Today, Jacob deGrom tossed a one-hit complete game shutout in a Mets’ 5-0 win over the Phillies. During the post game on WWOR Radio, the Mets broadcaster noted that it was deGrom’s first complete game shutout at any level.
He never had one in high school, college or the minor leagues. It took until Year 3 at age 28 for deGrom to finally go the distance. He did it on 105 pitches with 67 for strikes. The only hit he allowed was ironically to counterpart Zach Eflin, who singled to center in the the third. The third-year Mets starter walked one and fanned seven in improving to 6-4 lowering his earned-run-average to 2.38. He even got a hit and came around to score on an RBI double from Jose Reyes.
DeGrom’s one-hit shutout is the first for the Mets since Matt Harvey did it on May 7, 2013 against the White Sox. In that one, Harvey fanned 12. It’s hard to believe deGrom never tossed a complete game of any kind before. It speaks to how different baseball is. The game has changed. Starting pitchers are micromanaged start to start due to pitch counts. Innings are carefully managed. Whether it’s strategically trying to win games by relying on bullpens or overall with innings limits.
Gone are the days of starters with rubber arms going a full nine consistently. Currently, San Francisco’s Johnny Cueto leads the majors with four complete games. Not surprisingly, teammate Madison Bumgarner is tied for second with three. Four other starters have three including injured Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw. The best pitcher in baseball. He remains on disabled list with a back injury. Hopefully, the remarkable southpaw will be back in August for the stretch drive. He was having an amazing season. Kershaw led the majors in ERA (1.79), WHIP (0.727), shutouts (3) and still ranks fourth in strikeouts (145).
Last year, the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta won the NL Cy Young winning 22 games with a 1.77 ERA and 236 K’s in 229 innings. In 33 starts, he tied for the league lead in complete games (4), also shared by Kershaw, Bumgarner and Max Scherzer. Runner-up Zach Greinke only had one complete game despite going 19-3 with a major league best 1.66 ERA with 200 K’s in 222.2 innings.
In the glory days, it was more common for starters to go the full nine. In 1968, both Bob Gibson and Denny McLain each swept the Cy Young and MVP in the NL and AL. They each had 28 complete games with the remarkable Gibson tossing 13 shutouts. The year of the pitcher saw a dominant Gibson go 22-9 with a jaw dropping 1.12 ERA in 34 starts. How did he ever lose? McLain was no slouch that year winning 31 games with a 1.96 ERA while tossing 336 innings. Like most pitchers during the golden era, each benefited from the raised mound. This article discusses the most successful pitchers of the raised mound era.
In ’69, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. Interestingly, the strike zone also was adjusted. A raised mound gave pitchers an advantage due to pitching downhill. It produced the lowest scoring season in modern baseball. Runs increased in ’69.
“The run-scoring environment in 1969 was much greater than it was in 1968, with teams averaging 0.65 more runs per game (going from 3.42 to 4.07), an increase of greater than 19 percent,” George Resor wrote in a 2014 piece entitled, The Height of the Hill.
Complete games didn’t disappear following the mound changing. While hitting improved, there were still dominant pitchers who were trusted to go the distance. As the yearly league leaders in complete games on Baseball Reference shows, great pitchers such as Steve Carlton, Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry were able to reach the 20’s or even 30 complete games.
As the role of the closer and relief pitchers increased, starters weren’t as frequently asked to go the full nine. In 1985, Bert Blyleven led the majors with 24 complete games including five shutouts. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011. In his dominant ’85 as a 20-year old in which he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, Dwight Gooden led the NL with 16. The final time a pitcher hit 20 was the following season with Fernando Valenzuela in ’86 with the Dodgers. He finished second in the NL Cy Young losing out to Mike Scott.
These days, if a starter reaches eight or nine complete games, it’s a great accomplishment. The days of the ace hitting double digits are gone. James Shields led the AL with 11 in 2011 as a Tampa Ray. Five years later, he’s a shell of himself struggling with a 6.43 ERA after the Padres dealt him to the White Sox. Is it due to the all the innings he threw up to age 33? Who knows. He’s 34 and looks done. In 2011, he threw a career high 249.1 innings. The next three seasons, he averaged 227-plus with the Rays and Royals. Do all the innings thrown catch up? In some cases, yes. Or is it just a veteran pitcher declining? The answer is probably both.
There are two schools of thought on limiting young starters. With pitch counts in some cases not exceeding 105-110, they run out of gas because they’re not used to going longer. We saw it with Matt Harvey during last year’s critical Game 5 of the World Series. Harvey had come back from Tommy John surgery last season. After missing the entire 2014, he went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA in 29 starts. The Dark Knight wound up throwing 189.1 innings and striking out 188. Both he and agent Scott Boras agreed that his total innings should be limited due to the long-term impact.
Now 27, Harvey has yet to test free agency. He is making $4.325 million this season. Making money and long-term health for a successful career are primary focuses. So, it’s not surprising there was controversy surrounding Harvey in September of last year. He was almost shut down receiving negative press and fanfare when the whole innings controversy came out. Many questioned his motivation. Was he putting himself before a team trying to win a championship? The negative PR forced Harvey to change his tune. He didn’t want to disappoint his teammates or fans. He would pitch in October.
Harvey dominated the Cubs in a win fanning nine in seven-plus. The Mets swept to win the pennant and advance to their first World Series since 2000. It was Harvey’s second start in the Series that became the focus. Throwing one of his best games, he had the Royals off balance. For eight innings, he gave up virtually nothing against one of the toughest lineups. When approached by skipper Terry Collins about bringing in closer Jeurys Familia for the ninth, he emphatically told Collins, “No way. I’m not coming out.”
It was the kind of bravery you’d expect from a demanding pitcher who wanted to be the man. Harvey wanted the ball. He wanted to finish what he started. With the Mets nursing a 2-0 lead entering the ninth, Harvey came out to loud cheers from the capacity Citi Field crowd. But a walk to Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer run-scoring double cut the lead to one with no out, forcing Collins to get Harvey. Familia got the infield grounder for a 5-3 putout with Cain on third and one out. But as soon as David Wright threw across the diamond, Cain took off for the plate and scored the tying run thanks to Lucas Duda’s errant throw. The Royals would win the world championship with a five-run 12th.
Harvey’s final line:
8 IP 2 R 2 ER 2 BB 9 K 111 pitches 76 strikes
Of course, so many critics second guessed leaving Harvey in. In this town, everyone’s an expert. It is worth noting that he didn’t have a complete game in 2015. In fact, he only had one for his career. The aforementioned one-hit shutout in 2013. The most innings he went were eight-plus against the Yankees coming within an out of a complete game. The Mets won 8-2 on Apr. 25. He also went eight three other times. Only once after May.
In case you’re wondering about pitch counts, Harvey threw at least 100 pitches or more 15 times including a season high 115 in a 1-0 loss to Atlanta. However, his pitch count decreased in September going from 101 to 74, 77 and then back up to 97 and 91. In Game 1 of the World Series, Harvey threw 80 pitches over six innings permitting three earned and a home run in a no decision. Coincidentally, the Mets lost that game in 14 innings. Game 5 was his game to win or lose. He made that abundantly clear. It wasn’t to be.
Fast forward a year later and Harvey is done for the season with symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome resulting in season-ending surgery. Please keep in mind this is unrelated to his arm. It’s a vascular condition that can affect long-term health. Other pitchers have had the procedure done and returned.
Harvey’s 2016 was disappointing. He was 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts. Predictably, ESPN Stats & Info had this tweet:
Matt Harvey in 2015 threw the most innings in a season (216) of any pitcher in history returning from Tommy John surgery (incl. postseason)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 8, 2016
The question is was Harvey’s bad year due to the total number of innings he threw last year. That can’t be explained entirely. Especially with him undergoing surgery to fix the vascular issue with thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms. What kind of pitcher will Harvey be when he returns in 2017? He’ll turn 28 before next season. He won’t be a free agent until 2019. His career could be on the line.
If you’re curious, Noah Syndergaard doesn’t have a complete game since entering the majors last year. For his whole career including minors, he has totaled one with Triple-AAA Las Vegas last year. A complete game shutout. After throwing 150 innings during the 2015 regular season, he added another 19 in the postseason. If you include the 29.2 innings with Las Vegas, he totaled 198.2 between minors and majors. So far in Year 2, he has 105.2 with a 9-4 mark, 2.56 ERA with 18 walks and 128 K’s. Of all the Mets young starters, he has the highest upside.
As we continue to follow young pitchers such as deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard, should everything be under a microscope? It’s this way due to what became of Cubs’ aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Wood took the NL by storm in ’98 winning 13 games for the Cubs while striking out 233 over 166.2 innings to win Rookie of the Year. His hard throwing style featuring a lethal fastball and huge curve drew comparisons to fellow Texan Roger Clemens. After missing the entire ’99 due to Tommy John surgery, Wood returned to prominence. He continuing to strike out batters at a high rate, he fanned 266 in 211 innings during ’03. He was also wild hitting 21 batters.
The ’03 Cubs were special thanks to Wood and Prior, who at 22 went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA while walking 50 and striking out 245 in 211.1 innings to finish third for the Cy Young. After the Cubs lost in excruciating fashion to the Marlins in the NLCS, Prior never pitched a full season ever again. Both Wood and Prior threw a lot of pitches per start under manager Dusty Baker. He received heavy criticism for ruining both.
Prior was one of those rare talents who could’ve had a long distinguished major league career winning multiple Cy Youngs while challenging records. He never pitched in the major leagues after 25. Reconstructive Tommy John surgery, an Achilles tendon injury and structural damage to his right shoulder were too much to overcome. He attempted several comebacks with several teams including the Yankees. But after being released by the Reds in 2013, he retired following the season.
As for Wood, eventually he transitioned from a starter to reliever- having success with the Cubs saving 34 games in ’08 to make the All-Star team. He was an effective late game reliever for a few more years. That included a brief stint with the Yankees as a rental in 2010 where he pitched to a 0.69 ERA. After returning to the Cubs in 2011 and having one more good season, he called it quits in May 2012 due to a poor start. At least Wood had a successful 14-year career as both a starter and reliever. He averaged over 10’s per inning for his career totaling 1,582 in 1,380 innings.
It’s unfortunate that Prior didn’t last longer. He had such great mechanics. But was plagued by arm and shoulder injuries. It’s unfair to blame Baker for everything. Some pitchers aren’t built to last. Injuries to pitchers are part of baseball. It’s not always due to how many pitches or innings thrown. At any moment, a pitcher can blow out their arm or get hit by a line drive that alters their career. That’s the risk they take. There are also extreme cases like Gooden, who are derailed by substance abuse.
Pitching remains an art. When you can see a Picasso like Kershaw every fifth day, appreciate it. As far as starters finishing what they started, it’s rare these days. There aren’t many horses left. C.C. Sabathia had a rubber arm for the Brewers as a rental once tossing seven complete games including three shutouts in 17 starts after coming over from the Indians. He got a huge contract from the Yankees helping them win a record 27th world championship in ’09. Though he isn’t the same anymore, you can’t call that signing anything but a success.
Pitchers age. There aren’t as many shortcuts with performance enhancers illegal. After he swept the Cy and MVP in 2011, Justin Verlander looked like he would dominate well into his mid-30’s. But following another big year at 30 in 2012, he’s a shadow of what he used to be. He makes $28 million thru 2019 with a vesting $22 million option guaranteed if he finishes in the top 5 for AL Cy Young. There’s a better chance of me dating Rihanna.
It just goes to show you what happens. With complete games almost extinct, it’s kind of sad. Most games are managed by the book with skippers like Joe Girardi mixing and matching. A good pen is important. Mariano Rivera was a staple to their success. In some years, he could’ve won the Cy Young if baseball writers weren’t so biased. The recent Royals’ success based on Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis has influenced the Yankees. They acquired Aroldis Chapman from the Reds to close games- leaving flame throwers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller to pitch the seventh and eighth innings. It hasn’t translated due to inconsistent starting pitching and anemic hitting.
At times, you do need your ace to give the pen nights off. That’s what Kershaw and Bumgarner do for their teams. They’re exceptions to the rule. Bumgarner proved a dominant ace can beat a great team coming out of the pen for the save to shutdown the Royals in a memorable Game 7 won by the Giants two years ago. He also won two games as a starter in that World Series.
The bottom line is there are different ways to win. Call me old school. I still prefer seeing a great starter finish what he started. Go the distance.