Clayton Kershaw and the Top 20 Pitchers in Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers History

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IINovember 3, 2011

Clayton Kershaw and the Top 20 Pitchers in Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers History

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    Across 128 years, six world championships and two coasts, the march of Dodger history has yielded plenty of stellar hurlers—a few more than even the years would suggest.

    So how hard was it to condense that scroll of pitching greats into a mere 20?

    Hard.

    And leaving out Don Stanhouse’s mustache?

    Well, that was even harder.

    Yet through hardship something resembling a list emerged. For your entertainment and debate, that list follows.

20. Hideo Nomo

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    Dodger Career: 1995-98, 2002-04

    Signature Stat: 11.1 SO/9 during rookie year

    Like another foreign-born pitcher with a famously contorted delivery, Hideo Nomo started his Dodger career with a bang.

    He arrived in 1995 as a 26-year-old curiosity, the first Japanese-born player to appear in the majors in thirty years. By year’s end Nomo was a full-blown phenomenon, the league’s unlikely leader in strikeouts and a new idol to MLB’s growing Japanese fanbase.

    Nomo’s career 3.74 ERA as a Dodger, while solid, doesn’t do his time in L.A. justice. Nomo changed perceptions about Japanese ballplayers and opened up a pipeline for those looking to jump from Asia to the states.

    The Dodgers have a proud history of risk taking, and Nomo is an important part of that legacy.

19. Tommy John

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    Dodger Career: 1972-74, 1976-78

    Signature Stat: 2.97 ERA

    The memory of Tommy John must comfort Dodger fans. His name recalls a time when L.A. was at the forefront of baseball wisdom, when the franchise didn’t wear a perpetual frown.

    When John opted for an experimental arm surgery to save his career in 1974, the Dodgers dared to be different in all the right ways. He rewarded their boldness, with three stellar post-surgery seasons to go along with the three elite years he’d posted before the arm troubles struck.

    For his Dodger career John won more than 15 games three times and never had an ERA above 3.30.

18. Kevin Brown

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    Dodger Career: 1999-2003

    Signature Stat: 148 ERA+

    Kevin (expletive) Brown. Did I really just put Kevin (expletive) Brown on a list of the greatest Dodger pitchers ever?

    I did. Clearly, it wasn’t a sentimental choice.

    Though it’s tempting to dismiss Brown because of his oversized contract and general surliness, his statistics merit mention. Even with injury, Brown had three-and-a-half superlative seasons in L.A.

    Through the heart of the steroids era Brown enjoyed three campaigns with an ERA under 2.70 and twice topped 200 strikeouts. In 2000, Brown topped the NL in ERA, WHIP and SO:BB ratio.

    That Brown later came under suspicion as a steroid user taints those numbers, but even so they’re remarkable feats.

17. Eric Gagne

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    Dodger Career: 1999-2006

    Signature Stat: 84 consecutive saves

    Eric Gagne’s true place on this list eludes me.

    First off, he’s a reliever. And much as we want to lionize great end-of-game pitchers they are indisputably less valuable than even above-average starters. If we measure strictly by WAR Gagne, ranks 49th in franchise history, behind such luminaries as Ismael Valdez, Doug Rau and Derek Lowe.

    Then there’s the fact that Gagne had two undeniably average seasons with the Dodgers when he first joined the team as a starter. Those seasons comprise 33% of his L.A. career, and an even greater share of his innings.

    Of course there’s also Gagne’s run from 2002-04, arguably the greatest back-to-back-to-back seasons by any relief pitcher ever. Gagne threw exactly 82.1 innings each season, converting 152 of his 158 save chances and posting SO/9 rates of 12.5, 15.0 and 12.5.

    Dominance like that demands recognition. But....that dominance now twists in the breeze of the steroid allegations levied against him in the Mitchell Report.

    It's easy to go back and forth with Gagne.

    From any of several angles, it’s hard to capture and quantify his place in Dodgers history.

16. Clayton Kershaw

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    Dodger Career: 2008-Present

    Signature Stat: 2.68 SO:BB ratio

    As the only active pitcher on this list, Clayton Kershaw should rank a few rungs higher five years down the road.

    Right now though, is there any pitcher in baseball you’d rather have for the next decade?

    He’s a proven 23-year-old strikeout savant with a rapidly declining walk rate and a 20-win season on his resume. Oh, and did I mention he’s left-handed?

    He’s a rare gem Dodger fans, appreciate him while you can.

    Some will reject the notion that I’ve slotted someone of Kershaw’s talent below a few of the names still to come on this list. This is a retrospective, however, and the four-year pro doesn’t have enough glory in his rearview to warrant a top-15 mention.

    That ought to change soon, with Kershaw a legitimate threat to someday crack the vaunted top five of all-time Dodger pitching greats.

15. Jeff Pfeffer

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    Dodger Career: 1913-21

    Signature Stat: 2.31 ERA

    What do you mean you don’t remember Jeff Pfeffer? Next you’ll tell me you don’t recall the Brooklyn Robins.

    Wait, them too?

    Well if your memory doesn’t extend beyond the Great Depression, let me introduce you to franchise career ERA leader Jeff Pfeffer.

    Pfeffer topped 20 wins twice as a member of the Robins, logged more than 250 innings in five seasons and led the team to two National League Pennants.

    In 1932 the Robins became the Dodgers, and most of us promptly forgot the Robins ever existed. Well they did, and Jeff Pfeffer pitched for them.

    He was damn good, too.

14. Preacher Roe

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    Dodger Career: 1948-54

    Signature Stat: 22-3 in 1951

    Great name? Check.
    Great pitch? Check.
    Great pitcher? Check.

    Preacher Roe never had much of a fastball. By the time he arrived in Brooklyn at age 32, what little power remained in his left arm fell well short of what was needed to beat big league hitters.

    So Roe developed a spitball, relying on that bandit pitch of baseball lore to survive.

    More than survive, Roe thrived during the twilight of his career. He made four consecutive All-Star games from 1949 to 1952 and helped lead the Dodgers to consecutive World Series appearances.

    In the last days before relocation there were few more deceptive or effective than Ole’ Preach.

13. Ramon Martinez

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    Dodger Career: 1988-98

    Signature Stat: .615 winning percentage

    Damned by great genes and poor timing, Ramon Martinez was a lot better than you probably remember.

    Martinez broke out during the 1990 season, earning his only All-Star selection and striking out 18 batters in a June 4th game against the Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately for Martinez, his rise coincided with a Dodgers lull that saw the team go six years between playoff appearances.

    By the time L.A. got back to the postseason, little brother Pedro was the talk of the Martinez clan and much of the baseball world. Ramon’s accomplishments would live forever in that long familial shadow.

    All of that made it easy to miss Ramon Martinez’s considerable accomplishments in L.A.  He had an ERA under 4.00 in nine of his ten full seasons with the Dodgers  and made 20 or more starts in eight consecutive years.

    Though transcendence eluded him, Ramon proved one of the more reliable starters in franchise history.

12. Burt Hooton

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    Dodger Career: 1975-84

    Signature Stat: Four wins in five appearances during 1981 playoffs

    From 1975 to 1981, Burt “Happy” Hooton staked a claim as one of baseball’s best starters as well as its least colorful personality. The famously boring Hooton had three consecutive seasons with an ERA under 3.00 and finished second to Gaylord Perry in 1978’s Cy Young voting.

    Known for his killer knuckle curve, Hooton’s career cresendoed in the 1981 playoffs. During the Dodgers run to the crown he allowed just three earned runs in 33 innings, earning NLCS MVP honors and a rightful place in franchise lore.

    Vin Scully remarked after the Dodgers won the World Series that Hooton would probably “paint the town beige.” And I imagine he'd watch the paint dry, too.

11. Johnny Podres

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    Dodger Career: 1953-66

    Signature Stat: Game 7, 1955 World Series, 9 innings, no runs

    On October 4, 1955, the hopes of a long-stifled borough rested on the left arm of Johnny Podres. Staring down the hated Yankees in Game 7 of the ‘55 series, the 23-year-old turned in one of the greatest pitching performances in Dodger history.

    For nine innings Podres danced around Yankee bats, allowing eight hits but never surrendering a run. The last out, courtesy of an Elston Howard ground ball, would seal the franchise’s first world championship and set off the wildest celebration Brooklyn had ever seen.

    Podres’ heroics jump-started the greatest run in Dodgers history, an eleven-year span in which they would win four titles. Podres was on every one of those teams, a testament to both his effectiveness and durability.

    Cool fact that may only be cool to me: Podres played his last professional season for the Padres (in their first season).

10. Claude Osteen

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    Dodger Career: 1965-73

    Signature Stat: 2,397 innings pitched

    On most teams Claude Osteen would have been the undisputed ace. With a 2.79 ERA over 287 workmanlike innings, Osteen certainly played the part.

    The 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers were no ordinary team, and, behind the heroics of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Osteen often played third fiddle.

    Until the World Series that is, when the Dodgers’ pitching depth helped turn the tide. Following losses by Koufax and Drysdale, Osteen twirled a five-hit shutout in Game 3 to give L.A. new life.

    From there Drysdale and Koufax would regain their footing, winning the final three games between them to lift the Dodgers to a seven-game victory.

    1965 was Osteen’s first year in L.A., and the auspicious debut presaged an illustrious career. Osteen threw over 200 innings in every single one of his nine Dodger seasons, and that reliability became his trademark.

    Though the man they called “Gomer” lacked flair, he more than made up for it with a steady hand and a willingness to work.

9. Bob Welch

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    Dodger Career: 1978-87

    Signature Stat: 30 WAR

    For the first ten years of his career, Welch was a mainstay in the Dodger rotation. He had four seasons with an ERA+ of 125 or above and posted double-digit wins six times.

    Welch’s dominance came to the fore when he won 27 games for Oakland in 1990, but that shouldn’t overshadow his time in sunny SoCal.

    Welch’s 30 WAR as a Dodger serves as testament to his long and distinguished career in the blue and white.

8. Don Newcombe

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    Dodger Career: 1949-51, 1954-58

    Signature Stat: 22 shutouts

    Though his career was brief, shortened by military service and alcoholism, Don Newcombe made his seven seasons in Brooklyn count.

    The Jackie Robinson of the pitching rubber, Newcombe proved the worth of black hurlers at a time when most teams wouldn’t entertain the possibility. Newcombe twice led the league in WHIP, won 20 games on three occasions and in 1949 joined Robinson, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella as the first ever African-Americans selected to the All-Star game.

    He was an integral part of the 1955 team that brought home the franchise’s first world championship, and he remains active in team affairs as a special adviser.

7. Fernando Valenzuela

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    Dodger Career: 1980-1990

    Signature Stat: 1759 strikeouts (fifth in Dodger history)

    There were few better years to be a Dodgers fan than 1981, and Fernando Valenzuela was the reason why.

    The 20-year-old stormed to an 8-0 start that year, ultimately becoming the first rookie to win the Cy Young award and leading the franchise to its first championship since 1965.

    But the pudgy, bespectacled hurler was more than the one-year wonder baseball history seems to cast him as. Though he would never again match the high of 1981’s “Fernandomania” during any of his successive seasons, Valenzuela had a 3.31 ERA  in Dodger blue, made six All-Star appearances and struck out more than 1700 hitters.

    His 34.7 career WAR ranks seventh all time among Dodger pitchers, and jibes nicely with his placement on this list.

6. Nap Rucker

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    Dodger Career: 1907-16

    Signature Stat: Six straight years with an ERA under 3.00

    On the spectrum of Dodger pitching, Nap Rucker started his career as Sandy Koufax and ended it as Tom Candiotti. Despite making and odd mid-career metamorphosis from fireballer to knuckleballer, he remained one of the league’s best arms.

    Before you bristle at seeing an oldtimer above more familiar names, consider the facts: Rucker played his entire career for the Dodgers, finished with a 2.42 ERA and won 134 games. Those numbers place Rucker right up alongside the Dodger greats.

5. Orel Hershiser

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    Dodger Career: 1983-94, 2000

    Signature Stat: 59 consecutive scoreless innings

    It’s fitting that Orel Hershiser is the highest ranked player on this list not enshrined in Cooperstown.

    Hershiser’s long belonged to that great-but-not-immortal class of baseball players. His highs were dazzling—1988 in particular—but he drifted back to the pack after age 30 and posted too many mediocre years on the back end of his career for his own good.

    None of this should detract from his Dodger bonafides. Each year from 1987 to 1989 Hershiser led the NL in innings pitched, summoning every bit of his “bulldog” mentality  on behalf of the L.A. faithful.

    Hershiser’s ability to rehabilitate and reinvent himself after rotator cuff surgery in 1990 only further proved his mettle. Even if he wasn’t the greatest Dodger pitcher ever, he was certainly one of the toughest.

    Hershiser gave all of himself to his craft, and the results show it. He had five years with an ERA+ over 130 and finished among the top four in Cy Young voting on four occasions.

4. Don Sutton

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    Dodger Career: 1966-80

    Signature Stat:  233 wins

    That the franchise leader in wins lands fourth on this list tells you something about the depth of Dodger pitching greatness.

    Don Sutton hit L.A. in 1966, at the ripe age of 21. He starred in Chavez Ravine for 15 seasons, posting double-digit wins in every single campaign.

    Over that decade-and-a-half Sutton had some great years (1976), some so-so years (1970) and some eye-popping years (1972). In that ebb and flow, his durability stands out as a constant. Sutton threw more than 200 innings every year he played in L.A. and hurled an astounding 156 complete games.

3. Dazzy Vance

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    Dodger Career: 1922-32, 1935

    Signature Stat: Led league in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons

    The wonder of Dazzy Vance comes across in many shades. There’s the fact that he led the NL in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons; or that in 1924 he had more K’s than any other two pitchers combined; or that his nickname came from a mispronunciation of the word “daisy.”

    Then there’s this:  Dazzy Vance didn’t start playing regularly in the major leagues until he was 31.

    Even with the late start, Vance and his fastball made a strong impression. Along with his prodigious K totals, Vance led the league in ERA three times.

    As you can imagine, the two were closely related.

2. Sandy Koufax

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    Dodger Career: 1955-66

    Signature Stat: 2396 strikeouts in 2324.1 innings

    It’s easy to argue for Sandy Koufax as the all-time greatest Dodger pitcher. He’s easily the most iconic of the bunch, and his five-year run of dominance between 1962 and 1966 defies comparison (he led the NL in ERA each of those five years).

    Recollections of his brilliance coarse through baseball lore.

    Teammate (and list-mate) Don Sutton called a foul ball off Koufax a “moral victory.”

    Willie Stargell famously decreed, “Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

    Mickey Mantle asked bluntly, “How the (expletive) do you hit this (expletive)?”

    All this out of five great seasons. It tells you something about Koufax and the transcendence of his talents, that he elicited such awe with so little exposure.

    Five great seasons.

    It’s also of course the flip side to the Koufax coin. He receded from his apex even more suddenly than he reached it. By 30 he was out of baseball and on so many of the cumulative career measures he falls woefully short of other great Dodgers.

    It all depends how you want to see greatness. Do you see it in a flicker of light or a slow-burning flame?

    There's no wrong or right here, just a lot of silly bar-stool spats.

1. Don Drysdale

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    Dodger Career: 1956-69

    Signature Stat: 12 straight years with double-digit wins, 65.7 WAR

    Don Drysdale plays like the plodding yeoman alongside teammate Sandy Koufax, so let’s just abandon the comparison. Most pitchers look mortal next to the “Left Arm of God.”

    We must isolate Drysdale from Koufax to get a proper perspective on his dominance.

    Drysdale played 14 seasons—all of them for the Dodgers—and reigned ace-like from start to finish. He led the league in starts four times, strikeouts three times, innings pitched twice and wins once. He won the Cy Young award in 1962 and finished with an ERA under 3.00 eight times.

    He did it all during the golden days of Dodger baseball. He appeared in five World Series and helped imbue the Brooklyn refugees with staying power upon their arrival in L.A.

    He is, in some divine sense, a true Dodger.

    I can think of no one greater.