Rick Honeycutt retires, leaving Mark Prior big shoes to fill as pitching coach

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

The Dodgers’ NLDS Game 5 upset by the National League Champion Washington Nationals was a shocking loss after an exceptional 106-win season. It isn’t the only significant loss for the team heading into the 2020 season. Perhaps the biggest announcement to come out of Andrew Friedman’s press conference last week was the retirement of long-tenured pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. Mark Prior likely takes over for Honeycutt as pitching coach when Honeycutt moves into a special assistant role in the front office.

“Obviously he’s meant a lot to this organization for a long time, and he still will going forward,” club president Andrew Friedman said. “It’ll just be in a slightly different role that we’re still kind of working out the details on.”

Prior, former major-league pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and bullpen pitching coach for the Dodgers in 2018, has big shoes to fill when he takes over for one of the top coaches in the majors for the last 14 years.

Honeycutt’s pitching career spanned 21 seasons including a time with the Dodgers from 1984-1987 before being traded to the Oakland Athletics for a player to be named later (Tim Belcher). Following his playing career, the Dodgers hired Honeycutt as their minor league pitching coordinator. He joined the Dodgers coaching staff as their pitching coach in 2006. It would still be two more seasons before Clayton Kershaw would debut for the Dodgers.

The rotation back then consisted of Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Aaron Sele, Chad Billingsley, Mark Hendrickson and eventually Greg Maddux.

Honeycutt survived many manager and owner turnovers. He was one of the only holdovers from the Grady Little era, and he also worked with Joe Torre and Don Mattingly before Dave Roberts took over at the managerial helm.

Honeycutt had a very successful run as pitching coach with the Dodgers. He was an integral part in their pitching legacy for the past 14 seasons.

The Dodgers led the majors this season in ERA (3.39), WHIP (1.10) and walk rate (6.6%). They allowed the lowest number of home runs in the NL (185), had the second-highest K/9 (9.46), and held opponents to a league-best .220 average.

The Dodgers’ ERA has ranked in the top five in the NL in eight of the last nine seasons and 1st or 2nd in six of the 14 seasons Honeycutt has been a coach. Honeycutt’s expertise has been a large factor in those results even when the talent wasn’t always top notch.

Honeycutt certainly had a knack for working his magic on reclamation projects and veteran comebacks. Some worked out well like 2009 Randy Wolf and 2012 Aaron Harang, while others didn’t pan out for the Dodgers (hello 2013 Edinson Volquez). Josh Beckett‘s late-career no-hitter in 2014 and Kershaw’s no-no the very next month will forever be part of Dodger history.

One of the most surprising reliever success stories under the wing of Honeycutt was Joe Blanton‘s dominant season out of the Dodger bullpen in 2016 when he posted a 2.48 ERA in 75 games.

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Prior is handed the baton when he takes over for Honeycutt who transitions into a special assistant role. We saw this coming. Honeycutt is 65-years old and has had some health issues of late including back surgery last offseason. He’s still has pain and unable to sit for long periods when traveling.

While Honeycutt’s health is the main reason for his retirement, let’s hope the Dodgers’ abrupt end to the season likely spurred management to at least consider some changes. Roberts has been dealt the brunt of the blame for the bullpen management of Game 5, and rightfully so, but the coaching staff played their part as well.

It’s not exactly the change that a lot of rabid and frustrated Dodger fans wanted, the ousting of Roberts himself, but it was a coaching change nevertheless.

Honeycutt defended the decision to pitch Kershaw out of the ‘pen against the Nats’ left-handed batters.

“If we had a crystal ball, you’d do it differently when you know the outcome,” Honeycutt said. “But that part of the lineup was set up for Kershaw — Eaton, Turner, Rendon, Soto — the only lefty segment in the lineup.”

Prior will have to sort out the rotation and bullpen, a pitching staff that saw it’s closer (Jansen) and one-time ace (Kershaw) at somewhat of a crossroads in their careers.

Prior spent several years in baseball operations with the Padres and the Dodgers. He was San Diego’s minor league pitching coordinator for three seasons before he was hired to be L.A.’s bullpen coach in 2018. Prior knows the disappointment of postseason elimination. He was on the mound for Chicago during the infamous Steve Bartman incident in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. The Cubs were leading 3-1 when he left the game, but the Cubbies gave up seven more runs in the inning to the Marlins and lost 8-3. Then they lost Game 7. Prior’s injuries quickly started adding up thereafter.

It’s hard to imagine Honeycutt not at Camelback Ranch honing the pitching staff during Spring Training or in the bullpen working on the mechanics of the Dodgers’ pitching staff at Dodger Stadium next year.

Kershaw has never had any other big-league pitching coach in his career. I’m sure Honeycutt will make some appearances in order to offer his guidance at some point next spring and summer.

If anything Prior is inheriting a pitching staff that still has a ton of talent and potential with the likes of Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Dustin May, Kenta Maeda, Kenley Jansen, Tony Gonsolin, Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly. He’s already built relationships with the pitching staff as bullpen coach so the transition should be relatively smooth, but it will certainly be odd to see Prior walk out for his first mound visit next season instead of Honey.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler
Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the co-editor of Lasorda's Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation, Dodger Blue 1958 and The Hardball Times. She currently contributes to True Blue LA. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.