Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Whither the complete game? And why?

There always have been, and there will always be, those who long for the way baseball used to be. In many ways, I’m also a member of the Good Old Days Club. I miss a lot of things about the old days: the quirky and unique stadiums, the colorful personalities, the day games, the varying offensive strategies, and more. But I’m always willing to look at the facts to see if the old days really were better. Most of the time, they were not. The years of segregation kept many of the best players out of the game. The quirky urban ballparks made a lot of players look much better (e.g. Chuck Klein) or worse (e.g. Goose Goslin) than they really were. Contact hitting turned out to be overrated in terms of run production, and the alleged damage done by a batter’s high strikeout rate turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The tried-and-true strategies like sacrifice bunts turned out to be often tried, but rarely true.

And then there was the mystique of the complete game. Since the dawn of professional baseball, each generation of pitchers and fans has lamented the decline of character in the next generation of pitchers.

Today’s old men harken back to the iron arms of their youth in the 1950s and 1960s, when mighty combatants like Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson would finish what they started. Spahnie pitched 382 complete games and led the league nine times, including seven in a row. And none of those seasons were his most impressive, in which he completed 24 games in 32 starts. Gibson once had back-to-back seasons of 28 complete games, and didn’t even lead the league in the earlier of the two, when Juan Marichal completed 30.

But it’s important to realize that the old men sitting in the stands in the 1960s thought the pitchers of that day were soft. They would lament the passing of the true warriors of an earlier time, men who would complete almost all of their starts while also making relief appearances as needed. Happy Jack Chesbro completed 48 games one year, while many others of his time topped the 40 mark, including Cy Young and the aptly monikered Iron Man McGinnity. To hear those old fellas talking in the stands in 1960, why ol’ Walter Johnson would complete 38 games in a season while throwing hundreds of pitches in each contest, all of which surely must have been traveling 110 miles an hour.

And yet when Jack Chesbro was on the mound in 1904, tossing his 48 complete games, there were old men in those stands as well, and they would remind each other of the 1879 season when Will White started 75 games for the Cincinnati Reds and finished every single one of them. Upon hearing that, another of the old-time “cranks” in those wooden stands would argue that White had been pitching underhand, but Old Hoss Radbourn was a real man. Coming over the top, he not only completed all 73 of his starts in 1884, but won 60 of them. (Or so they thought until recently. We now know that the correct number of wins was 59.) Moreover, the Old Hoss was virtually the team’s only pitcher from July 23rd on. He not only completed his regular starts, but also took everybody else's turn in the rotation, and completed those as well. During one stretch between August 9th and September 24th, Rad started 28 of the team’s 29 games, completing every one and winning 24.

None of the all-time records for complete games will ever be challenged. You may discount Will White’s single season high of 75 because he was pitching underhand from 45 feet. You may disallow Old Hoss’s season of 73 complete games because it was still from the old pitching distance. And feel free to be a skeptic and toss out Amos Rusie’s season of 50 complete games, which is the record at the modern pitching distance, because it was in the deadball era. Fine. Now you are still left with the fact that Bob Feller threw 36 complete games in a single modern season. No pitcher will ever approach that again. Max Scherzer led the NL in 2017 with two complete games.

The career record is even more daunting. Cy Young threw 749 complete games in his career. The active career leader, as I write this, is CC Sabathia with 38 complete games in 17 seasons. Young’s total of 749 is the least approachable record in all of baseball. Do you think that’s exaggerating? Consider this: it is very unlikely that any current or future pitcher will reach as many as 75 complete games in a career, so it is literally true that from now on nobody will reach even 10% of Young’s total. I can’t name any other record that far out of reach: not the DiMaggio hit streak, the Ripken playing streak, Cy Young’s 511 wins, nor Nolan Ryan’s 5714 Ks and 2795 BBs. Some of those records are assuredly safe, and the others are unlikely to be broken, but modern players can easily get within 10% of them. But Young’s CG total will probably never be matched or topped again even if baseball's high sheriffs add a decimal point and make it 74.9 complete games!

So is the decline of complete games a bad thing?

Of course not.

If pushing a starter to finish his games was the winning strategy, people would still be doing it.

To illustrate why it is not the optimal strategy, let’s consider one of the iron men of the 1960s, Bob Gibson, who was so intimidating that a manager wouldn’t dare to pull him out of a game if he didn’t want to go. Was that the way to win? No. There are two main reasons:

1. Gibson, as you would expect from a normal human being engaged in heavy exertion, faded considerably in the late innings

In innings 1-6, he had 7.4 Ks per 9 innings, allowing opposing batters to achieve a .613 OPS

In innings 7-9, he had 6.7 Ks per 9 innings, allowing opposing batters to achieve a .642 OPS

In the 9th inning alone, opposing batters raised their OPS to .666, and their K frequency dropped to 6.5 per 9 innings

In extra innings, opposing hitters achieved a .706 OPS, and their K frequency dropped to 6.1 per 9 innings.

The average NL batter during Gibson’s career (1959-1975) had an OPS of .693 against all pitchers so, as the game progressed, Gibson came closer and closer to an average level. Of course it was not feasible to pull Gibson for another rotation starter, so a mathematical average of performance against all pitchers is not indicative of who might have been able to relieve. Relief pitchers were often failed starters in that era, as opposed to relief specialists, so they were slightly less effective than average, allowing batters an OPS of .703 over that same span of years. But note that Bob Gibson's performance in extra innings was even slightly below the level of an average reliever of the era, suggesting it was far below the level of the best relievers. Leaving Gibson in to complete a game in extra innings was rarely preferable to bringing in the best available reliever.

The overall decline of Gibson’s performance over the course of a game is vividly illustrated by the following graph of Gibson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio, inning by inning.

2. Gibson was a great pitcher overall, but his platoon splits were astronomically large.

First let us give him his due, and that due is substantial. In the entire history of major league baseball since the dawn of the lively ball era, among all pitchers who have retired 3000 or more right-handed batters, there has never been any pitcher more effective against right handers than Bob Gibson. Never. Not one. No starter. No reliever. The top 25 are shown below.

Footnote: a great Houston fireballer, J.R. Richard, was slightly more effective than Gibson, but fell below the specified threshold of batters retired. Gibson did beat everyone else who is off the chart, including Mariano Rivera.

The following is a rundown of the batting averages of the greatest right-handed hitters of his era against Gibson.

Hank Aaron
Roberto Clemente
Ernie Banks
Willie Mays
Frank Robinson
Orlando Cepeda
Dick Allen
Tony Perez
Johnny Bench
Mike Schmidt
Tommy Davis

If you are a thoughtful fan and have been following the article closely up to this point, you are probably wondering something like this: "If Gibson was the best pitcher of all time against right-handed batters, and so many batters are right-handed, why is he not considered the greatest pitcher ever to toe the rubber?"

The answer will probably surprise you. Against left-handed batters, Bob Gibson was an average pitcher. Please note how I worded that. I didn't say "he wasn't as strong against lefties" or "he was less successful against lefties than against right-handed hitters." The harsh reality was that he was just an average pitcher against left-handed hitters. Even more important when considering in-game strategies, even an average left-handed pitcher was FAR more effective than the right-handed Gibson against left-handed batters.

average for all pitchers of his era vs RHB
average for all pitchers of his era vs LHB
average for LHP of his era vs LHB

In general, a manager would be far better off by pulling Gibson and bringing in even an average left-handed pitcher to face a left-handed batter. This would obviously not happen in an early inning, since Gibson would still be needed to pitch to all those right-handed batters still to come. But in a late inning, or extra innings, in a clutch situation, Gibson obviously should have been pulled for a lefty reliever against a tough left-handed hitter, for two reasons: (1) he tired significantly as the game progressed; (2) even when not tired, he was less effective against left-handed hitters than the average left-handed pitcher.

As opposed to the right-handed stars detailed above, many left-handed hitters hit Gibson hard. The Willies, Stargell and McCovey, each batted .290 with power. Eddie Mathews batted .326 with power. Richie Hebner batted .387 with an 1.127 OPS. Ralph Garr also batted .387. Al Oliver batted .342. Joe Morgan hit .313 with power. Billy Williams batted only .259, but with ten homers. Unheralded Dave Rader batted .484 against Bob Gibson. Many other lefties and switch hitters topped the .300 mark.

And that, in a nutshell, is why relief specialists exist. Human beings get tired. The platoon differential is very real. Even if complete games posed no risk at all to the pitchers' multi-million-dollar arms, the modern strategy simply works better.

SIDEBAR: Is Gibson an exception to the rule? Are there other pitchers whose performance indicated that they should have stayed in to complete most starts?

Yes, but only one that I know of. Almost all pitchers have fatigue factors and platoon differentials that make it a sound strategy to replace them in certain game situations, but Sandy Koufax did not.

* He had no platoon differential at all. Although left-handed, he held right-handed batters to a .594 OPS, and stymied left-handers equally as well (.598).

* He actually improved late in the game. Batters managed a .598 OPS against him in innings 1-6, but only .588 in innings 7-9. and only .492 in extra innings.

There is simply no good explanation for those two bullet points above. Neither of those facts should be true, but Mr. Koufax
appears to have been some kind of freak of nature. It is entirely possible that he should have pitched fewer innings, but the reasons for that would be based on kinesiology, not performance. Pulling him out of a lot of games might have saved his arm for a few more years. Or not. I don't know. But I do know that there were generally no performance-related reasons to pull him, based on either fatigue or platoon differential. Unless he asked to be taken out for some reason, he was always the guy you wanted on the mound.


  1. A brilliant piece.

    I knew that complete games were harmful physically to pitchers and competitively to their teams; and I am pleased to see the latter point demonstrated with Bob Gibson.

    But I did not realise how extreme the righty/lefty split against Gibson was; nor did I appreciate the exceptional nature of Koufax.

  2. Incredibly interesting analysis. Especially intriguing is your point about Cy Young's career CG, and the 10% threshold.

    I wonder if we'll soon see a year with zero complete games, in either league?