MILWAUKEE — With his bullpen overused and struggling in its last few outings, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke made a joking plea on Wednesday to starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
“A nine-inning shutout would be really nice,” Roenicke said, with a laugh.
But in the past two seasons for the Brewers — and really for all of MLB — complete, nine-inning performances from starting pitchers have been extraordinarily rare. Or, well, rarer than they ever have been.
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Since Roenicke took over before the 2011 season, the Brewers have had just one complete game on the books — a nine-inning effort from Gallardo in April 2011. But since then, Milwaukee has used its bullpen in every single game. Even before Roenicke arrived in Milwaukee, the Brewers had accumulated just four complete games in the previous two seasons, down significantly from the 12 nine-inning starts by Milwaukee in the 2008 season, which included seven from C.C. Sabathia and five from Ben Sheets.
Around baseball, the complete game has become a seemingly lost art, with the league lead this season at just three — shared by the Mets’ R.A. Dickey, the White Sox’s Jake Peavy, the Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Blue Jays’ Brandon Morrow.
But by old-time standards, those three complete games are chump change. The all-time leader for complete games in baseball history, Cy Young, finished his 22-year career with a total of 749 nine-inning efforts. For perspective, that means he threw an average of 34 complete games every season.
Obviously, there’s no way that will ever be replicated. But at the same time, it’s a bit jarring to see how much further down the list baseball’s active leader in complete games is. Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay has a measly 66 complete games — good for 635th all-time.
So what changed in baseball that has caused more and more starting pitchers to be chased before the ninth inning?
“The trend is you’re starting to see really good bullpens, setup guys, closers,” Roenicke said. “And when you have those good guys down — like when we get to our eighth inning, we feel really good — so if there’s a question mark and a guy has gone seven innings and you have that kind of bullpen, which most guys do, why stress a pitcher when you know you’re going to need him for the whole season? Why not just go with your bullpen? That’s what it’s structured for.”
The explanation holds up, considering the consistency the Brewers bullpen displayed prior to this season. Now though, with struggling relievers not just in Milwaukee but seemingly all over the majors, should the trend change?
Roenicke said there aren’t many pitchers conditioned to throw nine-inning games, night in and night out, like Young would’ve been back in baseball’s glory years.
“The big strong guy, you know the Halladays and those type pitchers, there’s not many of them out there,” Roenicke said. “It’s hard. I think back when I was playing with Fernando Valenzuela, you think about him throwing 160 pitches a game all the time. You knew, he could do that 10 games in a row. But did that shorten his career some? I don’t know, it may have.”
Health concerns seem to have driven the trend toward shorter starts. These days, teams keep updated, detailed pitch counts and make those starts fit into a defined window.
“You want these guys to perform all year long, and if you’re good enough to get into the playoffs, you want them strong for the playoffs,” Roenicke said. “So I think by keeping their pitch count down and their innings totals down, it helps with their longevity and for years to come.
“You sign a guy like Yovani, we don’t want him for just one, two years. We want him for five years to be really good. I think it all adds up to getting guys out of games early.”
And with those health concerns and knowledge only growing as technology continues to advance, there’s reason to believe that sooner rather than later, the complete game may become a once-in-a-season or once-in-a-few-seasons sort of occurrence.