Wednesday, May 29, 2013

#335 Don Sutton

Card thoughts: A night shot! This is the first in the set, and I can’t recall any others off the top of my head. No doubt, this was because Topps had a West Coast photographer who was able to capture Sutton in an Angels uniform despite the fact that he only pitched 5 late season games for the team. This game was either against Texas or the White Sox.

The player: If you look at Sutton’s Hall of Fame career, there aren’t many seasons that stand out. In an era when the no decision was rare, Sutton racked up lots of seasons where he hit double digits in victories, but also losses. Relying more on guile than over powering batters, Sutton was able to be a consistently effective pitcher into his early 40s. Of course, there were rumors that in his later years, Sutton was scuffing the ball.

As so many of his seasons were similar, I’ll break Sutton’s career down into five year chunks:

(1966-1970): In his formative years with the Dodgers, he was the team’s fourth starter. In each of these seasons, he had more than 10 wins and losses, but only in 1970 did his winning percentage go above .500 (15-13). For this period, Sutton went 66-73 with a 3.45 ERA, below average for the era. One thing he had going for him was his stinginess giving up the long ball. Sutton only gave up 0.8 home runs per nine innings, and led the league with 0.3 in 1968 (6 home runs given up in 208 innings). This did not prevent him from leading the league in earned runs allowed in 1970.

(1971-1975): This is when Sutton became a star pitcher. He successively won 17, 19, 18, 19, and 16 games, while losing much less. Sutton’s overall record for these five years was 89-53, and his ERA was an impressive 2.63. The secret was an improvement in keeping runners off base. Sutton led the league in WHIP in 1972 and 1975, and he also led in strikeout to walk ratio the latter year. As a reward for his consistent pitching, Sutton was named to the 1972, 1973, and 1975 All Star teams. He was able to pitch in the post season for the first time as well (1974) and he didn’t disappoint. Sutton was perfect in the NLCS, giving up just 1 run in 2 winning starts. In the World Series, he had a 2.77 ERA in a losing cause.

(1976-1980): Sutton’s ERAs began to rise a bit in this period, but the Dodgers were a much better team than they were in Sutton’s early years. He was able to go 75-49, despite his ERA going up by a half a run. Sutton’s record was buoyed by his first 20 win season (1976) when he went 21-10 and had his highest showing on the Cy Young ballot. Sutton also led in ERA in 1980 (2.02). Another feature of these years is that Sutton’s strikeout rate began to drop dramatically. For a guy who used to strike out 6-7 guys in nine innings, he was down to about 5. Sutton pitched twice in the post season during this time: He was good in 1977 and really bad in 1978.

(1981-1985): The twilight of Sutton’s career. He signed a three year contract with the Astros in 1981, despite being over 35 years old. He pitched well for them (11-9 in 1981; 13-8 in 1982), but Sutton did like pitching for the team, and constantly bemoaned not playing for the Dodgers anymore. Which led the then GM Al Rosen to state “We’re not trading Sutton to anyone” in 1982. Of course, Sutton was eventually sent at the end of that season to the Brewers in exchange for Kevin Bass (one of the star Astro hitters of the 1980s), #26 Frank DiPino and Mike Madden. He went 4-1 during the stretch drive, but had a 7.84 ERA in the World Series. He hung around to play out the remainder of his four year deal with the Brewers (8-13 in 1983;  14-12 in 1984), but he was now a 6-7 inning pitcher. He was traded again in 1984 to the A’s for pretty much nothing (#106 Ray Burris was the only major leaguer), and after going 13-8, he was involved in another stretch drive trade, this time to the Angels. For the entire five-year period, Sutton went 65-53 with a 3.52 ERA.

(1986-1988): The end. One more year of glory (at age 42, he gave the Angels a steady veteran presence in their rotation), when he went 15-11 during the regular season, and had a 1.86 ERA in the ALCS. Then, a swan song with his alma mater, the Dodgers. The last of Sutton’s 324 wins came against the Phillies on May 14th. He pitched just over 5 innings, giving up 1 earned run.

Sutton holds the record for most career at bats without a home run (1354), and the man was an abysmal hitter (.144 career average). He was a great fielder however, and Sutton is in the top 50 in wins (14th); strikeouts (7th); and shutouts (10th). There was some debate on whether Sutton was a worthy hall of famer because his high numbers of losses, but he was elected with 81% of the vote his fifth year on the ballot.

In retirement, Sutton has been a color man for the Braves and the Nationals.

Rear guard: I really think Topps owed Sutton a card ending in "0." He was still an effective pitcher when this card was issued, and he had won 295 games.

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