Sunday, May 5, 2013

#330 Rick Sutcliffe

Card thoughts: Nice 80s style white-boy afro, Sutcliffe! His red hair (looks brown in this picture) earned him the nickname “The Red Baron.”

The player: The most consistent starter on the Cubs before (and at the beginning of) the Greg Maddux era, Sutcliffe was considered a malcontent with both the Dodgers and Indians, which got him moved around a bunch, despite showing great talent. It was only when he reached the Cubs, did Sutcliffe become the pitcher hinted at as a young Dodger. One of the things that always annoyed me about Sutcliffe was his deliberation on the mound, and penchant for the fake to third, throw to first move that never worked.

At 6’7”, Sutcliffe was unusually tall for the time. Appearing in a handful of games from 1976-1978, he was finally given a chance to start regularly, and went 17-10 in 1979, winning the Rookie of the Year award. But the next two years were a disaster, as he and #291 Tommy Lasorda feuded as his Era kept rising, and he was bounced from the rotation.

The Dodgers had had enough of Sutcliffe and his surly ways, and he was exiled to Cleveland for journeyman utility man Jorge Orta. The change of scenery did wonders, and Sutcliffe went 14-8 with a league leading 2.96 ERA. He also gave up the least hits per 9 innings, although he did have a propensity to issue walks that persisted throughout his career (he was in the top ten in walks five times).

Although his ERA rose almost two points, the Indians of 1983 were a solid offensive team, and he got good run support which upped his win total by three to 17. Sutcliffe also made his first all star team (although he did not pitch).

 But his inconsistency plagued him again, and he started 1984 by going 4-5 with an ERA above 5 in his first 15 starts. The Cubs were seriously contending for the first time since the early 70s, but they didn’t have a big game pitcher in their rotation. By giving up much of their future (Pat Tabler, Mel Hall, and especially Joe Carter would be core hitters for the Indians for years to come), they landed Sutcliffe. And what a deal it was. He only had one of the most remarkable starting runs ever, going 16-1 in 20 starts, and winning another game in the NLCS, hitting a home run in Game 1 as well. Sutcliffe easily won the Cy Young Award, getting 100% of the first place votes on the ballot.

By the time this card was issued, Sutcliffe, along with the rest of the Cubs starters, were coming off a year marred by injuries. He only started 20 games and won 8 while battling a pulled hamstring. Healthy the following season, he suffered through his worst campaign, going 4-15 for a terrible Cubs squad.

But in 1987, he righted the ship again, leading the league in wins (18), earning him his second all star appearances (and winning the Comeback Player of the Year award). This time he got into the game, and pitched a scoreless third and fourth inning in relief of #268 Mike Scott. A mediocre 1988 season was followed in 1989 by a 16-11 record, as Sutcliffe once again had a chance to pitch in the post-season. He had a no-decision in his only NLCS start, giving up three runs in six innings.

The injury bug pretty much destroyed his 1990 season. Sutcliffe had shoulder surgery in May, and probably should have sat out the year. In his five starts in August and September, he got progressively worth, going from effective to terrible by his final start, when he only got two outs while giving up four runs.

The shoulder still hadn’t fully healed the next year, and by the end of May, Sutcliffe had been bounced from the rotation, as he had trouble going more than five innings.  With the Cubs going nowhere, Sutcliffe sat out June and July, trying to rest his shoulder. He was so discouraged by his poor minor league rehab starts, he considered quitting. But he finished a lot stronger than he started, and his ERA dropped in each of his 10 comeback starts to rest at a semi-respectable 4.10.

The Cubs, believing they could no longer rely on Sutcliffe’s health, allowed him to leave as a free agent. Signing with the Orioles, Sutcliffe amazingly led the league with 36 starts, and had a respectable 16-15 record, despite a high ERA. For this surprising return to durability, he won his second Comeback Player of the Year award. The return to form was short lived and high ERAs (5.75 in 1992, and 6.52 in 1993) eventually led to his retirement.

Sutcliffe has had a long career as a TV color man, starting with the Padres and now with ESPN. In an infamous incident, Sutcliffe was getting drunk with actor Bill Murray at a Padres game when he was invited into the broadcasting booth. He proceeded to sound remarkably like Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression, as he rambled on about George Clooney, African relief missions, and gushing admiration of his successor, Mudcat Grant. 

Rear guard: For his first shutout, Sutcliffe bested Bill Bonham of the Reds 2-0. He struck out one and walked four.

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