The Incompleat Starting Pitcher

Corey Kluber pitched five of the seven complete games for Cleveland in 2017. (via Erik Drost)

In the motion picture industry, every movie that commences production has a completion bond. It is, in effect, an insurance policy guaranteeing that a film producer will not go bankrupt if the film is not completed. Given the numerous things that can go wrong – e.g., the death of a star, a director suffering a heart attack, a hurricane destroying the location – in the making of a motion picture, it would be foolhardy to embark on such an expensive enterprise without a completion bond.

Imagine going to an insurance company that writes completion guarantees and asking for just the opposite; in other words, an incompletion bond. Not for motion pictures, but for complete games by starting pitchers in major league baseball. In other words, you are insured against your starting pitcher completing a game! Today there’s not much chance of that. A starting pitcher who is still on the mound at the end of the game is as rare as a motion picture in the midst of principal photography that doesn’t result in a release print.

The disappearance of the complete game has been a long, slow process. In the 19th century, pitchers were like position players. They were expected to remain at their post for the duration of the game. The complete game was not only the ideal, it was the norm.

Even after the deadball era had passed, so long as a pitcher was effective, he remained in the game, unless he was injured or a pinch-hitter was called for. Any team with a decent rotation had plenty of complete games. Even in the 1930 season, notorious for an offensive spike (.296 major league batting average), the 16 teams registered 1,095 complete games. The team with the lowest total was the Phillies, who finished the season with an ERA of 6.71, still a major league record. Yet even they had 54 complete games. As bad as the Phillies’ rotation was, better than one out of three of their starters finished what they started.

In 1947 (still 16 teams) the number of complete games fell below 1,000 (to 961) for the first time in history. Now flash forward 43 years. The 1990 Toronto Blue Jays were avant-garde. They had just six complete games that season. This was the first time any major league team – and there were certainly plenty of teams with lousy pitching staffs in the preceding nine decades – had compiled a single-digit total of complete games.

You might think the 1990 Jays were a crummy team, but no, they finished at 86-76, good for second place in the AL East, two games behind Boston. In fact, they were in first place till the last week of the season, when they went into a tailspin, losing two of three to the Brewers, Red Sox and Orioles, respectively, and yielding the division title to the Red Sox.  Playing their first full season at SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre), the Jays set a major league attendance record by drawing 3,885,284. Hardly a downer of a season.

Well, given the Jays’ status as a legitimate contender, you might think that the starting pitchers were the weakest aspect of the team. Well, not really. Todd Stottlemyre (13-17) led the way with four complete games and Dave Stieb (18-6) had two. The other three regulars in the rotation were David Wells, Jimmy Key and John Cerutti. Not a bad trio, but not a complete game in the bunch, even though they had 75 starts total. Manager Cito Gaston put his faith in relievers Tom Henke (61 games), Duane Ward (73 games) and Jim Acker (59 games). By way of contrast, the 1990 Yankees had 15 complete games, though they finished at the bottom of the AL East.

In 1991, by the way, the Jays were back in double digits in complete games – but just barely – with 10. In the NL, the individual leaders in complete games were Tom Glavine of the Braves and Dennis Martinez of the Expos, both with nine. This might sound like a respectable total, but it was the first time in NL history that the complete games league leader didn’t reach double digits. It was a preview of coming attractions, as no pitcher has hit double digits in the 21st century. Randy Johnson (then with the Diamondbacks) was the last to do so in 1999.

Of course, there were 26 teams in 1990, not 16, as was the case from 1901-1960. More games were played yet complete games took a nosedive. Now we have 30 teams, and that’s been the case since 1998. So let’s flash back to 1998 and look at complete games since then, so we are being consistent. We have a 20-year database to conjure with. It provides a significant chunk of baseball history without going full-tilt antediluvian.

Complete Games Overview, 1998-2017
Year MLB Total Team(s) with Most # CG Team(s) with Least # CG Avg Per Team
1998 302 Braves 24 Brewers 2 10
1999 237 Braves 16 Brewers 2  8
2000 234 Dbacks 16 Brewers 2  8
2001 199 Tigers 16 Rays 1  7
2002 214 Dbacks 14 Rockies 1  7
2003 209 A’s 16 Astros 1  7
2004 150 Expos 11 Yankees 1  5
2005 189 Cards 15 Rays 1  6
2006 144 Indians 13 Dodgers/Nationals/Twins 1  5
2007 112 Blue Jays 11 Marlins/Nationals/Rangers 0  4
2008 136 Blue Jays 15 Tigers/Yankees 1  5
2009 152 Giants 11 Dodgers/Brewers 1  5
2010 165 Phillies 14 Cubs/Pirates 1  6
2011 173 Phillies 18 Padres 0  6
2012 128 Reds/Tigers  9 Rockies/Brewers 0  4
2013 124 Rays  9 Braves/Rockies/Twins 1  4
2014 118 Giants/Cardinals  8 Cubs/Rockies/Mets 1  4
2015 104 Indians 11 Orioles/Marlins/Pirates 0  3
2016  83 Giants 10 Marlins/Brewers/Yankees/Blue Jays 0  3
2017  59 Indians  7 Braves/White Sox/Rays 0  2

So from more than 309 CGs (admittedly that number might have been a bit inflated by opposing pitchers completing games against the two new teams, the Devil Rays and the Diamondbacks) in 1998, we now have fewer than 60, a decline of more than 80 percent. If the number of home runs in 2017 was 20 percent of the 1998 total, you can bet the farm that the powers that be would have move heaven and earth to end the power shortage. Home runs are sexy (even during BP) and power hitters put butts in the seats. Complete games? Not so sexy. Root, root, root for the home team, and if the starting pitcher doesn’t get a complete game, it’s a shame…but not a tragedy.

The 2007 season was notable as the first in which a team (actually three teams) had no complete games. Since 1998, the league average of complete games per team has shrunk from 10 to two. In other words, if you have a season ticket for your local major league team, you have one chance in 81 of seeing a complete game from your team.

In the chart above, a team’s totals can be skewed by an individual starting pitcher having an outstanding season (e.g., the Phillies’ Roy Halladay with nine in 2010 and eight in 2011). In 2017, the Indians, leading the way with seven, benefitted from Corey Kluber’s five complete games. Same for the Twins, who had just one complete game (by 44-year-old Bartolo Colon!) in addition to Ervin Santana’s five.

If you watched many games in 2017, it was exceedingly rare to see a starting pitcher, no matter how dominant, last much more than 100 pitches. In a sense, the quality start and the 100-pitch count are the new standard for starting pitchers. A workhorse used to be defined by 300 innings. Today 200 innings would suffice.

I can offer some recent anecdotal evidence:

On Aug. 20, I attended a White Sox-Rangers contest in Arlington. The White Sox, shutting out the Rangers, brought in their fifth pitcher of the game in the ninth inning! For a team going nowhere (I think the 2017 White Sox qualify), that seems like over-managing. It’s almost as though the manager is doing face time by going to the mound.  You have to let people know who’s in charge, so get out of that dugout as often as possible and let people see you making decisions.

On Sept. 29, I attended a game at Yankee Stadium. Masahiro Tanaka had 15 strikeouts after seven innings. This tied him for the highest total of the 2017 season (Stephen Strasburg also had 15 on May 27 vs. San Diego). Tanaka was in the rare position of being able to tie the major league record for most strikeouts (20, set by Max Scherzer, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens twice) in a nine-inning game, and he had an outside shot at breaking it.

Aside from giving up three harmless hits (and no walks), Tanaka was totally in control. He had pitched to just 23 batters in seven innings. In fact, he was the first ever Yankee pitcher to strike out 15 or more without giving up an earned run or a walk. While I relished the possibility that I might be an eyewitness to baseball history again (four days earlier I had been present when Aaron Judge tied and then broke the rookie home run record), I knew it would never happen.

At the time the Yanks still had an outside chance of tying the Red Sox for the AL East division championship. Given Tanaka’s dominance, his remaining in the game would seem to enhance his team’s chances for victory. Unfortunately, he had transcended the century mark in his pitch count. He left the game with 103 after seven innings. Anyway, he might be needed for the AL Division Series, so better not take a chance on overworking him, even though the first game of the ALDS was scheduled for six days later. As it turned out, Tanaka didn’t pitch till GameThree on Oct. 8 – nine days after his 15-strikeout effort.

So how did we get to such a state?

To be sure, it has been a long downward trend, but I think a benchmark occurred in 2003 when Red Sox manager Grady Little was roundly criticized (and subsequently fired, even though he had led the team to 188 victories in two seasons) for leaving Pedro Martinez in a playoff game too long. The Red Sox lost. There’s no assurance that changing pitchers would have resulted in a Red Sox victory, yet Little’s critics figured that victory would have been assured if he had pulled Martinez a few pitches earlier.

Curiously, a manager is much less often criticized for removing an effective pitcher too soon. A relief pitcher who gets lit up may be roundly booed by the fans, but his failure is rarely attributed to the manager who made the decision to bring him in.

I’m sure the other 29 major league managers took due notice of Grady Little’s fate. So now the reigning managerial philosophy is employ the hook earlier rather than later. Don’t wait till the pitcher starts to falter, get him out of there while he’s on top. It’s no assurance that you’ll win, but you have a better chance of keeping your job.

As mentioned above, Corey Kluber and Ervin Santana led in complete games with five in 2017. No pitcher had four, or even three. So Marcus Stroman, Max Scherzer, Ivan Nova, Clayton Richard, Rick Porcello and Carlos Martinez were tied for third place in complete games with two. That’s right, certified thoroughbreds like Scherzer and Porcello, winners of the 2016 Cy Young Awards, couldn’t come up with more than two. Clayton Kershaw led the NL with 18 victories but only one was a complete games. Yeah, I know he was injured, but just one? Even more unlikely, Chris Sale, an AL Cy Young candidate with 308 strikeouts in 214.1 innings, had just one.

Sale, however, was tied with Justin Verlander for most Quality Starts (six innings, three or fewer earned runs) with 23. You might not have seen this stat on a leaderboard before. Baseball-Reference does not include it; the Fox Sports web site does.

One fine day, perhaps you will see a leaderboard with “100+” for starting pitchers who eclipse 100 pitches in a game. (Theoretically, a relief pitcher could surpass 100, but don’t hold your breath.) You might even have a category for total pitches thrown. Imagine a world where the trophy for “Most Pitches Thrown” is so coveted that toward the end of the season, leaders start throwing more waste pitches  to inflate their totals!

Curiously, amateur ball is leading the way in the pitch count category. The web site keeps track of New Jersey high school pitchers’ total number of pitches for the season. So perhaps one major league baseball will have a league leader who has thrown more pitches in a season than any of his peers as well as a 100-plus champ. Why not? As more and more coaches and managers obsess over pitch count, look for it to be reflected on the leaderboard.

Is it conceivable that one day the complete game will quietly disappear from the leaderboard? I admit it sounds far-fetched, but there was a time when the thought that a team could go 162 games without a starter going the distance would have been pretty far out. In 2016, four teams fit that profile. So we’re on our way.

Of course, if we reach the point where no team has any complete games, then that will mean all starting pitchers will be tied for the complete lead with zero. That may be extreme, but one day complete games may be as rare as no-hitters. In fact, complete games may not exist aside from no-hitters.

In 1901 there were 1,913 complete games out of 2,220 games played. In 2017 there were 59 out of 4,860 games. If complete games were a species it would definitely be on the endangered list. I doubt they’ll  ever go extinct, but some people felt that way about the passenger pigeon when they numbered in the billions.

So if you watch enough baseball, you may be lucky enough to witness a complete game. There will be the occasional starter on a roll, mowing down the opposition with a minimum of pitches while his team supports him with a robust offense, resulting in a rare day off for the bullpen.

Such a game is a possibility every time a starter takes the mound. But it’s about as rare as an alligator sighting in Oklahoma. Not totally impossible but if you’re a Sooner bootmaker intent on carrying a line of alligator-skin cowboy boots, and you like to buy local…then your business model is the longest of long shots.

References & Resources

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

Hey guys, did spellchecker also go the way of the complete game? incompleat/incomplete

87 Cards
87 Cards

I like the title…Here is an alternative: The Incomp___ Game: How Many Batters Did Elroy Face?

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

I generally deplore the demise of complete games. But I have to say that the comment about Pedro Martinez is a bit of a straw man argument. He was struggling before Little took him. It’s not as if he was sailing along and Little took him out for no reason. He had clearly hit a wall and had nothing left; the criticism had nothing to do with some unthinking devotion to pitch counts. He was simply getting hit and it was a mistake to leave him in, IMO.


I hate it when a starter goes 8.2 innings and is taken out after surrendering 1 base runner.

But yeah, other than a few exceptions, starting pitchers are becoming glorified relievers.