For seven years, from 1972 to 1978, righthander Don Sutton and southpaw Tommy John were teammates on the Dodgers. For six of those years they shared spots in the LA rotation. (John missed the last two-and-a-half months of the 1974 season and the entire ’75 campaign when he suffered a severe shoulder injury). But when they were both healthy, each was a masterful pitcher. Both pitched effectively into their 40s and each of them ranks among the all-time leaders in games started and innings pitched. Both Sutton and John were control specialists and both were usually overshadowed on pitching staffs with more famous pitchers. Each of them plied their trade with several teams after leaving the Dodgers, with much success. Both hurlers pitched and won big games at various stages of their career.
Sutton is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and John is not. The righty has 324 wins to his credit, while John is 36 wins behind at 288, still an impressive figure topped by only a few dozen men in baseball history. His supporters for Cooperstown point to his longevity, his success, and the historic nature of the recreation of his left arm. As the years pass, Sutton will remain among the legends of the game, while John will probably fade into history. But which of the two pitchers was better: Sutton or John?
In the six years they were teammates, John made 174 starts and put up 116 quality starts (67 percent). The Dodgers were 110-63 in games the lefthander started, for a .623 percentage. Meanwhile, Sutton started far more games (242) and posted 163 quality starts (also 67 percent). The Dodgers played at a .603 clip in Sutton’s starts. The team scored 4.5 runs per game for John and 4.3 for Sutton, so there wasn’t much difference there. John was clearly one of the best lefties in the NL during that span, fashioning an excellent 2.97 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. But Sutton was better: in the same rate stats, Sutton came in at 2.90 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. When they were in the same uniform, Sutton was more valuable: he made more starts, pitched deeper into games, and performed better despite getting a little less run support. Sutton threw 30 shutouts, while Tommy had only 11. Sutton was still doing what starters had done for decades: pitch into the ninth inning as a workhorse. John, even before his arm injury and famous surgical procedure, was a 7-inning pitcher. WAR confirms the lopsided edge in Sutton’s favor for those seasons: 27.0 WAR to 15.1 for John.
As far as their careers, if you like ERA+, John came out ahead at 111, while Sutton was 108. But Sutton pitched 500+ innings more than Tommy did, and that counts for a lot. Sutton pitched two brilliant games in the 1974 playoffs that greatly helped the Dodgers get to the World Series, where he won another game. He was 6-4 in the postseason and pitched pretty well in most of his starts. He also pitched and won Game #163 for the Brewers in 1982 to win the division title. John pitched even better in the postseason, posting a 2.65 ERA in 13 starts and going 6-3 for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Angels. In the 1981 World Series he was on the other side of the Yankee/Dodger rivalry and he was the only pitcher to beat the Dodgers in the series. He actually pitched against Sutton’s Brewers in the 1982 ALCS, but the two former teammates didn’t start against each other.
I think it’s clear that Sutton was a great pitcher, though he was admittedly pretty plain and as a result was in the shadow of several teammates. John wasn’t flashy either, and his style was more deceptive as he pushed his way past the age of 46 in the big leagues. But given his unique story and great success in three decades, and with 288 victories, I think he deserves a Hall of Fame plaque too.