The Dodgers’ Ten Greatest Pitchers
Clayton Kershaw (2008-present)
It didn’t take long for the southpaw from Dallas to establish himself as, thus far, the best pitcher of the 2010s. At age 28, Kershaw has already laid claim to three Cy Young Awards; a MVP plaque in 2014, making him the first NL pitcher so honored in 46 years; four NL ERA titles, all in succession; a 300-strikeout season in 2015, making him the first such pitcher to reach the barrier in 13 years; and a stellar 126-60 career record for a Dodgers team that typically hasn’t given him optimal run support.
Nicknamed the Claw (shorthand for his full name), Kershaw debuted at the big league level just two months after turning 20; following a fair rookie campaign, he settled in and has since kept his ERAs in the 2.00s, sometimes reaching below it as he became the first pitcher since Greg Maddux (in 1994-95) to score consecutive sub-2.00 ERAs in 2013-14. Those efforts in particular helped earn him the distinction of becoming baseball's first $30 million-a-year player. For the lucky few who reach base and try to nab an extra 90 feet off Kershaw, they should be well aware that he is a perennial league leader in picking off runners.
The one mountain Kershaw still needs to climb is that of the postseason, where he has historically struggled; in 18 games (14 starts), he’s 4-7 with a 4.55 ERA.
Being the left-handed ace in a Dodgers uniform has naturally led to comparisons with Sandy Koufax, but using a mix of a mid-90s fastball, slider and curve, Kershaw prefers to tag his influence more from Roger Clemens. Either way, he has already matched both legends with his superb career to date—and is in terrific position to successfully add to his own mythos in the years to come.
A loyal teammate, Kershaw is also deeply religious and has been officially honored for his charity work, which includes the opening of an orphanage in the African nation of Zambia with his wife.
Sandy Koufax (1955-66)
For the first six years of his major league career, the quiet Brooklyn native was little more than a common pitcher with an uncommonly sizzling fastball and unfulfilled promise. Over the next six years, he would embark on, arguably, the greatest run of pitching dominance the game has ever seen.
Koufax signed with the Dodgers at age 19 as a “bonus baby,” meaning he had to spend the first two years of his career in the majors; for this, Koufax got his wish never to play in the minors, but likely at the cost of slower development. He was just 36-40 through his first six years, only showing an occasional glimpse to what was to come—such as in a 1959 game when he tied Bob Feller’s then-record of 18 strikeouts. Koufax’s pitches were fast, but they were also wild. Teammates were not just afraid of going into the batting cage to face him; there were afraid to go near it.
Starting in 1961, Koufax began to transform. He developed a nasty curveball to complement his fastball, and began to throw pitches not to make hitters miss, but to try and make them hit it. That year he won 18 games for the Dodgers and struck out 269 batters, which at the time set the National League record. He would reset that mark twice more.
In 1962, Koufax won his first of five straight ERA titles and again struck out 18 in one game, but missed almost a third of the season due to injury. In 1963, he truly broke out—producing a 25-5 record, 1.88 ERA and a career-best 11 shutouts; the vaunted New York Yankees would find out about Koufax, up close and personal, in that year’s World Series when he struck out the first five batters he faced and 15 overall in Game One. “With the Babe Ruth Yankees,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, “Koufax could have been the first undefeated pitcher in history.”
Koufax continued to marvel on the mound in collective ways not seen since the deadball era—and perhaps not since. From 1962-66, he was 111-34 with 1,444 strikeouts in 1,377 innings; he threw 100 complete games, 33 of them for shutouts—four of those no-hitters, including a perfect game in 1965; he struck out a major league-record 382 batters alone in 1965 (later topped, barely, by Nolan Ryan); and he won two Cy Young Awards, 1963 NL MVP honors, and two World Series MVP trophies in 1963 and 1965, the latter thanks to a sensational Game Seven effort against Minnesota in which he threw a three-hit shutout on just two days’ rest. (In eight World Series appearances, Koufax authored a stunning 0.95 ERA—but only won four of seven decisions.)
Along with fellow Dodgers star pitcher Don Drysdale, Koufax held out before the 1966 season, angering management by bringing in an agent and demanding a guaranteed three-year contract totaling $500,000. Choked by the power of the reserve clause, he could only settle for a one-year deal worth $125,000—but one year was all he had left to give. As he continued his brilliance on the mound, he did so with great pain stemming from a rapidly arthritic elbow, emptying out the medicine cabinet for relief and absorbing so many cortisone shots that he lost count. Finally, after the Dodgers lost the 1966 World Series, the pain became too much; he stunned the baseball world by announcing his retirement at age 30.
Koufax immediately began doing color commentary for NBC but was colorless and stiff in front of a microphone; he quit halfway through his multi-year contract. An introverted individual, Koufax has respectfully retreated into a reclusive life, making rare public appearances at Dodger Stadium or at spring training camps to give occasional advice to young pitchers.
Don Drysdale (1956-69)
Koufax’s partner in pitching crime for the Dodgers was the anti-Sandy; Drysdale was more outward and comfortable in public, had a Californian look of glamour (he was born in Los Angeles) and developed a near-legendary reputation for brushing back and knocking down opponents, in stark contrast to Koufax’s deep reluctance to do the same. Yet all along, Drysdale was often just as good, paving his own path to Cooperstown with 209 career wins over 14 seasons.
Arriving in Brooklyn a year after Koufax, Drysdale evolved more quickly; he produced a 17-9 record in his second year and the Dodgers’ last at Brooklyn, and in Los Angeles carried the mantle as staff ace—leading the NL in strikeouts three times and winning the 1962 Cy Young Award with a 25-9 record—before Koufax entered his dominant stage. Somewhat demoted to Koufax’s shadow, Drysdale continued to display effective workhorse ethic, surpassing 300 innings from 1962-65 while winning 85 games over that same period. Along with Bob Gibson, Drysdale was feared by opposing hitters who constantly had to duck away from his inside fastballs said to be clocked in the upper 90s; he eventually would hit 154 batters over his career, a modern NL record. Whenever opponents reached base, they still had their work cut out for them; Drysdale’s pickoff move was one of the best in the game—a fact all the more impressive given that he was right-handed.
Over his last four seasons, Drysdale was only 45-48 as he suffered from a serious lack of support—a common problem for Dodger pitchers during the 1960s. At times, he would be his own offense; in 1965, his .300 average was better than any Dodgers position player, and his seven home runs were just five shy of the team lead. Realizing how potent he was with the bat, the Dodgers occasionally moved him out of the default ninth spot in the order and had him bat seventh.
In 1968, Drysdale delivered his most memorable accomplishment when he threw six straight shutouts and racked up 58.2 consecutive scoreless innings, a record that would be tipped 20 years later by future Dodger Orel Hershiser. Some opponents believed the run was too good to be true and brought up accusations that Drysdale was using the spitter—something he would later confess to after his playing days were over.
Dazzy Vance (1922-32, 1935)
Few pitchers were able to genuinely tame the exploding offense of the 1920s—and the colorful Vance was considered one of the unlikeliest candidates. He wasn’t a grandfathered spitball artist, had a lousy track record in multiple, short major league stints during the deadball era, was over 30, was chained to a second-division team and, with his sheepish red-haired looks, had the appearance of someone more likely to clown about on a barnstorming tour rather than take the mound seriously.
Vance arrived in Brooklyn in 1922 at the age of 31 having rectified his past failures and chronic elbow injuries by adding a curve ball to his repertoire; to everyone’s surprise, he became an instant smash. In his first seven years with the Robins (as the Dodgers were known under manager Wilbert Robinson), he paced the NL in strikeouts, won 20 games three times, four times led the NL in shutouts, three times led it in ERA, and threw a no-hitter (allowing an unearned run) in 1925.
Two years in particular stand out for Vance. In 1924, he furnished a stunning 28-6 record with a league-best 2.16 ERA and struck out 262 batters—the highest total by a NL pitcher between Christy Mathewson in 1903 and Koufax in 1961, and a figure nearly double that of teammate Burleigh Grimes, who placed second that year with 135; his opponents’ .213 batting average was 70 points below the league average. In 1930, when the game’s offensive insanity peaked with the NL producing a .303 batting average, Vance finished a standard 17-15 but with a 2.61 ERA that was far and away the league’s best; the New York Giants’ Carl Hubbell was second—at 3.87.
Part of Vance’s success could be attributed to the long sleeve of his uniform that he intentionally left in tatters to distract opposing hitters; eventually, a rule would be written up disallowing such wear.
Don Sutton (1966-80, 1988)
Perhaps no pitcher flew under the radar to 300 career wins more than Sutton, whose stubborn and opinionated attitude guaranteed that he would not go through baseball life anonymous. With the Dodgers, he often had to share (or remain in the shadows of) the spotlight with more dominant aces like Koufax, Drysdale, Andy Messersmith and Tommy John. Only once did Sutton win 20 games, and he never was a league leader in victories; he never won a Cy Young Award, though he finished in the top five of the vote over five straight years; he never led in strikeouts, though he’s seventh on the all-time list with 3,574; and never did he win a World Series, coming closest when he was released midway through the 1988 season by a Dodgers team that would go on to upset Oakland. Sutton was durably consistent and protracted in his collection of lifetime numbers; he was, essentially, the Rafael Palmeiro of pitchers.
Despite the lack of that one great moment or season, Sutton was still heavily valued by the Dodgers for his highly reliable production. He won 230 games in his 13 years for Los Angeles (his 1988 wind-down not considered) and was always counted on to deliver well over 200 innings. Arguably his best campaign occurred in 1972, when he finished at 19-9 with a career-low 2.08 ERA, racking up two separate streaks of 30 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
Not afraid to speak his mind, Sutton could be at times confrontational and engaged in his biggest controversy in a 1978 game at St. Louis when he was ejected by home plate umpire Doug Harvey for scuffing the baseball. An enraged Sutton said afterward that he would sue baseball for “depriving me of my rights to earn a living as a pitcher” if they suspended him; sheepishly, the NL let him off with little more than a warning.
Orel Hershiser (1983-94, 2000)
Often compared today to Tim Lincecum for his underwhelming façade, his leaning delivery and even his uniform number (55), Hershiser commanded the Dodgers rotation throughout the mid-1980s and peaked with a near out-of-body season performance in 1988.
After impressing in his first full season of 1984—he paced the NL with four shutouts despite not moving to the rotation until midseason—Hershiser had a sensational follow-up in 1985 by winning 19 of 22 decisions with a career-low 2.03 ERA. Relatively middling efforts over the next two years were followed with a 1988 campaign that started strong (winning each of his first six starts), lost steam midway through and then took on an invincible existence starting in August, when Hershiser began a streak of consecutive scoreless innings that threatened Drysdale’s 1968 mark. In his last regular season start at San Diego, he pitched nine more scoreless frames to fall two-thirds of an inning short of the record—but because the game remained scoreless after nine innings, he went back out for the tenth, allowing no runs and setting the mark by a single out, at 59.
In the postseason to follow, Hershiser’s mortality returned but he was no less brilliant; in the NLCS against the New York Mets, he threw two quality starts without a decision, picked up a save in an emergency relief stint a day after his second start—and afterward, on two days’ rest, threw a five-hit shutout in the decisive game to wrap up the NL pennant for the Dodgers. Against Oakland in the World Series, he threw two more complete-game victories, including a three-hit shutout in Game Two in which he also went 3-for-3 at the plate with two doubles. Wherever there was an accolade to be awarded after the season, Hershiser was likely to be the recipient; he won the NL Cy Young Award, MVP honors for both the NLCS and World Series, and picked up his lone Gold Glove at the pitcher spot.
Hershiser nearly matched his 1988 ERA of 2.26 a year later but only finished at 15-15 as the Dodgers rarely supported him on offense. He blew out his shoulder in 1990 and would never be quite the same—though he would pitch ten more years and prove to be an experienced (if not dominant) rotation member for playoff teams at Cleveland and with the Mets in the late 1990s. He gave it one last hurrah for Los Angeles in 2000 but, after getting hammered for a 1-5 record and 13.14 ERA in ten appearances, he stepped down for good.
Fernando Valenzuela (1980-1990)
The portly yet deceptively athletic master of the screwball became a nationwide sensation in early 1981 when, as a 20-year-old rookie, Valenzuela went the distance in each of his first eight starts—winning them all and allowing just four earned runs in the process. Fernandomania became a public relations boon for the Dodgers, who were able to leverage the Mexican native to tap into a booming Hispanic market in the Los Angeles Basin. The craze could have started six months earlier; pitching 17.2 innings of shutout baseball over ten relief appearances at the end of the 1980 season, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda seriously considered starting Valenzuela in the one-game playoff against Houston to decide the NL West. He didn’t; the Dodgers lost.
Valenzuela’s early invincibility would wear off throughout the 1981 campaign, but his overall numbers—a 13-7 record, 2.48 ERA and major league highs with 180 strikeouts, 11 complete games and eight shutouts in a strike-shortened season—made him the first player to win both the NL Rookie of the Year and NL Cy Young awards in the same year. He would go 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA in the postseason to lift the Dodgers to a world championship.
In the decade to follow, Valenzuela would become a tough workhorse for the Dodgers, bending often but rarely breaking. He had another fast start in 1985, not allowing an earned run through his first 41.1 innings of work; in 1990, he threw his only no-hitter, part of a major league first when he was one of one two pitchers to throw no-nos on the same day (Oakland’s Dave Stewart threw the other). In his 17 years at the major league level, Valenzuela would throw 113 complete games, and in 1986 became the last pitcher to date to record 20 in one year—the same year he set a career high with 21 wins.
After his departure from the Dodgers, Valenzuela bounced around and enjoyed a poetic homecoming when, while pitching for the San Diego Padres in 1996, he was the winning pitcher in the first regular season game played in Mexico at Monterrey. He’s been back with the Dodgers since 2004 in another capacity, providing color commentary for the team on its Spanish-language radio broadcasts.
Don Newcombe (1949-51, 1954-58)
The New Jersey native was the first black star pitcher in the majors, copping Rookie of the Year honors in 1949 (two years after Jackie Robinson’s debut) with a 17-8 record that ignited a terrific 112-48 record through his first eight years—missing two of those to military service. Newcombe’s run hit its apex in 1956 when he won both the NL MVP and Cy Young Award with a 27-7 record and 3.06 ERA; he thus became the first major leaguer ever to earn a MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award.
Newcombe’s ERA never dipped below 3.00 in part because he played in an intimate, live ballpark (Ebbets Field), but those conditions also enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s best hitting pitchers; he had a lifetime .271 batting average and hit 15 home runs, seven alone in the Dodgers’ championship season of 1955 when he also sported an outstanding .359 batting average.
In the postseason, Newcombe was a historic dud. He was 0-4 with an 8.59 ERA in five World Series starts; he also lost the memorable 1950 regular season finale that gave Philadelphia’s “Whiz Kid” Phillies the pennant, and set up the New York Giants’ rally in the decisive game of the 1951 NL playoff, being removed for Ralph Branca—who would only face one batter: Bobby Thomson, who launched the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” and won the pennant for the Giants. After losing yet again during the 1956 World Series, he physically took his anger out on a fan who called him a “choke.”
After 1956, Newcombe’s game fell apart and he rarely came close to returning to early career form, finishing out his time in the majors with Cincinnati and Cleveland. A battle with the bottle, which he would later overcome, didn’t help.
Burleigh Grimes (1918-26)
Highly competitive and often foul-tempered, Grimes was the most notorious and successful of the grandfathered spitballers, living off the wet pitch long enough that he became, in 1934, the last hurler to legally throw it.
Grimes came to Brooklyn in 1918 after two terrible years in Pittsburgh in which he had a combined 5-19 record (he lost 13 straight at one point in 1917). His career turned completely around with the Robins, going 19-9 with a stellar 2.13 ERA, and it was stabilized when he became one of 17 pitchers allowed to continue throwing the spitball after its general ban in 1920.
Taking full advantage of the wetted welfare, Grimes won 20 games four times over a five-year period for Brooklyn, on his way to becoming the winningest pitcher of the decade with 190 under his belt. He was every bit the workhorse for the Robins, completing at least 30 of his starts three times (leading the NL each time). Nicknamed Old Stubblebeard, Grimes excelled at brushing back hitters and wasn’t afraid to nail them; he saved his most savage pitches for hitting star Frankie Frisch, for whom he had a particular dislike after Frisch purposely rubbed him the wrong way during a game early in his career.
Grimes would switch uniforms eight times after his Brooklyn tenure, running hot and cold through his remaining eight seasons; he returned to the Dodgers to manage in 1937—lasting two years—and when he was let go, changed the franchise’s fate by successfully suggesting Leo Durocher as his replacement over the popular choice, Babe Ruth.
Jerry Reuss (1979-87)
A 22-year veteran who played for eight teams, Reuss arguably had his most successful tenure in Los Angeles, where he won 86 games and threw a no-hitter in 1980 at San Francisco; a first-inning error by Bill Russell accounted for the only opposing baserunner on the night.
That 1980 season, Reuss’ second with the Dodgers, was his most efficient; he won 18 of 24 decisions, posted a 2.51 ERA, threw a NL-high six shutouts (including the no-hitter) and finished runner-up in the NL Cy Young Award vote. What made the effort all the more rewarding is that it came on the heels of two subpar campaigns in which he was dogged by shoulder problems.
Reuss was a pure fastball pitcher until he arrived in Los Angeles, adding a cutter to his assortment. Elbow ailments hastened his demise with the Dodgers, but he also grew more personable, undoing an early career reputation for having a cocky attitude that irritated teammates and coaches, particularly Leo Durocher—who managed Reuss in Houston from 1972-73 and once called Reuss an “a**hole of all time.” (A decade later, Durocher admitted to Reuss that he acted like one himself as the two kissed and made up with the encouragement of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.)
In retirement from the game, Reuss did work as an analyst for ESPN and has endeared himself to a hobbyist’s life in photography, something he began toward the end of his playing days when he took extensive images of many ballparks that no longer exist. (Some of that work is featured in our Ballparks section.)
Los Angeles Dodgers Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Dodgers, decade by decade.
The Dodgers' Ten Greatest Hitters: A list of the ten greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Dodgers' Ten Greatest Games: A list of ten memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Dodgers' history.
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