6 is the new 9: Where have complete games gone in professional baseball?

What happened in the 1990’s that made Major League Baseball obsessed with “protecting pitchers” through a strict pitch count?

CC Sabathia Pitches for the New York Yankees
In my opinion, the pressure is coming from the front office. General managers and owners will do anything to avoid putting a star pitcher at risk of injury, even if it means putting the team second. With so much money invested in a single player –C.C. Sabathia is getting over $700,000 per start over the next 6 years—the fear is understandable. But does pulling a starter after 6 innings or 100 pitches make sense for the team? Usually not.

Along the same lines, innings pitched per season has witnessed the same downward trend. No pitcher has thrown 300 innings in a single season since Steve Carton in 1980. In fact, the leaders in innings pitched over the past 3 years have had totals in the 230’s and 240’s. Between 1962 (the year the schedule switched to 162 games) and 1980, the league leader in innings pitched exceeded 300 innings every single year, with totals regularly reaching the mid 300’s.

Starters are arguably the most skilled pitchers in the game. With an arsenal that typically includes 4 to 5 pitches and the stamina to throw for hours, it’s tough to make a case against your starter for being the pitcher most likely to get the batter out. And that’s the name of the game, right? Well it used to be. Maybe there are just more skilled pitchers in the game than there were years ago? One thing we can be certain of is that there are more pitchers in Major League Baseball than there ever were.

Over the past 3 years, the total number of pitchers used in a game was 660! Compare that to 1962 when just 300 different pitchers were used. It wasn’t a sudden jump either—the growth rate has been constant for nearly 50 years. Here’s the question, though: is the increase in the number of different pitchers and the decrease in the number of innings they pitch each game and throughout the season resulting in better overall pitching in the game? Let’s examine two basic pitching benchmarks: ERA (earned run average) and WHIP (walks + hits / innings pitched).

Since 1993, the average ERA has been over 4.00. Between 1980 and 1992, the average ERA was consistently between 3.70 and 4.00, going over 4.00 just once (1987). The years between 1962 and 1979 showed a wider range in ERA, with yearly averages as low as 2.98 and as high as 4.00. A similar trend can be found with WHIP, as averages below 1.3 cannot be found before the 1970s.

Cy Young

Before the end of the 20th century, pitchers like Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and Gaylord Perry had seasons of 30+ complete games in consecutive years. Did their arms fall off? Did they turn into Hall of Fame pitchers? So why are today’s pitchers treated so differently, even with the advanced training, conditioning, and physical build of the 21st century athlete?

Today’s top pitchers are treated with more caution and shown less confidence in their ability to go complete the game they started than the below average pitchers were shown half a century ago. Last summer, Austin Wood threw 13 scoreless innings in a 25 inning thriller for the University of Texas. Is it a coincidence that he isn’t tied to a multi-million dollar contract? I don’t think so. Starters today have been groomed to throw on a limited pitch count when they enter into professional baseball.

If pitch count were ignored, and the trips to the mound where the pitching coach asks the pitcher “How do you feel,” I strongly believe that we would see many more complete games, less blown saves, and less inferior middle relief pitchers eating up innings in close games.

This is a guest post written by Chet Kresge

[Photo Credits: CC Sabathia – blog.nj.com | Cy Young – PineCrest.edu]

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  1. face it, there is much more talent in the league today. sure there were hall of fame pitchers in the era where pitchers went and pitched complete games, but were they versing hitters taking steroids? how about we look into the power numbers of today compared to that of 30 years ago. 40 years ago there were not nearly as many players playing in the league that were born out of the country. the game has become much more competitively today with money being thrown around like crazy and the best talent coming from overseas to here (or is the best talent still in japan and the dominican republic…) also, with the modernization of technology comes much better and easier ways of scouting other pitchers. i’m not taking anything away from cy young and other pitchers from back in the day, but they would not have as impressive numbers in today’s game if they played against consistent talent like today

  2. John,
    I disagree with your comment. Just as hitters have become more powerful and a threat over the years so have the pitchers. Back in the day when hitters weren’t hitting as many home runs per season, the pitchers also weren’t nearly as dominant. Pitchers now throw pitches that pitchers in the past couldn’t even fathom of throwing, nor were they throwing 100 mph. I do think though that because of this technology pitchers are putting more stress on their bodies and are therefore unable to go the full 9 innings. Managers and the training staff these days are more conscious and aware of the wear and tear of the long season. When you have 12-13 pitchers on the roster, why not use them to the fullest potential so that players are still around come September!

  3. Hey John,

    When writing the article, I did in fact look at the hitting trends over the same period of time. Compared to the pitching trends, the increase in average over that period of time was minimal. Home runs per game are now regularly over one, where they were typically in the .8’s and .9’s before the late 1990’s. I feel like you didn’t take away my main point of the article though– That starters are still your best pitchers. With the exception of a few dominant closers (can be counted on one hand), a starter in the 8th or 9th inning is still the best option to get the batter out over nearly all relief pitchers.

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