Any player/Any era: Don Drysdale

What he did: Adam Darowski’s piece Monday on pitchers who could hit got me thinking about Don Drysdale. If Drysdale didn’t have the greatest year at the plate ever for a pitcher in 1965, it had to be somewhere close. Not only did he smack seven home runs with 19 RBI and an OPS+ of 140, Drysdale was the only .300 hitter on a team that batted .245. His 2.2 offensive WAR was better than all but four Dodger batters. Drysdale even went to the plate as a pinch hitter 14 times, going 3-for-12 with two RBI. And of course, he was also brilliant on the mound, finishing 23-12 and fifth in National League MVP voting and helping his Dodgers to a World Series title.

Drysdale, one of the subjects of a recent outstanding paper here, did enough in his career to finish 209-166 with a 2.95 ERA, 2,486 strikeouts ,and 49 shutouts. Seeing as he played his prime years in perhaps the greatest pitcher’s era ever, with Sandy Koufax as a rotation mate, he might have been in the best possible time to reach the Hall of Fame as he did in 1984. Still, Drysdale’s hitting numbers suggest he might have been the best player in baseball in an earlier era.

Era he might have thrived in: Men like Drysdale ruled baseball in the late 19th century, Bob Caruthers, Guy Hecker, and others able to dominate both on the mound and at the plate. Official MLB historian and longtime baseball writer John Thorn explained to me awhile back, when I did one of these columns on Josh Hamilton, that the overall talent level was lower in the early days of baseball, forcing the best players to both pitch and hit. Drysdale would have been even more of a menace than he was in his prime when he loomed 6’5″ and set the record for hit batsmen in a career.

Why: It’s about increased opportunity, mostly. As Caruthers averaged 290 at-bats a season and Hecker annually had about 330, Drysdale would likely double his number of trips to the plate. He might not belt 29 career home runs playing before the Live Ball Era, but his seven lifetime triples and lanky frame suggest he still would have put up good power numbers. And other parts of his game would benefit as well.

On the hill, Drysdale would be well-equipped to handle the draconian, “Let’s pitch 600 innings this season” workloads of 19th century hurlers, seeing as he pitched at least 270 innings seven times in his career and made at least 40 starts five consecutive years. It was a pace that may have contributed to him having to quit playing two weeks after his 33rd birthday in 1969, but that wouldn’t be an issue in the late 1800s, when pitchers rarely lasted in the majors beyond their mid-30s. His short but brilliant peak would be nothing out of the ordinary.

And it’s worth noting here, too, that Drysdale’s “Hit one of my guys and I’ll hit two of yours” baseball ethos would play perfectly in the 1800s, when respectable women were barely allowed at ballparks and none but the sketchiest of hotels would put up ballplayers.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert PujolsBabe RuthBad News Rockies,Barry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob Watson,Bobby VeachCarl MaysCharles Victory FaustChris von der Ahe,Denny McLainDom DiMaggioEddie LopatFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGeorge CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJackie RobinsonJim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Matty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertPaul DerringerPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey Henderson,Roberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam Thompson,Sandy KoufaxSatchel PaigeShoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWill ClarkWillie Mays

3 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Don Drysdale”

  1. RIGHT ON! For the reasons given in this Any Player/Any Era column (as well as the paper co-authored by yours truly “When Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax Ruled”), Don Drysdale is truly a legend of the game. Graham’s column affirms that Drysdale would succeed in any era — and the constancy of baseball over more than 100 years makes such versatile players as Drysdale loom larger with the passage of time. Drysdale dominated with both pitching and hitting in the clutch, plus his intimidating presence made for a most formidable, if not dangerous opponent. Power statistics made available through computer algorithms do not begin to measure the quality, impact and importance of such players as Drysdale. Graham’s insights here show that there is so much more to legendary players than just the numbers — it is the person and skill set behind those numbers, and the ability to play anywhere, anytime that sets them apart.

  2. What an insightful take on Drysdale. He was indeed a dominant force both in size and skill; at the plate and on the mound. He and Bob Gibson had alot in common in that and other ways.
    I think Drysdale suffers a bit over time in comparison to the number of great pitchers who played at the same time. If Drysdale l(the same for Koufax too!) had played on a team like the Yanks, no telling how many more games he would have won.

    Drysdale’s last game was quite ironic in comparison with his reputation. Having suffered from shoulder problems and possibly leaning towards retirement, he quit one or two batters after almost having his head taken off by a screaming Clemente liner that did take a bit off the top of his right ear. For a man who was, along with Gibson, the most feared pitcher of his time, who had no compunction to deck a batter, this was a quick and ironic end to a great career.

  3. POSTSCRIPT: Don Drysdale’s final career victory was on July 28,1969 when he shut out the San Diego Padres 19-0. This was his 49th career shutout. In his career, Drysdale registered 1 shutout out of every 4 career victories or 25% of his total wins! This was the exclamation point on a wonderful 14-year run.

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