Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Best Ever: Los Angeles Dodgers

Continuing my long running series on the greatest ever position player and pitcher for every franchise, today I'd like to take a look at one of the remaining playoff teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Truly dedicated readers--that means you, Dad--will remember that I've already profiled other playoff teams, including the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs.)

I'm going to split the Dodgers into the Los Angeles period and the Brooklyn period. Today we'll take on the L.A. Dodgers.


Contenders: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton. (Apologies to Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser.)

This one isn't as obvious as it seems. The obvious choice is Sandy Koufax, who dominated baseball from 1962 to 1966 and led the Dodgers to three pennants and two World Series. The thing about Koufax is, he was tough. He pitched in immense pain, he often would pitch on short rest, he pitched tons of innings, his team almost never scored runs for him, yet he still pitched brilliantly and won more games than anyone during his heyday. He finished his career with 165 Dodger wins.

Don Sutton and Don Drysdale, by contrast, weren't as dominant as Koufax, but they had much longer careers. Sutton won 233 games with the Dodgers (324 total), while Drysdale won 209. Those differences compared to Koufax aren't trivial. 68 victories (vs. Sutton) and 44 (vs. Drysdale) are very meaningful indicators of greatness, and a case could be made that, because of his longer career and greater durability, Sutton, not Koufax, was the greatest pitcher in Dodger history.

However, I'm not prepared to make that case. I'm going to stick with the obvious choice, Koufax, because of his peak value, his clutch performances (especially in the 1963 and 1965 World Series and in the 1965 and 1966 pennant races), and his absolute dominance for five+ years.


Contenders: Steve Garvey, Mike Piazza, Maury Wills

If Piazza had played with the Dodgers more than six years, he would be the clear choice as the greatest position player in L.A. Dodgers history. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons that, even 10 years later, don't make much sense, the Dodgers shipped him to Florida and thus traded away the greatest hitting catcher of all time. He spent more time as a Met than as a Dodger, and I think when I do this for the Mets, I'll probably pick Mike Piazza as the greatest Met ever. I don't want to choose him for two teams, so I'm going to leave him with the Mets.

That leaves Garvey and Wills. (Full disclosure: Garvey was my favorite player when I was a kid. In Little League, I chose number 6, and I imitated his batting stance. As an adult, I saw him in the Salt Lake City airport and was too nervous to approach him.) Garvey was a hitting machine. From 1974 to 1980, he averaged over 200 hits per year and slugged 20-30 home runs to boot. He almost never got hurt, putting together a consecutive games streak that reached 1,207. He didn't walk much, so his sabermetric numbers don't look so hot today, but during his prime, he was pretty much feared and respected by everybody. In fact, I would guess that most contemporary observers would have expected him to make the Hall of Fame by now. He's not, of course, and I don't think he deserves induction. He just misses the cut.

Maury Wills is another player who has missed the cut for the Hall of Fame. He's an interesting player. He helped reintroduce stolen bases to baseball when he nabbed 104 in the 1962 season, an unheard-of number at the time. Though he didn't play full time until the age of 27, he still amassed 2,134 hits (1,732 for L.A.). The negatives: his on-base percentages were atrocious. In spite of all the steals and hits, he only scored 100 runs in a season twice... partly because his Dodger teammates weren't very good at driving him in, mostly because his best on-base percentage was .355, not good for a lead-off hitter. He was pretty good defensively, winning two Gold Gloves, but nobody ever hailed his defense.

The winner: Since it comes down to Garvey and Wills in my book, it's an easy choice to select Steve Garvey as the greatest position player in L.A. Dodgers history.

No comments: