April 1, 2014
The Complete Value of a Complete Game
The complete game has become an increasingly rare beast. In 2013, there were 124 complete games registered by the 4,862 pitchers who started out on the hill, and Adam Wainwright led all of baseball with five. If a pitcher makes it through nine innings, he’s likely having a very good day, and nine innings of well-pitched baseball is nothing to sneeze at. But a complete game is more than that. It’s a sign of manliness. It’s like shouting, “I don’t need no stinkin’ bullpen!” It’s a cultural touchstone. It’s the guy yelling at his TV, “Finish what you started, you silly overpaid, coddled millionaire. I finish my day of work without calling in a reliever.” A pitcher who completes a game is just getting in touch with the common man.
There’s a certain fascination surrounding the pitcher who goes deep into games, even if he doesn’t complete them. It’s been argued that such a player provides value well beyond the confines of the game in which he pitches. Logically, the argument makes sense. Coin Wyers pointed out that the deeper into a game a pitcher goes, the better the bullpen performs. Mostly, that has to do with the fact that if a manager can get through the seventh with his starter, he can tell his third- and fourth-best relievers to take the night off. In some bullpens, the last thing you want is that fourth-best reliever throwing any pitches. Others have suggested that if a manager has a starter on whom he can count to go deep into a game, it affects his choices on how to work the bullpen the day before (he doesn’t have to “save” as many arms for the next day) and after (all of the relievers are rested). In that way, the complete game affects three different games!
And then someone says it. “How do you really figure out the full value of the complete game? I mean, there’s the game itself, but there’s all that value that he’s adding in the game on either side, and that’s not being captured in the stats. There’s just no way to fully value that.”
I do believe that was the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down.
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
The funny thing is that this pitcher already exists, and no one gives him any credit. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the perfect bullpen saver: Scheduled Offday.
Every season, a manager has a handful of situations in which he knows for sure that his bullpen will not be needed tomorrow. Worried about getting four outs from your closer because it might mean that he won’t be available tomorrow? Don’t worry. There is no tomorrow!
Thanks to Retrosheet, we have files that show the original schedule for a season. (Of course, rainouts and other unfortunate events change what actually happens, but that’s life.) Using these files, I looked for games where a team had an offday scheduled for the next day. To make sure that no makeup games were snuck onto the schedule, I made sure that no game was actually played the next day as well. I looked to see how managers behaved on the day before an off-day versus when they did not. All numbers are from 2009-2013.
So let’s see how well each of the standard arguments holds up:
The manager can have a quicker hook with his starter, because he can extend his bullpen a little bit.
The manager can use more relievers and mix and match more effectively. He can feel more free to use a pitcher for a batter or two.
The manager can use all of his good relievers, rather than holding one back in case he should be needed tomorrow. He can also extend his good relievers a bit.
In 2013, the average major league bullpen pitched just shy of 500 innings (499.23, to be exact). We can figure that if managers always used their bullpens the way that they did before a day off, they would save 15 runs (actually a little less, because some of that is already baked into the results, but let’s ignore that for a minute). That’s not insignificant. The strategic ease that comes from the ability to say “tomorrow, I won’t have to worry about the bullpen” is like having a ghost 1.5 win player on the roster. The problem is that the manager has that luxury only a handful of times per year.
To make sure that there weren’t weird things going on, I limited the sample to games that were reasonably close, defined as games that were within three runs either way at the start of the seventh inning. I also took out any games after September 1, figuring that the expanded rosters might play havoc with the findings. The numbers, of course, wiggled a bit, but the overall message was the same.
Now, let’s come back to reality. This would necessitate a situation where a team played games only on alternating days so that the manager absolutely knew that tomorrow was always a total freebie, or that the manager always had totally delusional levels of confidence that tomorrow, his starter would throw a complete game. If we assume that managers are not actually delusional, then we would expect them to understand that while a pitcher might often give him seven or eight strong innings, and could very well throw a complete game tomorrow, he at least needs to consider what tomorrow will bring. There goes some of that ease factor.
On top of that, any one starter is going to be tomorrow’s starting pitcher only about one-fifth of the time. So, even if we assumed that Mike Matheny managed his bullpen differently when Adam Wainwright was scheduled for the next day, that ease is present in only 30-something games per year. The upper limit of an effect that one pitcher could have from a reputation as a complete gamer would be 0.3 wins or so, and that’s if the manager believed that he would always start and finish the next game. The effect is probably smaller, and while 0.1 or 0.2 wins of additional value per year isn’t irrelevant, the order of magnitude is well below what it’s made out to be by those who sing the praises of the complete game.
But wait, what about the next day’s games? If a pitcher throws a complete game, then the bullpen had a day off and the manager has some leeway to use pitchers a little more liberally, right? I identified games that were played after a day off and found the following.
The Cult of Complete
If you want to make the case that a pitcher who throws a lot of complete games lessens the workload on the players in the bullpen over the course of a season and keeps their arms fresher and perhaps less injury prone, that’s a reasonable hypothesis (for another day). But let’s not make the complete game or the pitcher who goes deep into a game more than he really is. The knock-on effects that it has are not some deep mystery that takes 50 years of study to fathom. They can be easily estimated. The effect of those heroics is not zero, but let’s keep some sense of perspective.