Claude Osteen: Dodgers’ Valuable Third Wheel

Everyone remembers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The duo pitched 11 years together in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles. Together, the pair  helped the Dodgers reach the Fall Classic five times, three of which their team won. But there’s a good chance  they wouldn’t have won their third and World Series title without the help of their third wheel, Claude Osteen.

One of just 56 players to debut in the majors at or before the age of 17, Osteen pitched  18 seasons for the Reds, Senators, Astros, Cardinals and White Sox — in addition to the Dodgers. It was there, in Los Angeles, where his presence was felt most. The Dodgers acquired Osteen in a trade with the Senators that included Frank Howard, so they didn’t exactly get him cheap. But the Dodgers certainly got their money’s worth, especially since it took several years before Howard became a star. Osteen, meanwhile, was a Dodger from 25 to 33 years old and spent the bulk that time outworking his competitors.

In 1969, Osteen tossed 321.1 innings for the Dodgers in his age-29 season. It now stands as one of just 78 300-inning seasons since the start of the Integrated Era (1947-present). What’s noteworthy is how Osteen kept on chugging in the years following his feat of strength. In the three seasons after, he tossed 258.2, 259 and 252 innings. In his final season, at 35 years old, he still threw 204.1 innings. This is in sharp contrast to some of the other members of the 300-inning community. Not like freaks like Fergie Jenkins and Gaylord Perry of course. After all, they threw up 300-inning seasons all the time. But guys like Andy Messersmith are perfect examples  why the game no longer lets guys throw so many innings anymore. In 1975, 29-year-old Messersmith pumped out 321.1 innings. From there, he went 207.1 innings, 102.1 innings and then 22.1 innings. A year later, at 33 years old, he tossed 62.1 innings. It was his last season in the majors.

That fate did not befall Osteen. He was certainly never the same pitcher in terms of quality, but he wasn’t exactly a stiff. And he kept taking the mound. From 1970 to 1973, he put up at least 2 WAR as a slightly under-league-average pitcher. Of course, it was the earlier part of his career where he really stood out.

From 1964 to 1969, he was the 10th most valuable pitcher in the game by WAR — in a dead heat with Koufax and slightly more valuable than Drysdale. By RA9-WAR, he drops a bit, to 14th, well behind Koufax but only slightly behind Drysdale, who ranked 14th for that period. Pick your poison and Osteen held up pretty well. In all six seasons, Osteen never posted an ERA worse than 3.33, and in five of the six seasons he posted a better than league-average FIP-. He was an innings eater; one who gobbled them up with aplomb and posted above-average results while doing so.

What’s most interesting about Osteen is just how long he was able to do what he did with his low strikeout rate. Osteen’s career 11.2% K% isn’t exactly a remarkably low figure, even for his era. Of the 1,918 qualified pitchers since 1947, Osteen’s K% ranks 1,595th — bad, but certainly not among the worst. But nearly all  the pitchers with a strikeout rate lower than Osteen didn’t survive long in the majors. And we would think the same of Osteen. We talk frequently about how pitchers can’t survive with low strikeout rates, but Osteen did. Yes, K rates were much lower in that era than they are today, but Osteen’s strikeout rates were still below average for the time.

The 323 pitchers lower than Osteen on the K-rate spectrum averaged just 7.5 career WAR, with the best of the lot being Bob Lemon and Doyle Alexander at 34.5 WAR. Osteen, on the other hand, clocked in at 44.8 WAR for his career, which ranks 111th all-time. In his prime, Osteen worked his K% up into the 12% to 14% range, but he was never a strikeout machine. This made it hard for him to be spectacularly efficient. He had a career 1.71 K/BB, and he never posted a mark higher than 2.92. Yet he was able to toe the line, and he pitched in the majors for 14 full seasons.

And he never toed the line more beautifully than he did in Game 3 of the 1965 World Series. It was Osteen’s first season with the Dodgers, and he  slotted  third in the rotation behind Drysdale and Koufax but in front of Johnny Podres. The Dodgers were down 2-0 to the upstart Twins, who had mopped the floor with Drysdale in Game 1 and then were able to get Koufax out early enough in Game 2 to take advantage of LA’s bullpen. In stepped Osteen for the Game 3 start, in what proved to be a pivotal game. After posting 13 runs in the first two games, Minnesota pushed across nary a run against Osteen. He tossed a complete-game shutout and allowed only five hits and two walks. He struck out two. There’s certainly not a lot of flash to a start in which 28 of the 32 batters he faced put the ball in play, but Osteen’s shutout turned the series around for the Dodgers. Los Angeles won the next two games and took a 3-2 series lead, which gave them the luxury of having to only win one of two games back in Minnesota for the series conclusion.

The game was certainly an important moment in Dodgers history. There’s a  legit chance that if Osteen hadn’t stepped up, then the Dodgers’ 1963 triumph would have been the franchise’s lone World Series title of the decade. To this day, LA’s six World Series rings seem light considering their storied past, and without Osteen, it might have fewer.

Scanning the list of the most valuable pitchers in Dodgers history, you see lots of familiar names: Drysdale, Koufax, Podres, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser and Clayton Kershaw. But nestled in the middle of that group is Osteen, who ranks sixth all-time among Dodgers pitchers in both WAR (34.7) and RA9-WAR (38.9). He was rarely more than the third wheel in the Drysdale-Koufax show, and his pitching was anything but flashy, but he still ended up playing a prominent role for the boys in blue.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


13 Responses to “Claude Osteen: Dodgers’ Valuable Third Wheel”

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  1. dan says:

    You gotta love the guys carrying the weight, year in year out.

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  2. It was a whole lot easier to pitch without strikeouts when you could play in Dodger Stadium from 1964-1969. There may have been no better place to pitch to contact since the beginning of the live ball era.

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  3. Visitor says:

    I don’t have anything interesting to say, but I don’t want the low comment count to make it look like this article was uninteresting. I enjoyed it and would be more than happy to read more similar articles on Fangraphs in the future!

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  4. Tony Manero says:

    Damn yung, who is this osteen cat? I’m a 51 year old man and I’ve never heard of him. I tend to stick to what I know, which is dancing and collecting. The last few years I’ve concentrated on collecting mainly Armand Marseille dolls from the turn of the century, these things are awesome!!!!! If you guys want to find out more, either email me at silkhands@dolltickler.com or contact eno Sarris at enosarris@gentlehands.com. By the way Koufax was terrible, I saw him pitch once and didn’t really understand what was happening.

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  5. Andy says:

    I well remember that WS game. The Twins really had the Dodgers on the ropes. That was the Series in which Koufax started Game 2 instead of Game 1 because he refused to pitch/play on Yom Kippur. Sandy allowed only one earned run in six innings in his start, but still took the loss.

    It really helped, though, that the Dodgers got to play the next three games at home. Following Osteen’s shutout, Drysdale pitched another five-hitter in a 5-2 win, that Koufax pitched I think a four hit shut out.

    What really impresses me about that era, though, is the durability of the pitchers. Remember the 2003 WS, when the Marlin’s manager, can’t remember that ancient guy’s name, took so much heat for starting Josh Beckett on three days rest? Back in the 60s, three days’ rest was standard. And when that Series returned to Minnesota, both Drysdale and Koufax started on two days’ rest! (Obviously, it was not thought that Osteen could repeat his performance in LA). Drysdale lost again, but Koufax, on two days’ rest, pitched a three hit shutout to win the Series.

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  6. Andy says:

    Maybe correction: maybe it was the following year, 1966, that Koufax skipped Game 1 because of Yom Kippur. I know he started Game 2 of both those Series, and in one case it was because he had pitched near the end of the regular season, and wasn’t rested enough for Game 1. I guess it might have been 1965, because that race went down to the wire, with Koufax winning his 26th game I think on the second last day of the season. I remember he beat Tony Cloninger of Milwaukee, who had won 24 games going into that matchup.

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  7. Andy says:

    Another interesting observation prompted by that Series. The Twins have played in three WS, that 1965 one, and in 1987 and 1991. All three went the full seven games, and the Twins never won a road game in any of them. That being the case they were quite fortunate that they had homefield advantage in all three of those WS. The Dodgers beat them by managing to win Game 7 in Minneapolis, thanks to Koufax, but no such luck for the Cards and the Braves.

    Speaking of that 1991 WS, I still regard that baserunning error by the Braves’ Lonnie Smith as one of the worst blunders in WS history. He was running on the pitch when Terry Pendleton hit a drive into the gap in left center. It should have scored him, but middle infielders Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch pretended to be fielding a ground ball. Instead of looking to the third base coach, Smith hesitated, and could only advance as far as third, where he was stranded. If he had scored, the Braves almost certainly would have won the game and Series, as the game was 0-0 after nine innings and the Twins won in the 10th.

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  8. Alby says:

    Watching a Phillies game the other night when the trivia question came up, who did the Senators trade for Claude Osteen? I immediately blurted out the answer, and my wife is still angry. “You can remember Frank Howard, but you can’t remember to put gas in the car?”

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  9. garrett hawk says:

    Alby, nobody understands, but i understand. In Fact, I remember than Howard cracked 48 homers in ’69, second to Killebrew, and one ahead of Reginald.

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  10. AA says:

    Carl Erskine is another one who pitched very well, but was overshadowed.

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  11. Brent says:

    I’ve always thought that Osteen (and Podres) were the reason the Dodgers almost always finished ahead my Giants in the sixties. Giants had Marichal and Gaylord to go against Koufax and Drysdale, but then only had Bob Bolin and an assortment of journeymen as #3 and #4 starters. Dodgers had the depth the Giants didn’t.

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  12. Bob K says:

    With the Dodgers sweeping the Yankees in the 1963 WS, they were expected to win the pennant easily in 1964; instead they finished in 6th place. Getting Osteen was the reason they won the pennant in 1965. People poo-pooed the idea that the Dodgers would pick up anyone from the lowly Senators. As a Twins fan I thought that the Twins having faced Osteen in the AL, they would do well against him.They got shutout instead. The Dodgers outscored the Twins 18-2 in the three games at Dodger Stadium.There was no way that the Twins could have beat Koufax in game 7. The Minnesota Twins of 1965 were an excellent team, if they could have beat Osteen in game three, they would have won the WS.

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  13. Jim G says:

    th is for the intelligent, incisive post. I remember Osteen well. He helped me get thru those awful Dodger years between 1967 & 1974.

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