Wiedmer: Chattanooga's Rick Honeycutt might just be MVP of Dodgers organization

Los Angeles pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, left, and manager Dave Roberts have helped the Dodgers make consecutive trips to the World Series.

ATLANTA - Since the start of the 2006 MLB season, the Los Angeles Dodgers have had four managers, two general managers and one pitching coach.

So what's the secret to Chattanooga native Rick Honeycutt's longevity in overseeing the development of the franchise's gifted arms?

"I love what I do," he said Sunday morning, hours before the Atlanta Braves defeated the Dodgers 5-3 to take two out of three games at SunTrust Park against the National League's winningest team this season (82-44). "I love being a part of the team, working with these guys. I'm at a point in my life where I'm only going to do something I love, and I'm really enjoying this year."

It's not that simple, of course. Honeycutt has overseen the majors' best cumulative ERA over the past 13 seasons. This year's staff is so strong it led the next-best NL club by more than half a run a game in team ERA going into Sunday, the Dodgers' 3.35 a stunning .66 ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals' 4.01.

photo Mark Wiedmer

No wonder current Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said a year ago of Honeycutt: "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."

Still, he's also 65. He and Debbie are now empty nesters. There are kids and grandkids he misses more each season he's away from the Scenic City. His golf game begs for more practice time.

"I'll sit down at the end of the year, like I always do, and decide if I want to go another year," said Honeycutt, who had to find 12 tickets for each of the weekend's Dodgers-Braves games to satisfy his family's requests. "But right now I'm having fun. We've got a great staff. The front office is very supportive. There's nothing not to like."

How could anyone not have fun with these Dodgers, who are not only dominating the pitching stats but have also scored the most runs of any NL team to date?

"Overall, I'd have to go back to my Oakland days to find a team this balanced," said Honeycutt, who won a World Series ring as a reliever with the 1989 Athletics.

"There's power, youth, great starting pitching, just like those Oakland teams. But I think this team probably has more depth than that one. All the young kids coming up are doing a tremendous job."

They're also doing a tremendous job of adapting to the Dodgers Way, if you will.

"It's about becoming a pro," said the former Lakeview High School and University of Tennessee star who pitched in the majors for 21 years through 1997 and was the oldest active player in the majors his final two seasons.

"My job is to get them into a routine. But our veteran pitchers have done such a nice job of leading, of showing the younger players the way we do things around here. There's a quietness about how we go about our business. We want them to have confidence, maybe even cockiness, but we don't want to show people up."

It is a system that is working remarkably well at the moment. The Dodgers have not only reached the playoffs for six straight Octobers, with this year all but certain to produce a seventh straight postseason; they've also reached the past two World Series, though they fell short of the title both times. If there has been a constant presence to that run, it's Honeycutt.

"We thought we had the team in 2017," Honeycutt said of that loss to the Houston Astros in seven games. "Last year, we had to battle 163 games (winning 14 of their last 18) just to get to the playoffs. My feeling about it was that it was just a relief to get there."

And once back in the World Series, Honeycutt said, "Boston got a lot of two-out hits. They were the better team."

As for this year's Dodgers, he said, "This is a lot like '17, though I think we have better depth this time around."

Nor did Honeycutt need to watch the Braves take the final two games of the series to believe they could be a difficult out should they meet again in the playoffs, given that Atlanta currently has the second-best record in the NL at 74-52 and a potent offense.

"It's one of the better lineups in the league from top to bottom," he said. "(Josh) Donaldson gives them a different confidence in the middle of the lineup. (Ozzie) Albies' prioritization of pitches has gotten better, and (Ronald) Acuña's talent is off the charts. He's a lot like our Cody Bellinger. He's just a ballplayer. He can play anywhere."

As he headed to the visitors' clubhouse to begin final preparations for Sunday's game, Honeycutt said, "We'll probably be back down here in October."

After watching him spend more than 40 years in the major leagues as either a player or a coach, the only question for those who know him best is whether Honeycutt's next visit to SunTrust Park after October will once more be as the sport's best pitching coach, or as a freshly retired grandfather taking a break from golf.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.