By: Abacus Reveals
Last Friday (Aug. 3), CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees recorded his second complete game of the 2012 season, the 35th (in 374 starts) of his impressive and highly profitable 12 year career. CC’s lived up to his reputation as a workhorse this season, despite a brief stint on the Disabled List, providing manager Joe Girardi with at least seven innings of work in 13 of his 19 starting assignments. That 68 percent rate of Long Starts ranks fourth in the majors currently.
Sabathia’s was MLB’s 87th complete game this season. In 2011, CG #87 was notched six weeks sooner, on June 19, when Tiger MVP Justin Verlander, Jason Vargas of Seattle and Tampa Bay’s “Big Game” James Shields (who was best in baseball last year with 11 CG’s) all turned the trick.
At the current pace, MLB pitching will amass 136 complete games, equaling the total of 2008—and that is the second lowest total EVER. Even the labor-ravaged season of 1994 produced over 100 more than that paltry output.
2011 had shown an increase in CG’s for the fifth consecutive year to 173, but that would have been barely a good month throughout most of the history of professional baseball. One hundred years ago, in 1912, 16 pitching staffs combined for 1,431 complete games. In 1928, there were 1,172 CG’s; in 1948, 797. (In those years, an MLB season was comprised of 1,232 games, compared to the 2,430 games played with today’s contingent of 30 teams.)
1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” saw Denny McLain’s 31 wins, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and 889 CG’s. (’68, by the way, is one of only two seasons in baseball’s long history when the MVP’s of both leagues were pitchers, the 1924 showing of Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance and the Senators’ Walter Johnson being the only other occasion.) There were over 1,000 CG’s in 1978, 622 in 1988 and 371 in 1993.
From 1995-2003, only one season saw fewer than 200 complete games (2001’s 194 the exception), but the pendulum was already in motion, with total CG’s bottoming out at 112 in 2007.
So, where have all the complete games gone?
Professional baseball has expanded and evolved with the times in its near century and a half of existence. As designated hitters, divisional playoffs, quality starts, wild cards, pitch counts and all manner of specialization have joined in the game, the role of and expectations for a pitcher no longer seem to include finishing what you start.
Certainly the increasing tendency for teams to rely on statistical analysis and situational substitutions accounts in part for this strategic change. Before sailing off into retirement last year, didn’t Tony LaRussa micro-manage his Cardinals to a World Series title over a Texas Ranger pitching staff crafted in the image and likeness of Nolan Ryan (he of the 222 career complete games)? Perhaps the “copy-cat” nature of professional sports in general also has contributed to this season’s reduction in CG’s.
But this paucity of complete games seems more than simply a trend. Consider our current so-called “iron men”: former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez has completed 21 of his career 228 starts; current MLB leader Verlander, who has six CG’s, is 20 for 221 in his career; Shields, last year’s Mr. Automatic with 23 of his 33 starts lasting at least seven innings, has 17 CG’s in 206 overall starting assignments. Shields’s teammate David Price (3-111) and Tim Lincecum of the Giants (8-178) need bullpen assistance in over 95 percent of their outings.
Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay is the current king of the finishing starters with 66 CG’s in 367 games, a percentage comparable to Hall of Fame-bound Greg Maddux. But this rate, roughly 15 percent, pales next to Maddux’s contemporary “Blackjack” Morris (175-527) and the Yankee great of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s Whitey Ford (156-438), who chalked up CG’s twice as frequently. Morris (5-13) and Ford (an impressive seven complete games in his 22 World Series starts) maintained this pace in the postseason.
However, it is Mr. Gibson’s record of endurance that stands out most. Not only did he throw both the first and last of his team’s pitches in 53 percent (255-482) of his regular season starts, he pitched 81 of the 82 innings in his nine World Series appearances, good for a 7-2 record and two rings. Interestingly, Gibby lost his final World Series contest, Game 7 in 1968, to the Detroit Tigers and Mickey Lolich, who was throwing his third CG of that series despite working on two days’ rest. (Gibson had won Game 7 of the 1964 Fall Classic over the Yankees under the same circumstances.) Eight complete game, one covering 10 innings, in nine tries—Wow!
The sports wisdom of the ages contends that momentum in baseball is to be found in “tomorrow’s” starting pitcher.
If so, then momentum in modern baseball has a shelf-life of only five or six innings.