NEW YORK – Jim Palmer thought back to 1971, when Baltimore Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger kept scrawling marks on the underside of his cap’s brim.
“George, what is that?” the Hall of Fame pitcher recalled asking. “He said, ‘I have a complete game clause. If you guys get 50 or more complete games, I get a $5,000 raise.'"
Palmer learned later that Bamberger was fibbing and trying to push his pitchers. Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Palmer combined for 70 complete games that year, and each reached 20 wins.
This year, the entire major leagues have logged just 35 complete games, down from 50 last season, 104 in 2015 and 622 in 1988.
Bullpens reign supreme in the Analytics Age. Starters increasingly are blocked from facing the batting order for a third time.
Palmer had 25 complete games in 1975, including 10 shutouts, and Catfish Hunter had 30 for the Yankees that year.
Just three active pitchers have 25 career complete games: Clayton Kershaw (25), Justin Verlander (26) and Adam Wainwright (28).
Miami’s Sandy Alcantara leads the major leagues with six this season.
“The ninth inning is a tricky inning to get as a starter,” said the Mets’ Max Scherzer, who has 12 complete games in his career. “If you’re winning the game, typically the closer’s better than you are in your ninth inning. As a starter to go back out there for the ninth, you have to have the mentality that you’re better than the closer in that situation. So that’s a tough thing to be able to say. Second, the score’s got to be about right, too. If it’s a one-run game, it’s tough to say you got the ball when you’ve got the closer: It’s his job.”
OPS — on-base plus slugging percentage — is .688 in a starter's first time through the batting order this season, .719 the second and .769 the third and later, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Pitches per start dipped from 96.93 in 2011 to 80.33 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season before rebounding to 82.7 last year and 85.12 this season, according to Sports Info Solutions.
"Guys aren’t trained — they don’t prepare for 120 anymore,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “The ramp up is just not what it used to be. I think it is intentional by organizations. The third time through I think is certainly real, if you look at OPS with every starting pitcher.”
Innings per start fell from 6.03 in 2011 to 4.78 before rising to 5.02 in 2021 and 5.22 this year.
“Having Dwight Gooden at 19 years old throw 270 innings probably wasn’t a good idea, especially in a 9-1 game,” said ESPN and YES broadcaster David Cone, who pitched 56 complete games in his career. “Back then, you would get made fun of if you didn’t complete that game. The whole mentality is different.”
Shutouts are nearly extinct. There have been 15 this year, and no pitcher has tossed two. Bob Gibson alone pitched 13 in 1968.
As recently as 2015 there were 51 shutouts, and that was down from 146 in 1992 and 295 in 1972.
“Decreased number of innings pitched by starters has not been a positive for the game,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Starting pitchers historically have been some of our biggest stars. I think that it’s important for the game that they continue to be some of our biggest stars. And I think the key to continuing that tradition is they need to pitch more.”
Palmer thinks starters never have to reach down to find out what they are capable of.
“If you pitched in my era, you'd go to Fenway Park with a one-run lead and you tell Earl Weaver you’re a little tired, he goes, `You think I’m taking you out of a game and bringing in Dick Drago? You're crazy!' And now you got to get (Carlton) Fisk, Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski) and (Jim) Rice out. Well, you learn about yourself now. Now, it doesn’t always work, but you learn about how smart you are and can you get a guy out more than one way, your heart, your conditioning.”
Scherzer broke into the major leagues in 2008 and did not pitch a complete game until his 179th start in June 2014, the most career starts without a complete game of any pitcher since at least 1900. He has faced the No. 9 slot four times in a game just once.
He thinks the diminished length of starting pitchers creates “the most aesthetically pleasing” version of baseball.
“Watch the starter for seven, the setup guy and the closer," he said. "That's the best version of our game.”
Still, he thinks lower pitch counts are bad for the generations of pitchers behind him.
“We're stunting young kids' growth, developing as pitchers, by removing them early in the game and not giving them the chance to fail,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.