“My goal as a starter was to go deep into a game—eight, nine innings—and keep my team in a position to win,” said former pitcher Billy Pierce in 2009. “You never wanted to be pulled. A pitcher’s job is to go the distance and help your team win. And there is a skill to completing a game, especially when a pitcher doesn’t have his best stuff. He has to work the corners of the plate—in, out, up, down—if you can move your pitches around the strike zone without giving in to a hitter, then a pitcher can find success.”
Hall of Famer Bob Feller agreed with those comments and added: “It took me six years to learn how to pace myself. I learned I didn’t have to strike everybody out. I’d bear down hard on the first batter of each inning and then try to get the next guys by jamming them on the fists or making them hit the ball off the end of the bat.”
In his first six major league seasons, Feller started 175 games and completed 117 of them.
He then served more than three years with the U.S. Navy during World War II, missing some of his prime years—ages 23 through 25—as a big league star. But in his first full year back on the mound in the majors, the hard-throwing right-hander did something that he took great pride in.
“In 1946, I pitched 36 complete games,” he said. “I think that was the most complete games anyone had pitched since the advent of the livelier ball in 1920.”
Researching Feller’s sharp memory found that he was correct. The most complete games in a season from 1920 through 1945 were 33 by Grover Alexander of the Cubs in 1920, Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers in 1923 and Dizzy Trout of the Tigers in 1944.
When Feller completed his 36 games in ’46, he started 42 (he also appeared in a relief role six times) with a 26-15 won-lost record, 10 shutouts, 371.1 innings pitched, four saves, 348 strikeouts and a 2.18 ERA.
After 1946, a pitcher completing 30 or more games in a single season occurred six times by five different pitchers —Robin Roberts (30) in 1952 and (33) in 1953 for the Phillies, Juan Marichal (30) of the Giants in 1968, Fergie Jenkins (30) of the Cubs in 1971, Steve Carlton (30) of the Phillies in 1972 and Catfish Hunter (30) of the Yankees in 1975.
The last starter to complete 20 or more games in a season was Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers, when he led the majors with 20 complete games in 1986.
The last pitcher with 15 or more complete games was Curt Schilling of the Phillies in 1998 when he topped MLB with 15. Since 2000, only two pitchers have saved 10 or more games in a season—James Shields finished 11 starts for the Rays in 2011 and CC Sabathia, who topped the majors with 10 complete games in 2008 when he split the season between the Indians and Brewers.
Last season the most complete games by a pitcher was four, a feat accomplished by six starters—Jake Arrieta, Cubs; Madison Bumgarner, Giants; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers; Max Scherzer, Nationals; Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays and Corey Kluber, Indians.
The game has certainly changed from the days of Bob Feller and Billy Pierce. Starters don’t complete many games and don’t go deep into a contest the way they were expected to before 1990. Relief pitchers are more prominent and have many roles that force managers to utilize their high-priced middle relievers, specialty pitchers and closers.
Take Zack Greinke, who had one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in the game’s history with his 19-3 record, 1.66 ERA and 222.2 innings in 32 starts. He completed only one game and averaged seven innings per outing. In fact, the top dollar starter’s lone complete game in 2015 was only his 14th of his career in 323 starts—he has only two complete games over the last five years.
For his outstanding campaign last season, Greinke cashed in on a $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks that will earn him more than $34 million per season.
At age 32, it’s not likely Greinke will duplicate his 2015 numbers and it will be very important for the D’backs to have a strong and consistent bullpen to get a return on the dollar for Greinke’s contributions.
The great hurlers in the past who saved 30 or more games in a season, since 1920 when the live ball era began, certainly would not be put in the position to match those feats in today’s game, but it would be mind boggling to see what a pitcher like Feller would earn in salary in the current era had he won 26 games and completed 36 in a season before free agency.