A Plea For The Return Of The Complete Game

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Sandy AlcantaraRyan Casey Aguinaldo

By Russ Walsh

Since 1900, 34 pitchers have thrown 250 or more complete games in their Major League careers. The leader, Walter Johnson, completed 531 games between 1907 and 1927. Complete games were, of course, much more common in the early days of baseball. Only seven pitchers who started the majority of their games during or after the 1950 season appear on this list: Warren Spahn (382), Robin Roberts (305) Gaylord Perry (303), Early Wynn (289), Fergie Jenkins (267), Bob Gibson (255), and Steve Carlton (254). Carlton, the youngest of this bunch, threw his last complete game in 1987. Since the year 2000, Hall of Famer Roy Halladay leads all pitchers with 65 complete games. Livan Hernandez is second with 39. Likely Hall of Famer Zack Greinke, who was a rookie in 2004, has just 17.

As a baseball loving kid growing up in the 1950s, I was a huge fan of the complete game. I would pour over the backs of my baseball cards looking for that CG column or a note in the blurb like, “Last year Robin led all of baseball with 33 complete games.” That “Robin,” of course, was Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame Phillies pitcher who accomplished that feat in 1953. From July 1952 to June 1953, Roberts threw 28 consecutive complete games. In those days, management valued pitchers who completed what they started. Salaries were low, pitching staffs were smaller, and pitchers were expected to go nine innings.

Under baseball’s indentured servitude rules at the time, contracts were signed year-to-year. With no long-term contracts, front offices tended not to think long term. No matter that after six straight seasons of tossing 300-plus innings, Roberts lost the edge on his fastball. The object was to get the most out of your “horse” pitchers as you could and then move on. Some pitchers, like Spahn, adapted well as they aged, but others like Roberts struggled.

Of course, no one needs to know these statistics to know that baseball no longer values the complete game. The game has become increasingly specialized, with setup men, closers, and even relief pitchers as “openers” over the past 40-plus years. The death of the complete game is completely understandable. The object of the game of baseball is to win the game. If a team has a better chance to win the game throwing a starter for six innings and following with three relief pitchers firing 97-plus mph bullets, that is what will happen.

Draftee signing bonuses and long-term contracts also play a role. When you have invested a few million dollars in a young arm, you want to protect your investment. Young pitchers are kept on strict pitch counts as they progress through the Minors, and when and if they do get to the Major Leagues, the instructions are to go as hard as you can for as long as you can and then we’ll bring in the specialists. Five innings? No problem. Six innings? A quality start. Seven innings? A Hall of Famer.

I get it, but still I wonder if something more than just nostalgia value is lost when we devalue the complete game. Back when pitchers were expected to pitch complete games, out of necessity they were forced to learn a wide variety of pitches. Pitchers wanted to give the hitters a different “look” when facing them for the third or fourth time in a game. Pitchers like Spahn, his teammate Lew Burdette, and others developed a broad repertoire of curveballs, sliders, changeups and screwballs to keep the hitters guessing and extend their effectiveness on the mound beyond the sixth inning.

Major League hitters get to the Major Leagues because they can hit a fastball. Eventually, I believe they will adapt to the 100 mph fastball, just as they adapted to the 95 mph fastball a few years ago. The key to getting batters out consistently is keeping them off balance. All the great flamethrowers from Christy Mathewson to Sandy Koufax to Nolan Ryan have needed more than just the fastball, and each developed devastating breaking pitches. If today’s pitchers are forced to go longer in games, they are going to be required to develop a more complete repertoire of pitches and ultimately, I think the game will be better for it.

In fact, I think it is already happening. Probably the most talked about pitch in the last two years has been the cutter. A sort of half fastball, half slider, the cutter is meant to upset the batter’s timing enough to keep the ball off the barrel of the bat. It is more of a weak contact pitch than a strikeout pitch. 

Another slight change off the fastball that is occurring more and more in pitchers’ repertoires is an old pitch in new clothing -- the sinker. A sinker used to be a pitch for pitchers who didn’t have quite enough on their fastball, so they got movement on the ball by throwing a two-seam fastball that sunk down in the strike zone. Now, hard throwers like Miami’s Sandy Alcantara have added the power sinker to their arsenal. Alcantara throws his about 96-97 mph, compared to his 98-100 mph fastball. The Phillies’ Zack Wheeler is another elite pitcher who has gone to the power sinker. Even the hardest-throwing starting pitchers are recognizing that pure gas is not the only answer.

Alcantara is the poster boy for my argument for putting the complete game back in play. He leads the Major Leagues in innings pitched and complete games this year. And while his complete game total of four is modest by 1950s standards, his workload has allowed him to refine an incredibly balanced pitch repertoire. Alcantara throws each of his pitches -- four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, and changeup -- about 25 percent of the time. Both Alcantara’s power and his change of speeds keep hitters off balance and have made him the premier pitcher in the National League this year.

I would not argue that pitchers should pile up 300-plus innings a year as they did in the old days. The five-man rotation, with the occasional sixth starter, seems a smart way to go, and limiting the top pitchers to 30 starts and 225 or so innings seems about right. But expecting the very best pitchers to stay on the mound, attempting to finish the task they started every time out, seems to me to be an unqualified good. The best pitchers get better, and the fans can look forward to discussions about their favorite pitchers throwing two-hitters, working out of a late-inning jam, or pitching a nine-inning shutout.

The complete game is deeply rooted in the popular lore of baseball. It has had its own column in baseball statistical charts since the beginning of the game. Time for it to make a comeback.

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, diehard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1

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