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December 9, 2013

Baseball Therapy

What Happened to the Complete Game?

by Russell A. Carleton


In 2013, Adam Wainwright led Major League Baseball by pitching five complete games. In 2012, Justin Verlander was much more of an ironman and pitched six. A mere 30 years ago, in 1983, six complete games would have landed Verlander in a tie for 42nd place with such notables as Storm Davis, Bob Forsch, Jim Gott, Ken Schrom, and Bruce Hurst. Even 20 years ago, six complete games would have been good for a tie with David Cone for 15th place in MLB. What happened to finishing what you started?

Last week, we saw that starting pitchers really have seen a reduction in their workload over time. Since 1950, there has been a steady downward trend in the number of batters that pitchers have faced, the number of outs they’ve recorded, and the number of pitches that they’ve thrown. Indeed, the percentage of games in which the starter records at least 27 outs has fallen from 30 percent in 1950 to two percent in 2012.

What happened to the complete game? Well, for one, it’s hard to get through nine innings in 100 pitches, or even 110, and as we saw last week, managers have reined in their starters over time. But perhaps there’s another reason why managers have felt more and more comfortable turning to the bullpen in the seventh inning. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Let’s consider the choice that a manager might face at the end of the fifth inning. His starter is showing signs of tiring, and he must decide whether the starter should go out for one more inning or whether he should tell someone down in the bullpen to get ready. It’s not an easy decision. He has to come up with some estimate of what he thinks the starter is capable of in the sixth. He has to balance that against what the score is, because his first job is to win the game. He also has to think about the state of his bullpen. If the starter can get through the sixth, the bullpen has to pitch only three innings rather than four, and that can affect the next day’s game. He might also be in a situation where this particular starter, tired though he may be, is still a better option than the guy he’d have to bring in.

I tried modeling how this decision has played out over time. I located all cases in which a starter had lasted all the way through the fifth inning (recorded 15 outs). To try to isolate cases in which we can surmise that the manager knew the starter was faltering, but still left him in, I looked for all cases in which the sixth inning (whether the starter completed it or not) was his final act that day. I figured out how many runs (on average) the starter surrendered in those sixth innings. I then found games in which the starter exited after exactly five innings and found out how many runs (on average) the relievers in the sixth inning gave up. For the results that I’m about to show, I considered only games in which the score was still within three runs (in either direction). It actually doesn’t end up making much difference in the overall conclusions when you take that filter off.

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