Starters no longer focused on shutouts
Going the distance to blank opponents becoming more rare
Occasionally, when I make a speech, the person who introduces me states that I pitched 20 complete games in 1969. That makes a strong impression among young baseball fans.
By today's standards, it's an amazing stat. But in 1969, five National League pitchers pitched more than 20 complete games. I pitched 305 innings that year, but five pitchers in the NL pitched more innings than I did.
The point is that the game has evolved, and even young fans know that relievers are a much bigger part of the picture now. Still, the thing that amazes me is the bland acceptance of starting pitchers when they are removed from a close game they could finish.
The first guy I remember doing this often was Greg Maddux. I'd look at the box score and he'd have pitched seven innings and won handily, letting the bullpen finish up, even though he had thrown fewer than 100 pitches. I'd bet he came out of at least two or three shutouts a year during his prime seasons.
I came out of a shutout two or three times in my career. And that was because my arm was shot and I just couldn't go back out there.
On one occasion in 1974, however, I didn't want to come out. We were leading, 1-0, when I went to the mound in the ninth at Dodger Stadium. The first batter I faced was Steve Garvey. I was wary of him because he had home-run power and was a really tough out for me.
I ended up walking him. The next hitter was left-handed and I was surprised to see manager Preston Gomez come out to the mound. I was furious when he took me out of the game and brought in a mediocre lefty. If I'd known he was going to do that, I could have taken a chance and challenged Garvey. I also could have stranded him and pitched a shutout.
When our lefty reliever came in, Dodgers manager Walter Alston pinch-hit with Ken McMullen, who homered on the first pitch. I stared daggers at Gomez. There went the complete game, shutout and win. Poof!
Percentage of games and complete games that were shutouts
|Year||Shutout %||CG Shutout %|
I think Walter Johnson's record of 110 shutouts is safe in the hands of time.
Presenting numbers to prove a trend is easy. Explaining the trend is not. From my perspective, there are several reasons, most of them obvious. Some, you may not have considered.
First, is the changing conventions of managing. What is hidden here is the manager's subconscious and the increased media scrutiny of the game.
Let's take my game against the Dodgers as an example. In that game, Gomez couldn't be faulted because I had thrown more than 100 pitches. If the Dodgers hadn't pinch-hit, we would have had the supposed advantage of a left-handed pitcher against a left-handed hitter. If that had happened and we had gotten the out, Gomez could have brought in a righty when the next right handed-hitter came up. He could not be blamed. If McMullin had done anything but hit a home run, Gomez still could have changed pitchers for the next batter. But the ironic thing is that even after the home run, Gomez could not be blamed. After all, he had been proactive.
Whether he thinks about it or not, every manager knows that if he brings in a reliever and the reliever fails, it is the pitcher's fault. If he does not bring in the reliever, it is his own fault. I don't doubt that every manager is trying his best to win every game. Going with conventional wisdom is easy. The teams that win championships these days do it that way. It's a no-brainer.
The second factor is the pitcher's knowledge of the conventions. If he is allowed (forced) to keep pitching when he has thrown over 100 pitches and seven innings, he feels naked. He's in uncharted waters. Clearly this does not apply to the Roy Halladays of the game, but there are only a few of them. The rest are looking for a little help from their friends.
Another factor is the effect the steroid era had on the game. More home runs were hit. Games were higher-scoring. Pitchers became more careful, like I was with Garvey. And the average number of pitches per hitter and per inning went up. As a result, pitchers hit the 100-pitch mark earlier in the game.
The last influence is not in any record book, but it is, nonetheless, a factor: agents! When I was managing, if Shane Reynolds, who was an excellent pitcher, had eight shutout innings and a three-run lead or less, I was expected to bring in Billy Wagner for the save. If I didn't, there probably wouldn't be any repercussions. But if it happened again, there might be -- from both agents. Reynolds' guy would be concerned that he was throwing too many pitches, which could shorten his career. Wagner's agent would want to know why Billy wasn't getting those save opportunities.
On the whole, I'm beginning to see the wisdom of the modern approach. I probably would have lasted a few more years and won more games if I had been taken out of some of them -- even the shutouts -- sooner. But except for the few years when we had a good closer in Fred Gladding, I thought I had a better chance to protect the lead than anyone we had in the bullpen. Everyone on the team wants only one thing -- a win. But with a large lead and only a few innings left, why not save your starter's arm for the next start? It makes sense.
What doesn't make sense is lifting a pitcher strictly on the basis of his pitch count, or just because the other manager uses a pinch-hitter. I often tried to get the opposing manager to lift a pitcher who was dominating us by pinch-hitting. If I could accomplish this in the sixth or seventh inning, I thought we had a better chance of winning in the end. Most of the time the other manager didn't bite. But there were a couple of skippers who would almost always remove the pitcher from the game. In my mind, I was saying, "Thank you very much."
Even better was when I didn't have to force it. This happened more often than you might think. You're a couple of runs behind and getting no good swings at the starter at all. He's due to hit in the sixth or seventh with a man or two in scoring position and two outs. The opposing manager pinch-hits to up the ante.
I tried to push my starters a little further than they were used to going and keep my lesser relievers out of the game. In all but one of my five years, this worked well. We never carried more than 11 pitchers, and at times went with only 10. The fewer relievers we had, the more extra players we had. I'd rather have a weak-hitting speedster like Glenn Barker, whom we had to keep all year in 1999 because he was a Rule 5 Draft selection, than an extra left-handed reliever. Barker had no chance to hit in the big leagues, but he was a fabulous outfielder and a base stealer. He helped us win a handful of games every year without hitting a lick. All the extra reliever would do is eat up a few innings.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.