The Decline And Fall Of The Complete Game

There’s something beautiful and perfect and symmetrical about a shutout. The line of zeroes on the scoreboard that feels like it could go on forever. The inevitable victory that comes when the zeroes do stop. It’s perfection embodied in the most practical sense – guaranteed victory. No hitters and perfect games are shiny, but underneath the veneer of individual glory, the end result is no different from that of the shutout. Unadulterated Triumph.

But this post is not about the perfect and symmetrical. It’s about the substantially flawed and the barely sensible; baseball and life and where they converge and everything wonderful and fucked up about that place. Not just shutouts with their big-T Triumph, but regular, boring, adulterated triumph. There is a more human glory, a blemished glory to be found in the complete games that aren’t shutouts. But why, if less electric, are these performances more dynamic? And where have they gone?

Last season, CC Sabathia threw ten complete games, becoming the first pitcher to reach double digits since 2002. Five of those were shutouts. In 1976, Randy Jones led all big league pitchers with 25 complete games. It was a mule-like, Cy Young Winning, 300-inning monstrosity of a season. In it, Jones threw 5 shutouts.

The decline of the complete game is not a new story. It has arrived in tandem with the much ballyhooed rise of the bullpen. There were barely closers when Randy Jones was pitching, and there sure as hell weren’t assigned setup men and lefty specialists. Baseball Reference makes this all very easy to track. In 1976, 27% of all starts resulted in complete games and 26% of those complete games were also shutouts. In 2008, just 2.5% of starts resulted in complete games, and 40% of those were also shutouts.

From a more nuanced perspective, this information is practically irrelevant. Statisticians rightfully don’t value a 9-inning, 3 earned run performance as highly as a 7-inning, 0 earned run performance. But one can’t help but wonder why complete games have fallen so drastically, and shutouts (as a percentage of those complete games) have increased. Consider the following chart, comparing the years 1973-82 to the years 1999-2008. I chose to start in 1973 because it was the first year of the Designated Hitter.


And those numbers don’t even take expansion into account.

My suspicion is that managers are much less likely to yank pitchers working on shutouts than pitchers who aren’t. This might seem obvious; any fool would know not to pull a guy who isn’t giving up runs . But what of the pitcher who has thrown 7 innings and allowed just 1 or 2, with a lowish pitch count. He is obviously effective. But I think the runs on the board trigger something subconscious in the manager. I think, with no hard data to prove this (correlation does not equal causation), that pitchers throwing shutouts are often left in a bit too long, and pitchers who aren’t are often pulled a bit early.

Wait a sec. Don’t the strict pitch counts we have in modern baseball completely unwind this argument? Maybe a little bit. But in the same sense that to yank a pitcher working on a no-hitter is unheard of, I’d bet that a shutout gives managers pause before taking that walk to the mound. Or at the very least, on a subconscious level, it shifts the way they view a performance.

The reason I said all that, was to give this context: I miss the flawed complete game. I miss it even though I was never really alive to watch it in its prime. I miss it even though I grew up with fond memories of Todd Worrell and came of age with Eric Gagne. Maybe I’ve read one too many stories about tough 1950s pitchers battling their way through trouble. But I love to watch a pitcher load the bases with nobody out, take a long walk around the mound, tug at his cap, breathe deep, stare up at the stars, then promptly strike out the side. I love 9 IP, 3 ER, 6 Ks, 7 Hs, 4 BBs. That, to me, is a real quality start.

That start has an essence of America that the shutout doesn’t. Start the job and you damn well finish it no matter how bad things get. Imperfections be damned. It’s a rough road, but you either conquer it or go down in the fight. Tom Joad in California. Ahab spotting Moby Dick. Harvey Haddix taking a perfect game into the 13th and in a flash, losing on an error, an intentional walk, and a Joe Adcock double.

Baseball is nothing like life. But these flawed complete games are a lot like life. Things may not end well, but we get to the end. Our innings may not last as long as we’d like, but we play all 9. No clock, no pitch count, barely anything seems to be under our control at all. Sometimes we walk the bases loaded and sneak out of it; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we throw 0-2 fastballs head-high and our personal Vladmir Guerreros hit them 450 feet. Sometimes we can put our Vladmir Guerreros to rest on a half-hearted hanging curve. Nobody lives a 27 up and 27 down life. Not even the guys on the real field.

If shutouts are the Beatles than complete games are the Stones: dirty and rough around the edges; less expert, but so much more substantive. The kind of game where pitching mounds are to be climbed, where the pouring sweat isn’t just from exhaustion, where fathers are proud of their sons not just for their ability, but for their resilience and work ethic. I mean the kind of game that ends not merely in glory, but in something more personal: Satisfaction.

(Thanks to Scott for data help. There’s a bunch more interesting stuff about complete games that I might get into these next few days.)

2 Responses to “The Decline And Fall Of The Complete Game”

  • I can’t help but love a guy who uses rock ‘n’ roll analogies to describe pitching. Your talent for writing never ceases to surprise and delight me.

  • Very good points brought up. I thought the lowering of the mound in 1969 would have been a deciding factor too, but for 11 years after that, many pitchers still threw 20+ CG. The big decline started after the 1980 season. Will Fernando be the last pitcher to complete 20 games in a season? Probably, for a while…

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