Clayton Kershaw is Clayton Kershaw. He might be the only truly great pitcher this generation of Dodgers fans is lucky enough to see pitching in his prime. Zack Greinke is Zack Greinke. He’s one of the elite pitching talents in the game, a cerebral, athletic guy who is totally in command of his arsenal right now.
Those are the Dodgers All-Star pitchers. Hyun-Jin Ryu is well above average and in the discussion of best No. 3 starters in baseball.
Those three are young enough and savvy enough that they could thrive, most likely, working with any pitching coach under the sun or even with no pitching coach at all. But as the All-Star break approaches, providing a much-needed respite for the aging back end of the Dodgers’ rotation, it’s worth pointing out that neither Josh Beckett nor Dan Haren did this alone.
They had a little help from a man, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who is rapidly gaining a reputation for helping prolong aging veterans’ careers. That makes perfect sense since one of Honeycutt’s earliest mentors, Dave Duncan, once had that reputation in the game.
There are only eight pitchers in the National League who are older than 32 and have thrown more than 100 innings this season. The Dodgers have two of them. Beckett and Haren have combined to go 14-10 and the team has gone 18-17 in games they have pitched. Those numbers might not be eye-popping, but they are when you consider that they’re coming from the Nos. 4 and 5 starters. In spring training, most people viewed the back of the rotation as one of the Dodgers’ few weaknesses.
It’s not the first time the Dodgers have seen Honeycutt’s act. They saw it with Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, who were worse the year before they arrived in L.A. and worse the year after they left. They saw it with Jeff Weaver in 2009. His career was teetering on over and the Dodgers somehow got 79 serviceable innings out of him.
Under Honeycutt since 2006, the Dodgers lead the majors with a 3.68 ERA (the Braves are second at 3.76) and have held opponents to a .247 batting average.
“I think Rick’s just solid at everything he does, from preparation to mechanics,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “One thing nobody talks a lot about is Rick had pretty much every role in his career. He was a starter, he was a long man, he was a late-inning situational lefty. He went through all the stages in his career. His stuff was one way when he was younger. He got older and was pitching through some stuff when his arm wasn’t exactly right.”
It was right around what could have been the twilight of his career, August of 1987 when he was traded from the Dodgers to the Oakland A’s, that Honeycutt met Duncan, Tony La Russa’s longtime pitching coach. The A’s turned him into a full-time reliever when he was 33 and he became a borderline dominant one for them from 1988 to 1993.
Duncan was a catcher in his playing days, so he spent less time as a coach on mechanics and more time figuring out how to pair his pitchers’ stuff with the hitters’ weaknesses. That’s largely what Honeycutt has done with his two veterans this season.
“I’m 33. My mechanics are going to be the same pretty much every time out,” Haren said. “For me, the biggest thing has been the prep work he does. My stuff is not as dominant as it once was, so if he can point out specific areas to get the best hitters in the planet out, I’m all for it.”
It’s not as if Honeycutt had little to work with. Both pitchers were among the game’s elite in their 20’s: Beckett starred in two World Series. Haren started an All-Star game and led the league in strikeouts-per-walk ratio and innings several times. But entering this spring, people wondered whether either pitcher was worth his eight-figure salary and, in Beckett’s case, whether he would even pitch coming off surgery.
If you don’t see a lot of Honeycutt in the dugout when Haren or Beckett is pitching, that is likely because he has retreated to the Dodgers’ video room. He will often watch every pitch of an inning, presumably on fast forward, then consult with the pitcher in the dugout between innings.
“I always want to see what their stuff’s doing. You get an idea from the side, but you don’t see the action or the swing,” Honeycutt said. “I’m making sure their eyes are matching up with what actually happened.”
Honeycutt was watching one of Haren’s bullpen sessions earlier this season when Haren broke out a curveball, a pitch he had barely thrown in five years. Honeycutt suggested he bring it into games and now it’s become a viable pitch for Haren. He got some key outs against the Cincinnati Reds with it, including a first-inning strikeout out Brandon Phillips. He and catcher A.J. Ellis have helped convince Beckett to believe in his breaking ball-first approach.
“There are so many guys who are poor on curveballs, but also so many guys who just give it to you as the first pitch,” Honeycutt said. “There are loads of hitters that aren’t swinging at a first-pitch off-speed pitch. If they’re taking it 80 percent of the time and I don’t think their scouting report on Dan says he’s got a curveball, why not take a strike if they’re giving it to you?”
The All-Star break can’t come soon enough for either Haren or Beckett. Haren has been hit hard in most of his recent starts. He was 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA in his first eight games and he’s 3-4 with a 5.12 ERA and 15 home runs in the 10 games since. Beckett has generally kept it together, but each of his past two starts have been just five innings and he has been dealing with a strained hip, which he exacerbated Sunday in Colorado. The Dodgers don’t even know if he’s going to be able to pitch from start to start, so they lined up Triple-A right-hander Red Patterson to pitch on Beckett’s day just in case.
In other words, in the second half, the Dodgers might need to see Honeycutt’s best trick yet.