Does staying healthy for more than two decades and being above average to very good make you a Hall of Famer?
It worked for the remarkably dependable Don Sutton, who won 324 games but only won more than 17 in a season four times. He was rarely the ace on his team, but he took the ball every fourth or fifth day and he pitched and won some big games for his teams.
Sutton qualified for the ERA title for 22 consecutive seasons from his rookie year of 1966 through 1987. He led the league in only three categories in his long career: shutouts in 1972, games started in 1974, and ERA in 1980. He was a hard thrower with excellent control, and his 3,574 strikeouts ranked 7th as of 2016.
How good was Sutton? Was he ever considered to be a “great” pitcher? Well, no. The numbers show that. For example, only four times in his 23-year career did Sutton rank in the top ten in his league in WAR for pitchers:
If you aren’t a fan of Wins Above Replacement, then maybe you like the eight times Sutton was in the top ten in ERA. That’s not bad, but not “great.”
And aside from the numbers, it was clear during Sutton’s career that he was not in “that level” of starting pitchers that included: Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver and a few others in the 1960s; and Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Phil Niekro in the 1970s; and Nolan Ryan, Ron Guidry, and Jack Morris in the 1980s. Sutton was in “the next group” of starters who was good to very good, and sometimes a little above average. But he was there, and he pitched a lot of quality innings and made solid starts that gave his teams a chance to win. Sixteen times he put up at least 20 quality starts in a season and he had a quality start percentage of 64% in his career, meaning that basically two out of every three starts made by Don Sutton was a quality start.
Is Don Sutton the only Hall of Fame starting pitcher who was never the #1 starter on his team?
How many Hall of Famer pitchers were never “the man” in their team’s starting rotation? Here’s a timeline of aces on teams Don Sutton pitched for:
Los Angeles Dodgers
1966: Sandy Koufax
1967-68: Don Drysdale
1969-73: Claude Osteen
1974-75: Andy Messersmith
1977-78: Tommy John (you could argue for Sutton for these two years)
1981: Fernando Valenzuela
1981-82: Nolan Ryan
1982: Pete Vuckovich
1985-87: Mike Witt
Los Angeles Dodgers (second stint)
1988: Orel Hershiser
By our calculations, Sutton was the ace of his staff anywhere from six (at the minimum) to eight (at the max) years. Three of these years came late in his career when he found himself on teams with weaker rotations. It bears pointing out that this may be unfair, because Sutton spent his first 15 seasons with the pitching-rich Dodgers.
When Charlie Finley was too cheap to sign prospect Don Sutton
Don Sutton would have signed with the Kansas City Athletics and could have been in the same rotation as Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue later when that team won titles in Oakland, but owner Charlie Finley was too cheap.
When Sutton was one of the most coveted teen pitching prospects in the country in 1964, he was prepared to sign with Kansas City, his first choice. He figured he’d be able to reach the major leagues quicker with the A’s. But when scout Whitey Herzog called Finley to get approval to sign Sutton he was told by Charlie that the team had spent all the money they had set aside for young players. Subsequently, Sutton signed with the Dodgers and struck out 209 batters two years later as a Dodger rookie.
What would it have cost Finley and the A’s to sign Sutton? A car, a college scholarship, and ,000.
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Don Sutton’s most frequent battery mates were: