Pitchers no longer finishing what they start

Baseball by the numbers: Sorry, purists, but complete games are disappearing fast.

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The Cubs’ Marcus Stroman threw the only complete game by a Chicago pitcher this season on May 29 against the Rays at Wrigley Field. 

The Cubs’ Marcus Stroman threw the only complete game by a Chicago pitcher this season on May 29 against the Rays at Wrigley Field.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Only 30 complete games have been pitched in the major leagues this season, with the latest being Zac Gallen’s three-hitter in the Diamondbacks’ 1-0 victory Friday against the Cubs.

That’s only one more than were pitched in the COVID-shortened 60-game season in 2020. Pitchers would have to pick up the pace to reach the 36 of 2022, the fewest in a full-length schedule.

The dip in complete games goes hand-in-hand with long-term decreases in average start length and an increasing portion of innings being pitched by relievers.

A desire to protect starters’ arms is part of the reason for the trends. Another is that teams score fewer runs against fresh arms.

Twenty-four of the complete games this season are nine-inning starts. Eighteen are nine-inning shutouts, including Chicago’s only complete game of 2023: Marcus Stroman’s one-hit masterpiece as the Cubs edged the Rays 1-0 on May 29.

There’s a 19th shutout: the Braves’ rain-shortened, five-inning, 4-0 victory against the Mets in which winner Max Fried and loser David Peterson both were credited with complete games.

The Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara has three complete games, all nine-inning victories, including one shutout.

The Royals’ Jordan Lyles also has three complete games, but he lost them all. One was a nine-inning start in a 4-2 loss May 9 to the White Sox. The other two were 4-3 losses in road games against the Red Sox and White Sox in which the home teams didn’t have to bat in the ninth.

Complete games long have been on a downward slope. They dropped to fewer than 100 in a season for the first time with 83 in 2016. The first season with fewer than 200 was 2001 with 199.

Decade high points in the expansion era have been 50 in 2021, 173 in 2011, 214 in 2002, 429 in 1990, 856 in 1980, 1,089 in 1974 and 865 in 1963, when there were only 20 teams.

The average start has lasted 5.18 innings so far in 2023. Going back a decade at a time, averages were 5.90 in 2013, 5.89 in 2003, 6.11 in 1993, 6.28 in 1983, 6.56 in 1973 and 6.50 in 1963.

Earned-run averages are lower for relievers than for starters in each of those seasons, though the gap is smaller in earlier years.

In 2023, starters have a 4.46 ERA vs. 4.20 for relievers. In our decade-by-decade look back, ERAs for starters and relievers were 4.01 vs. 3.59 in 2013, 4.52 vs. 4.16 in 2003, 4.26 vs. 4.04 in 1993, 3.99 vs. 3.59 in 1983, 3.76 vs. 3.71 in 1973 and 3.46 vs. 3.44 in 1963.

In 1971, Fergie Jenkins pitched 30 complete games for the Cubs — as many as there have been in the majors this season. The White Sox’ high in the expansion era (starting in 1961) is 22 by Wilbur Wood in 1971 and again in 1974.

Those days are gone. The Cubs as a team haven’t had more than two complete games since five in 2016. The White Sox, with none this season, have 10-year highs of seven in 2016 and 2015.

Exceptional performances, such as Stroman’s one-hitter, are rarities. Increased bullpen use has turned complete games into anachronisms.

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