The Baseball Hall of Fame took another tough loss Monday night when one of the underappreciated pitching aces of the 1960s and 1970s, Don Sutton, died Monday night.
His son, Daron Sutton, announced his father’s death on social media. Sutton was 75 and had been fighting kidney cancer for more than a decade, according to the New York Daily News.
Sutton’s career wasn’t so much about gaudy numbers and overwhelming dominance as it was consistent excellence for two decades.
It was that consistency that made his career so remarkable, but at the same time delayed his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame until his fifth appearance on the ballot despite career totals of 324 wins and 3,574 strikeouts — one of only 10 pitchers to achieve that rare double.
At the time his career ended in 1988, Sutton was second in major-league history with 756 games started, trailing only Cy Young’s 815, according to Stathead.com. He fell to third on that list behind Nolan Ryan, who retired in 1993 with 773 starts.
Sutton was a pitcher who just kept showing up and taking the ball every fourth or fifth day. From his rookie season in 1966 through the 1985 season, Sutton pitched at least 200 innings in every season but one — the strike-shortened 1981 campaign when he logged 158.2 innings during the Houston Astros’ 110-game schedule.
The criticism of Sutton’s Hall of Fame candidacy stemmed from a perception he was more of an accumulator than anything else. He only posted one 20-win season, when he picked up 21 victories for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1976, but there were other measures that showed Sutton’s excellence.
He led the National League with a 2.20 ERA in 1980, with a miniscule 0.3 home runs surrendered per nine innings in 1968 with nine shutouts and 6.1 hits allowed per nine innings in 1972.
Twice he led the NL in strikeouts per walk, turning the trick in 1975 and again in 1981 and he topped the NL in WHIP four times, with a career-best 0.913 in 1972.
Sutton also finished in the top-five of the National League Cy Young Award voting five straight seasons, 1972-76, but never finished higher than his third-place finish in 1976.
Journey to Baseball Hall of Fame began in 1965
His professional career was launched in September 1964 when he signed as an amateur free agent with the Dodgers. His professional debut was in 1965 and he was 23-7 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.024 WHIP in 249 innings across two levels, Class-A Santa Barbara and Double-A Albuquerque.
He would pitch just five more games in the minor leagues for the rest of his career, two starts early in the 1968 season and three starts for Class-A Bakersfield after returning to the Dodger organization in 1988.
He spent his first 15 big-league seasons with Los Angeles, from 1966-80, and was consistent as a metronome during that period. He was 230-175 in 534 games, 517 of them starts, posting a 3.07 ERA and 1.117 WHIP in 3,729 innings, striking out 2,652 and walking 966. Sutton hurled 52 shutouts and completed 156 games.
Sutton also pitched in three World Series with the Dodgers, but left the organization before Los Angeles won it all in 1981.
The final steps to the Baseball Hall of Fame
Don Sutton became a free agent after the 1980 season and signed with the Houston Astros, helping them to the playoffs in the 1981 strike season. Just before the cutoff for playoff eligibility in August 1982, Sutton was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for three prospects, including Kevin Bass and Frank DiPino.
That got Sutton to his fourth and final World Series appearance, but the Brewers fell in seven games. After the 1984 season, Sutton was traded to the Oakland A’s and in September 1985 he was dealt to the California Angels. He re-signed with the Angels as a free agent in December 1985 and pitched three more seasons with them.
Released after the 1987 season, Sutton signed for a return to the Dodgers in January 1988. He made 16 more starts for the Dodgers that season before he was released on Aug. 10, a couple of months before Los Angeles made another World Series run.
After 23 years in the major leagues, Sutton turned to broadcasting in 1989, launching a second career, broadcasting for the Atlanta Braves from 1989-2006 and with the Washington Nationals in 2007-08 before returning to the Braves on the radio side in 2009.
In his long career, Sutton won 44 of his 324 games after the age of 40, picking up win No. 300 on June 18, 1986, while with the Angels, beating the Texas Rangers in a 5-1 complete-game performance.
Earlier, Sutton had become the eighth member of the 3,000-strikeout club, fanning eight Cleveland Indians on June 24, 1983, in a complete-game victory to break the barrier.
Don Sutton may never have been a superstar, but he embodied work ethic and he just kept taking the ball start after start. When you’re good enough to do that for 23 years, you’re pretty darn good.