 seasons, which would be (if true) a Cal Ripken-like number for a pitcher. Ripken broke famous Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record by playing in 2632 straight games from 1982 to 1998. But I’ve never heard of an equivalent mark for a pitcher. One reason is because it’s a little harder to define what is a missed start for a pitcher than a missed game for a player. Obviously, if the pitcher is on the disabled list, or if the manager says he’s going to skip the start because his shoulder is sore, that would be a miss. But what if the manager says he’s going to start the lefty up from Triple A against this team of lefty power hitters to see how he does? So, there’s no official consecutive starts record for

I don’t think it’s quite true that Sutton made 756 straight starts: he missed some starts with a sore arm late in 1966 and some more at the end of his career in 1988. And he got sent to the bullpen for a month or so in 1968. But it could be that from the late 1968 into mid-1988 he never missed a turn when he was called upon, which would be somewhere around 680 starts in a row.

Sutton was a conservative Alabaman. He got along great with his first Dodger manager, quiet-spoken Walt Alston, but didn’t get along his second, the exuberant, publicity-conscious Tommy Lasorda, who died recently at 93.

In retirement, he went back South and got his dream job announcing Atlanta Braves games on TV.

The Dodgers had a ridiculous number of quality starters back then. For example, in 1977, their five starters won, across their careers, 995 games or an average of 199 each: Sutton and Tommy John won 612 between them, Burt Hooton and Rick Rhoden 302, and Doug Rau 81.

Then in mid-1978 they added rookie Bob Welch (211 career wins), so their six starters that year won 1206 games. Is that a record?

Probably not. The best starting staffs of all time were likely the late 1990s Atlanta Braves staff anchored by the three Hall of Famers of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who won 873 games among them. Their five 1998 starters with Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood won 1166 games among them.

The deep 1970s Dodgers’ starting staffs were in contrast to the Dodgers’ famous 1960s pitching duo of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, whom they burned out young by having them pitch over 300 innings per year. The Dodgers switched from the old four man rotation to the modern five man rotation in 1972, which probably preserved the pitching staff’s arms.

Also, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher’s park, which I’m guessing helps pitchers’ arms because they can throw it over the middle of the plate and let the batter hit it to the warning track rather than to throw a lot of pitches around the corners in fear of giving up a home run.

Remarkably, the 1990s Braves starters won a colossal number of games while pitching in a home run park during a home run era.

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