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June 20, 2014

The View from the Loge Level

Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers Pitching Tradition

by Daron Sutton

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Sandy’s the only pitcher I’ve ever worked behind where I felt after the first batter that I’d have the thought that he might pitch a no-hitter. And I would have that many, many times because he would wind up and throw this explosive fastball and then this great curveball, and you would think ‘my gosh, he’s unhittable’….To give you an idea what it was like, we’d be on the road and he would come out of the dugout and walk to wherever the bullpen was and he would get an ovation from the crowd. It was like the maestro ascending the podium before he was conducting the symphony orchestra. That’s the way it was with him. There was something very magical. Also Sandy was different than the regular players, in a sense he shunned the limelight. You would find Sandy going with Dick Tracewski, who was an infielder, a backup infielder, or Doug Camilli, the third-string catcher, and they’d go off quietly and have dinner somewhere. Don Drysdale, for instance, was just the opposite, the pied piper. Wherever Don went, there’d be 12 other players with him. Sandy was all of that and then he had that superb ability.

Those were the words of Vin Scully when I once asked him to describe Sandy Koufax. As someone who had never seen the near mythical left-hander pitch live and in person, it was my good fortune to be able to ask the man who’s best suited to paint a picture of Koufax in the mind’s eye. Since we started in that vein, we probably should, you know, just for kicks, take a look:

Clayton Kershaw (Career)
1244.1 IP, 194 G, 192 GS, 13 CG, 2.9 BB/9, 9.3 K/9, 2.60 ERA,.211/.278/.312 opponent line

Koufax (6/24/55-6/16/63)
1247.2 IP, 259 G, 179 GS, 57 CG, 4.2 BB/9, 9.2 K/9, 3.52 ERA, .216/.304/.349 opponent line

Fun to look at, but we all understand that Koufax started his career in a very different manner than anyone would in the 2000s. A reminder of how he finished:

Koufax (6/17/63-10/2/66)
1076.2 IP, 138 G, 135 GS, 80 CG (40 SHO), 2.0 BB/9, 9.3 K/9, .193/.239/.285 opponent line

An understandable digression maybe, but the main thought is that pitchers and great pitching performances feel like they sparkle a little brighter under the lights of Dodger Stadium. Why is that? Is that actually the case? It certainly can’t be measured. Was it the case Wednesday night because it was one of the game’s biggest stars? Or because Scully was behind the mic…again? Was it because of the names of the Dodgers pitchers who have come before, like Koufax, Drysdale, Pfeffer and Mungo? Wait…who? The last two names remind us that it might be just as much about the numbers as it is the stars, the golden voice, and Hollywood.

On Wednesday night, Kershaw made the 20,032nd regular-season start in the history of the Dodgers, and when he was done with his historic outing, his franchise had an all-time ERA of 3.53, the lowest among active franchises. The Giants have compiled a 3.56, the Braves and Yankees a 3.64, the Cardinals a 3.67, and the Cubs a 3.68. Again, that Dodgers’ 3.53 doesn’t happen without Jeff Pfeffer, a right-hander who from 1913-21 posted a 2.31 for Brooklyn, or Van Lingle Mungo, who logged a 3.41 starting about a decade later, from 1931-41. (Mungo would have been a dream in today’s social media world, as he found himself in some “unique” situations off the field and was also the focal point of this 1969 song by Dave Frishberg.)

Part of it is the team’s current ballpark, which does its part to suppress scoring. In the 4,509 regular-season games played at Dodger Stadium, which include Angels home games from 1962-65, all pitchers have combined to post a 3.36 ERA. This is lower than that of any other MLB stadium currently open for business. San Diego’s Petco Park is not far off at 3.42, but in more than 2,600 fewer games. For the sake of perspective, Ebbets Field’s 3,370 regular-season games saw a 3.82, and the LA Coliseum showed that the ocean/evening air was no match for a short porch, as its 309 games played to a 4.14 ERA from 1958-61.

My father, Don Sutton, won 233 games in parts of 16 seasons as a Dodger, making him the winningest pitcher in franchise history. Did his career or win total shine a little brighter based upon the setting for the majority of his career? Again, like Kershaw’s night Wednesday, there is no real answer…only opinion. But in Sutton’s opinion, he likes the choice he made a half century ago.

“50 years ago in 1964, when I was looking to sign, Monty Basgall (scout) took me to dinner and he said, ‘I think you can pitch in the big leagues, and if you can pitch in the big leagues, you want to pitch for a team that looks out for and loves pitching.’ That was true 50 years ago and I have found it to be true ever since. I personally would hate to think in what direction my career might have gone had I not been part of the Dodgers system that builds, values, and looks out for pitchers. That it appears to still be in place 50 years later does not surprise me,” said Sutton.

True, it may still be in place, but it is a different landscape than when my father signed in 1964. Since the Dodgers won their last World Series title in 1988, they’ve won six NL team ERA titles, but the Braves have garnered the same total. The Giants and Nats/Expos (including this year) have each led the league three times. So maybe Kershaw took us those of us who are a few years older back a couple of decades. Maybe that’s one of his underlying strong points, that he sounds like the guy Vin Scully spoke about at the top…gifted, with a once-in-a-generation skill set, yet understated in so many ways.

Is a striking piece of jewelry more unforgettable when purchased at Cartier? Or is it spectacular in any setting? Is a performance like Kershaw’s more dramatic in Chavez Ravine? Or would it have been as bright and shiny in any ballpark?

Daron Sutton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daron's other articles. You can contact Daron by clicking here

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