Home-grown

Rick Honeycutt has earned his place in Dodgers tradition

Former University of Tennessee pitcher Rick Honeycutt has been the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers for 14 seasons. (photo by Mike Morrow)

Greatness in the realm of the Los Angeles Dodgers is defined mostly by two factors — success and longevity.

You find it in those storied careers like Tommy Lasorda’s 59 years with the organization, 21 years as the manager. Or Walt Alston’s 23 years as manager before that. Or it comes in the form of an infield intact with the names Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey, from 1973-1981, a constant that is unfathomable in today’s level of player movement.

It’s why names like Koufax and Drysdale are thought of in terms of wearing only one uniform. It even applies to a broadcaster, a figure who really shouldn’t even be considered, but that’s the kind of stamp Vin Scully put on the franchise after 67 seasons calling Dodger games for Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Longevity even applies to pitching coaches for the Dodgers. Red Adams had the job from 1969-1980. Don Sutton, who pitched for the Dodgers from 1966-1980, said in his Hall of Fame induction speech, “No person ever meant more to me in my career than Red Adams, and without him I would not be standing in Cooperstown.”

Ron Perranoski, who pitched for the Dodgers from 1961-1967 and again in 1972, was the Dodger pitching coach from 1981-1994, quite a run.

And then there is the career of Frederick Wayne Honeycutt, former University of Tennessee pitcher, born in Chattanooga, pitching coach for the Dodgers for the last 14 seasons. And when you step back and look at the numbers, and the fact that the Dodgers are doing things they used to do, like going to the World Series in back-to-back years, you gradually begin to realize that Honeycutt has quietly, steadily, built a record of achievement in the Dodger uniform that is worthy of considerable attention consistent with the tradition that goes with the franchise.

Since Honeycutt’s first season as pitching coach in 2006, Dodger pitchers rank first in the major leagues in earned run average, at 3.61. They have led the National League in ERA for the last two years and they have been in the top five in ERA every year since 2015, as well as seven of the last eight seasons.

And it is not lost on followers of the Dodgers that Rick Honeycutt is the only big-league pitching coach to guide Clayton Kershaw’s career.

He is “Rick” to most followers of the game, but “Honey” inside the clubhouse with the players he tutors. He has helped Kershaw to three Cy Young Awards and one Most Valuable Player Award. Now, among his pupils is the next big name, Walker Buehler, a former Vanderbilt star who many believe is the next in line as the Dodgers’ ace. It’s a real taste of Tennessee considering Mark Prior, who also pitched at Vanderbilt before pitching for Southern Cal and the Chicago Cubs, is the Dodgers’ bullpen coach.

Longtime Dodger beat writer Ken Gurnick of mlb.com quoted Kershaw last October saying, “The one thing about Honey above everything is that he really cares. He feels badly when you’re not pitching well, and he does everything he can to help.”

Veteran Rich Hill, who is scheduled to make his first start of the season on Sunday, told Gurnick last year, “Honey’s the best pitching coach I’ve ever had, and I had great pitching coaches. His calm approach and understanding how each guy works, he just keeps things in perspective. He makes things simple to understand for everybody. That’s why pitching staffs here have been the best in the game.”

Honeycutt’s tenure as the Dodger pitching coach spans four managers — Grady Little, Joe Torre, Don Mattingly and current manager Dave Roberts.
Roberts, according to Honeycutt’s hometown newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, last year said, “I’m pretty sure Rick is the only one of us with a lifetime contract. I know I’d hate to have to replace him. He’s as good as there is in our business.”

Former Austin Peay catcher A.J. Ellis, who played for the Dodgers from 2008-2016 and is now in the San Diego Padres’ front office, said in a story in the Orange County Register last October, “I’ve never been around a coach that was more prepared. He’s a calming presence.”

It’s not like Honeycutt is one of those pitching coaches you never heard about as a player. In fact, he played forever. He spent 21 years in the big leagues, including all or part of five seasons with the Dodgers, 1983-1987. He began his career as a starter and later became a reliever, taking the mound for the Mariners, Rangers, then Dodgers before moving on to the A’s, the Rangers again, back to the A’s, then the Yankees and Cardinals.

And it was during that journey that Honeycutt became involved in the biggest single transformation regarding pitching staffs in the history of baseball. It was when the norm moved from starting-pitcher-goes-til-he-drops to a different pitcher for almost every batter. Honeycutt wasn’t just around for that change. He was smack dab in the middle of it, a pivotal figure in it, as a matter of fact.

That was all because of Tony La Russa.

La Russa was the manager in Oakland when he made radical changes in handling a pitching staff. Instead of having a starter go as long as possible, La Russa went into each game prepared to bring in relievers for brief amounts of time before giving way to the closer, who was Dennis Eckersley in those years. Oakland went to the World Series from 1988-1990, winning it in 1989. The pitching strategy is even stated on La Russa’s Hall of Fame plaque, reading, “Master of maneuvering lineups and managing bullpens.”

La Russa would use Honeycutt, a left-hander, and Gene Nelson, a right-hander, to put out fires in the late innings before handing the ball to Eckersley. It was understood they wouldn’t pitch very long in any given game. In 1990, Honecutt appeared in 63 games and pitched 63 1/3 innings. In 1991, he appeared in 43 games and pitched only 37 2/3 innings. This was a man who from 1979-1981 pitched 25 complete games. It was an earthshaking shift in bullpen use, a revolution in baseball, although hints of what was to come could be found among managers like Sparky Anderson, who was known as “Captain Hook” for pulling starters and relying heavily on relievers.

Honeycutt was good at it. A 1996 Los Angeles Times story by Ross Newhan quoted La Russa saying of Honeycutt, “If there’s a Hall of Fame for set-up men, he should be in it.”

Honeycutt was pitching for the Cardinals at the time. His manager in St. Louis was La Russa. At age 42 that year, Honeycutt appeared in 61 games, totaling 47 1/3 innings.

He learned from La Russa’s pitching coach at the time, Dave Duncan, a former catcher, who studied the tendencies of hitters and what they couldn’t do. Duncan was La Russa’s right-hand man. Not a bad model for Honeycutt to follow.

So Honeycutt brings to the table the experience of a starter, a reliever, a pitcher who did things the old-fashioned way and a pitcher who was part of a whole new look at how to use a bullpen. The pitching record in Los Angeles since he took the job speaks for itself.

Honeycutt is 64. He had back surgery in February. Writers seem to speculate toward the end of each year if Honeycutt will be back for the following season. Thus far, looking at it a year at a time, the love of the job has kept him in his role on the Dodger coaching staff.

He has been successful, and he has had longevity, those hallmarks of greatness in Dodger history. With a career pitching record of 109-143, no one talks about Honeycutt being in the Hall of Fame. To La Russa’s point, they don’t have a hall of fame for set-up men. They don’t have a hall of fame for pitching coaches either. But they have a thing called tradition with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Honeycutt fits right in.

Categories: Home-grown

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