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The Vanishing Complete Game -- Better "Technology" or Just Agency Problems

During Sunday night's game where Tom Glavine reached his 300th victory, ESPN displayed a graphic showing number of complete games by a few prior 300 game winners. Jon Miller then noted that Cy Young threw over 700 CGs and Warren Spahn over 300. Last year, the two MLB leaders pitched 6 CGs each. Prior to 1980, these figures were in the 20s and 30s. (See Baseball Reference.com). These same kinds of pitcher utilization differences can be seen in innings pitched where as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, legends (several with long careers) such as Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, and many others pitched near or over 300 innings per year. (Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood started 49 games one year, pitched 276 innings, and even started both games of a doubleheader! Knuckleballers are treated differently even today.) These figures are now in the 230 and 240 range. (Yearly Leaders). They pitched as part of 4-man rotations rather than the 5-man staffs now the standard.

These differences in pitching management are not merely historical. A Sports Illustrated column on Daisuke Matsuzaka highlighted the wide gap in philosophies in Japan and the U.S. Matsuzaka, like other Japanese pitchers, paid no attention to pitch counts, pitched frequently, and threw a lot in between starts. In contrast, the U.S. practice is to limit pitch counts below 120 (and sometimes lower), limit starts, and limit throwing in between starts.

The U.S. system is treated as if it were a technological advance that has developed because of better understanding of pitchers and physical science. As Tom Verducci notes in the SI column, the "pitch count police" in the media and sabermetrics tend to reinforce these practices to the point that they are not questioned. Yet, the Japanese system, not merely existing but thriving parallel to the U.S. system rather than vanishing, offers evidence against the technological superiority of the U.S. system. The Scouting Director for the Angels, Eddie Bane, says

"I think we're going to have to take a look at our system. It's a slap in the face [to Japan] if we don't. And they won the World Baseball Classic, don't forget. "Their philosophy is, If you're a pitcher, you need to throw. It makes sense to me. We're training our pitchers to throw less. And nobody wants to try anything different. If [Matsuzaka] is this good, we might want to take a look at it."

His views are backed up by Bobby Valentine, former MLB manager now in Japan. Verducci writes:

Valentine ... admits that he too coddled pitchers in the majors, though it took understanding the Japanese throwing philosophy for him to see the error of that accepted practice. "The Japanese pitchers have superior mechanics," Valentine says. "They also have wonderful balance and core and foundation strength. They work the small muscle groups, and [Americans] work the large ones. The large ones make you look better. Valentine allows most of his starters to throw 200 bullpen pitches a day in the spring. "They have been doing it forever and have not broken down," he says. On the day before a starter takes the mound, he'll throw 90 pitches in the pen and, Valentine says, "have [his] best fastball in the ninth inning" the next day.

Eddie Bane's quote is telling -- "we're training our pitchers to throw less." It is like training marathon runners by keeping their mileage under 10 per week. Verducci adds, "the system guarantees diminishing returns: Despite advances in medicine, nutrition and training, teams work pitchers less than ever before and yet pay them more."

For me, that last statement sets off an alarm. Maybe this reduction in pitcher use has little to do with better know-how with pitchers and more to do with either pitchers being able to reduce their workloads. In the near term, this increases pay per pitch thrown, and they may believe that in the long-term it increases career length and total career compensation. Curt Schilling, a Red Sox teammate of Matsusaka, implies as much, saying

"He is a big league ace in the making. The question is, Does he throw his last pitch at 31 or at 39?"

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