August 5, 2017: Harriet and the Disappearing Complete Game

By Joe Rini

2017 marks 11 years since the passing of Harriet, the 176-year old tortoise who belonged to Charles Darwin while he studied in the Galapagos Islands in the 1830’s. Therefore, what better time than commemorating Harriet than to discuss the evolution of the complete game.

When Harriet was a relative youngster in the 1880s, she’d have seen future Hall of Famer “Old Hoss” Radbourne toss 678 innings and complete 73 out of 73 starts for the Providence Grays in 1884.

During Harriets’s prime earning years over the course of the 1890s through 1927, she’d have seen baseball’s top two winning pitchers, Cy Young  (still the best pitcher to never win a Cy Young Award…wait a second…) and Walter Johnson pitch. On their way to winning 511 and 417 games, respectively, Young and Johnson completed 92% and 80% of the games they started.

As Harriet entered her middle years in the 1930s, she’d have enjoyed the exploits of star pitchers Lefty Grove of the American League and Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants in the senior circuit. Winners of 300 and 253 games, respectively, Grove and Hubbell managed to complete 65% and 60% of their games.

Just as the 1950s rolled around and as Harriet began to wince at all the kids listening to that infernal rock and roll music, crew-cut wearing and World War II hero Warren Spahn would’ve given her solace. Spahn not only completed 57% of his starts on his way to winning 363 games, a record for a lefthanded thrower, he also found time to save 28 career games. Rest must be overrated.

As Harriet began to enjoy retirement despite having to tuck her head into her shell more often to block out the noise of those jet planes, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton were winning over 300 games from the 1960s into the 1980s and completed 36% of their games started.

As Seaver and Carlton left the scene in the mid to late 1980s, another group of pitchers who would win 300 plus games over the ensuing two decades took their place on the mounds of the major leagues. Harriet couldn’t hear so well but she enjoyed catching games on television. Roger Clemens and Mike Maddux won over 300 games and completed 17% and 15% of the more than 700 games each started.

As the 1990s turned into the 2000s and Harriet started watching games in a third century, she couldn’t help but notice that even premier pitchers weren’t completing as many games. For example, in winning 300 games over the course of 682 starts, Tom Glavine had fewer complete games (56) than Tom Seaver had shutouts (61) while Andy Pettite completed only 26 games (5%) over a two decade career that ended in 2013. In contrast, fellow lefthander Steve Carlton completed 30 games in 1972 alone when he won 27 games.

When Harriet passed away in 2006, there were a combined 144 complete games in the major leagues versus 1,089 in 1974. Ten years after Harriet passed away, that figure of 144 had fallen to 83.

What happened? The game certainly has changed over the course of 130 years. Old Hoss pitched from a mound that was only 55 feet from home plate; nearly all of Young and Johnson’s combined 928 wins occurred during the dead ball era while Hubbell and Grove pitched all of their games east of St. Louis and and nearly all of them in the daytime.

One thing is certain, the numbers have been trending down. We lionize Seaver and Carlton for completing 36% of their starts but I wonder if Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell shook their heads about “pitchers these days” when they were in their 70s in the 1970s.

Time marches on and things change so in this era of specialization, I guess the dominance of relief pitching, the emergence of 7th inning and 8th inning pitchers, and the disappearing complete change are just part of the evolution of baseball. I suppose we should embrace change but as pitchers continue to get hurt even with their pitch and innings limits, I wonder if we’re starting to see a de-volution of baseball. I wonder what Harriet would think.