West Palm Beach, Fla. — The complete game is nearly completely gone from baseball. Shutouts are vanishing, too.
The numbers are striking.
Go back to 1978, and there were more than 1,000 complete games in the majors. Move to 2003, and the total was about 200. In 2018, though, there were only 42 – the lowest total in the sport’s history, according to Baseball-Reference .com – and just 19 of those were shutouts, the fewest since the 1870s.
Or to put it a different way: Roughly every other game featured a starter who went the distance 40 years ago, whereas about one in every 55 games did last season. Stars of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton or Jim Palmer would top 20 complete games in a year. In the ‘90s, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson would get to 10 or 12 or so.
Last year, no one threw more than two complete games. No one delivered more than one shutout.
“The special, elite guys are still able achieve it and want to achieve it,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see it disappear completely, but it’s definitely becoming a rarity.”
So what happened? Various factors contributed to the decline of dominant, nine-inning performances on the mound, from injury fears to an increased emphasis on accumulating bullpen arms, from the newfangled “opener” strategy of using a reliever to get things underway to protecting young pitchers in such a way that they never build up an ability to stay in until the end of games.
Still, the basic sense around the sport is that it’s not that pitchers are no longer born with shoulders or elbows capable of producing complete games, but that their teams simply won’t let them even try and generally don’t properly prepare them to do so.
“Everyone,” Atlanta Braves right-hander Kevin Gausman summed up, “is obsessed with pitch count now.”
It’s a trend that seemed to gain steam in the 2000s, not coincidentally as more and more pitchers were getting elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery. Don’t let most guys throw too hard for too long, the thinking goes. Merely six starters averaged at least 100 pitches per outing last season, down from 43 in 2011, per TeamRankings.com.
Houston’s Gerrit Cole was a member of that group in 2018, which also included his teammate Justin Verlander, NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets, and three-time Cy Young recipient Max Scherzer of the Nationals.
“They’re really holding starters down to 100 pitches and not letting you go past that. If you do, maybe you get 110. But you rarely see guys get to 120 anymore,” Scherzer said. “If an inning takes 15 pitches, you get to 105 after seven and that’s about all you get. The data shows that once you get past 105, 110, that’s when you do start losing your effectiveness, no matter how good of a starter you are.”