Yesterday, James Shields tossed his 10th complete game of the season. Prior to this season, it had been two years since Shields even had one complete game. If we are strictly judging Shields by his win-loss totals, the complete games may not seem that impressive. He is currently 12-10. But, as voters proved last year during Cy Young award time, there is more to pitchers than wins and losses. Shields carries a 2.96 ERA with 192 strikeouts. He ranks 4th in the Major League Baseball in strikeouts, 18th in wins, and 16th in ERA. And, most interesting of all, he is the first player since 1999 to have at least 10 complete games in a season.
The issue of complete games is an interesting one. Modern pitchers throw less pitches per game, pitch in less games, and generally aren’t given the opportunity to complete games as often as their predecessors. With this in mind, I decided to analyze complete games through history. Courtesy of Baseball-Almanac’s year-by-year listing of league leaders in complete games, I compiled the graph below:
In 1879 Will White threw an astonishing 75 complete games. Modern pitchers do not even pitch in 75 games per year. For comparison, White threw 680 innings in 1879. James is on pace for 245. As you can see in the graph above, players like White slowly faded into history, and complete game totals steadily declined. But to get a better idea of the decline, I broke down the average complete games (to lead the league) by decade, as shown by the graph below:
Except for two decades in which the average increased slightly, the average number of complete games to lead the league is on a constant decline. The biggest question is whether it will level out. We are currently averaging a 4.72 game reduction per decade in number of complete games it takes to lead the league. Already from 2006-2010 we are seeing the number of complete games continue to drop. The average league lead in complete games from 2006-2010 is 8.
As owners, General Managers, and Managers continue to worry about the health and investment of their pitchers, it is likely that the number of complete games we see per year will continue to decline. Players continue to get paid more and more, and owners want to protect those investments. Allowing pitchers to throw complete games and more than a 100+ pitches consistently is no longer an option for many teams. In Will White’s day, players were making thousands of dollars per year, now they are making millions. Jame Shields is making almost $3 million dollars this year.
So as we see complete games continue to decrease, we should relish the ones we do see. Shields is having a wonderful season from that standpoint, and has a chance to complete more games. Enjoy it while it lasts, because before we know it, one or two complete games might lead the league.
For a link to Google Documents with my data click here.