The death of the complete game
On May 22, Zack Greinke took a 5-1 lead into the ninth inning for the Diamondbacks against the White Sox. He had thrown just 95 pitches through eight innings, was pitching with an extra day of rest and had dominated, with 11 strikeouts. He picked up his 12th strikeout to begin the ninth. With two outs, Jose Abreu doubled on Greinke’s 104th pitch, and Greinke was removed from the game.
The complete game isn’t quite dead yet, but as that game shows, when a staff ace with a comfortable lead and moderate pitch count isn’t allowed to finish, the complete game is certainly on life support. Even after a run of complete games over the weekend — including Edinson Volquez’s no-hitter — there have been just 26 complete games so far in 2017. That is just 1.5 percent of all games started. We’re on pace for 75 complete games, which would be fewer than last year’s 83, an all-time low.
With low pitch counts, numbers that indicate that most starters pitch worse the third time through a lineup and deep bullpens with multiple relievers who throw 95 mph, managers don’t want a starter to lose a game in the late innings, even if he’s pitching well.
How do you throw a complete game in 2017? Let’s look at each one to see the circumstances.
April 8: Madison Bumgarner, Giants vs. Padres (8 IP, 114 pitches, L 2-1)
Bumgarner completed this game only because it was an eight-inning loss. Bruce Bochy lets him go 110 pitches — but not 120 — so he wouldn’t have come out for the ninth inning. Of our 22 complete games, five have been eight-inning losses.
April 12: Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays vs. Brewers (9 IP, 100 pitches, L 2-0)
The bullpen was rested after a day off two days prior — though five relievers pitched the night before — so this was mostly Stroman going nine with an efficient pitch count. He gave up a two-out single in the ninth, and I’m sure if the Jays had been winning 2-0 instead of losing, John Gibbons would have gone to his closer.
April 15: Ervin Santana, Twins vs. White Sox (9 IP, 107 pitches, W 6-0)
With a 6-0 lead and just 96 pitches through eight innings, this wasn’t a tough decision for Paul Molitor, and it was made even easier when Santana cruised through a 1-2-3 ninth. The pen had also thrown 11.1 innings over the previous three days, so Molitor wasn’t going to burn a reliever with a big lead and a veteran starter on the mound.
April 15: Tyler Chatwood, Rockies vs. Giants (9 IP, 105 pitches, W 5-0)
Complete games are rare for the Rockies — they’ve had just eight in the previous five seasons. It’s no surprise that this one came in San Francisco, against the Giants; five of our 26 complete games have come against them. This was the Rockies’ 13th game of the season, and they’d had no off days, so it was a good time to give the bullpen a rest. It helped that it was 5-0 and Chatwood was cruising along with a two-hitter and 90 pitches entering the ninth. He issued a one-out walk but got the final two outs for his first career shutout.
April 17: Ivan Nova, Pirates vs. Cardinals (8 IP, 78 pitches, L 1-2)
Check that pitch count. That’s the second-fewest pitches in a complete game of at least eight innings since 2010, behind only a 76-pitch, eight-inning effort by Jordan Zimmermann in 2014. Nova was on deck when the final out was recorded, so he would have been lifted for a pinch hitter and would not have completed the game if the Pirates had tied it.
April 19: Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks vs. Padres (8 IP, 96 pitches, L 0-1)
The run Greinke allowed came in the eighth, when Erick Aybar homered with one out. Greinke batted with two outs and the bases empty in the top of the eighth, but he had thrown just 76 pitches at that point, and he’s a good hitting pitcher.
April 21: Corey Kluber, Indians vs. White Sox (9 IP, 110 pitches, W 3-0)
Terry Francona will run Kluber past 100 pitches without much concern. He threw 110 or more nine times last season. In this game, Kluber was working on five days of rest, and Cody Allen (11 pitches) and Andrew Miller (19 pitches) had both thrown the night before, though not the prior two days.
April 23: Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays vs. Angels (9 IP, 99 pitches, W 6-2)
This was Stroman with another efficient game, plus it wasn’t a save situation, with a four-run lead. This game came on a Sunday, and the Jays had played 10 innings on Thursday and 13 on Friday, so the bullpen was a little taxed. Stroman was probably one batter from coming out, however, as he allowed a double, hit batter and RBI single with one out in the ninth. Then he got a double play to end it.
April 25: Dallas Keuchel, Astros vs. Indians (9 IP, 117 pitches, W 4-2)
This is the most “old-school” complete game so far, the one with the most pitches that was also a save situation. The Astros were even coming off an off day. Keuchel led 4-1 entering the ninth but surrendered a leadoff home run to Michael Brantley. Jose Ramirez singled with one out, but Keuchel struck out Jason Kipnis and, after a mound visit, retired Brandon Guyer for the final out.
Keuchel was facing only the potential tying run. One thing that’s clear these days: Managers won’t let a starting pitcher lose a game in the ninth inning. None of the 20 complete-game victories came in a one-run game. The one time a manager left a starter in to finish a one-run lead was when Dave Roberts left Clayton Kershaw in with a 1-0 lead against the Cardinals on May 23. The Cardinals managed to tie it, but the Dodgers won in extra innings.
The last time a starting pitcher entered the ninth inning with a lead and lost the game was on June 22, 2013. Dillon Gee led 1-0 against the Braves when Justin Upton singled with one out and Freddie Freeman cranked a walk-off home run.
April 27: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees vs. Red Sox (9 IP, 97 pitches, W 3-0)
This was a great duel versus Chris Sale, as the Yankees scored twice in the ninth to break open a 1-0 lead. That made it easier for Joe Girardi to leave Tanaka in for the bottom of the inning, and he got three grounders. Factoring into the decision was that closer Aroldis Chapman had thrown 33 pitches the day before.
April 29: Ivan Nova, Pirates vs. Marlins (9 IP, 95 pitches, W 4-0)
Nova has walked just six batters in 11 starts, and he doesn’t strike out many batters, so his pitch counts are usually low. His second complete game was a three-hit shutout with no walks, and the Pirates tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth to remove the save situation.
May 7: Scott Feldman, Reds vs. Giants (9 IP, 119 pitches, W 4-0)
This was an unlikely candidate for a complete game, as it was just Feldman’s fifth in nearly 200 career starts, plus it came in Cincinnati … but against the Giants! The Reds had played the previous eight days, with the bullpen throwing 24.1 innings — about three innings per game — so it had been worked pretty hard. Feldman cruised through a 13-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth for his third career shutout. Feldman’s 119 pitches are the high for a complete game this season. There were five complete games of 120-plus pitches in 2016, but compare that to 1988, the first season for which we have pitch-count data: There were 250 complete games of 120 pitches.
May 9: A.J. Griffin, Rangers vs. Padres (9 IP, 104 pitches, W 11-0)
No-brainer here. Huge lead, low pitch count.
May 13: Lisalverto Bonilla, Reds vs. Giants (8 IP, 98 pitches, L 1-3)
This was Bonilla’s first start of the season after he made one relief appearance in April. It came the day after a 17-inning game in which the Cincinnati pen had thrown 9.1 innings.
May 21: Clayton Richard, Padres vs. Diamondbacks (9 IP, 96 pitches, W 5-1)
Any games of fewer than 100 pitches are rare. The Padres had just one each of the past two seasons, and the one in 2015 was just eight innings. As you might expect, most of these games are complete games. There were 35 games last year in which a team threw fewer than 100 pitches. Just 15 of those were nine-inning complete games. Good job, Clayton Richard.
May 23: Ervin Santana, Twins vs. Orioles (9 IP, 105 pitches, W 2-0)
This was mostly about going with the hot hand, as Santana allowed just two hits, though closer Brandon Kintzler had pitched three times in five days and the Twins had played doubleheaders on May 18 and May 21. Santana got through Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo on 10 pitches.
May 23: Jon Lester, Cubs vs. Giants (9 IP, 99 pitches, W 4-1)
Closer Wade Davis hadn’t pitched in four days, but with Lester cruising and the feeble Giants at the plate, Lester wrapped up a four-hitter with two strikeouts in the ninth.
May 27: Brian Johnson, Red Sox vs. Mariners (9 IP, 109 pitches, W 6-0)
This is probably the most unexpected complete game so far. Johnson was called up for a spot start for his third career start — and first at Fenway — and was sent down after the game. Matt Barnes and Craig Kimbrel had both pitched the previous two days, so John Farrell sent Johnson out for the ninth at 100 pitches. He cruised through a nine-pitch inning, with help from Jackie Bradley Jr., who made a great catch.
May 27: Michael Fulmer, Tigers vs. White Sox (8 IP, 96 pitches, L 0-3)
This was the first game of a doubleheader, so Brad Ausmus had good reason to leave Fulmer in, given his low pitch total. Fulmer did, however, give up two runs in the eighth as the White Sox broke open a 1-0 game.
May 28: Josh Tomlin, Indians vs. Royals (9 IP, 111 pitches, W 10-1)
Tomlin fell one pitch short of matching his career high. The Indians rotation had been battered around the previous four games, so with a big lead, Francona let Tomlin go the distance.
May 30: Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks vs. Pirates (9 IP, 115 pitches, W 3-0)
Even though there was a save situation, Torey Lovullo let Ray finish it off for his first career complete game. Closer Fernando Rodney hadn’t pitched the previous three days, so he was well-rested. Undoubtedly, Ray would have been removed had he allowed a baserunner, but he retired the side in order on nine pitches.
May 31: Max Scherzer, Nationals vs. Giants (9 IP, 100 pitches, W 3-1)
You might think of Scherzer as a workhorse, but this was just his seventh career complete game. His only complete game last season was his record-tying, 20-strikeout game (in a one-run game, no less). Not only was his pitch count low here, but also closer Koda Glover had pitched four of the previous five days, so Dusty Baker left Scherzer in.
June 2: Ty Blach, Giants vs. Phillies (9 IP, 112 pitches, W 10-0)
Blach is unique in today’s game: He has just 23 strikeouts in 58.1 innings, but he has pitched at least seven innings in five starts in a row. He gave up a one-out single in the ninth but escaped further damage.
June 2: Jason Vargas, Royals vs. Indians (9 IP, 103 pitches, W 4-0)
The Royals scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth. Would Ned Yost have left Vargas in or brought in his closer if the score had been 2-0 instead of 4-0?
June 3: Edinson Volquez, Marlins vs. Diamondbacks (9 IP, 98 pitches, W 3-0)
Volquez’s no-hitter was fairly unique in that it was just the fourth of 45 since David Cone’s perfect game in 1999 to finish with fewer than 100 pitches. No-hitters are the one instance in which managers will extend pitchers. Four of the five highest pitch counts since 2010 came in no-hitters, and Matt Moore’s 133-pitch game last year, the most in a game in 2016, came when he lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth.
June 4: Ariel Miranda, Mariners vs. Rays (9 IP, 105 pitches, W 7-1)
The battered Mariners rotation has had problems going deep into games — before Miranda’s start, a Seattle starter had pitched more than six innings just once in the 14 previous games — so Scott Servais was happy to let Miranda finish this one with a nice lead.
How do you throw a complete game in 2017? You have to have a low pitch count. Most likely, you need a big lead — as mentioned, none of the complete-game wins this season has come in a one-run victory. There were 13 such games last year, though 11 of those were thrown by pitchers who received Cy Young votes, including three by Johnny Cueto and two each from Kershaw, Lester and Sale. The other two came from Danny Duffy and Matt Shoemaker. Also, it helps if you’re facing the Giants.