It's no secret that a number of pitching milestones and accomplishments are becoming more and more unreachable in today's game. Count something as simple as the complete game -- once a commonplace in baseball -- among them.
Pitchers are finishing what they started less than ever before this season, and there's plenty of reasons for it. Chief among them, however, are the continued evolution of inning-specific relievers and the emphasis on carefully monitoring pitch counts.
"There's so much that goes into it," Royals manager Ned Yost said of what goes through his mind when deciding whether or not to let his starter finish out a game. "You're looking at score, you're looking at pitch count, you're looking at the quality of each pitch. There's a bunch of things you look at as the game goes on."
And with more variables than ever playing into the equation, starters have turned in only 60 complete games out of their 2,738 starts, entering play Friday. That equates to one complete game for every 45.6 starts, putting this year's hurlers on pace to throw just 107 complete games -- five fewer than the current record low set in 2007.
Last season -- even with an early flourish of complete-game performances -- starters finished out just 128 games, the second-lowest mark behind the '07 record-setting season. As of July 11 last year, starters had already turned in 76 complete games in just 2,566 starts or, in other words, 16 more complete games in 172 fewer outings than this year's starters.
With no lack of quality pitchers in today's game, Yost offered little hesitation when providing an explanation for the dwindling number.
"Specialized bullpens," Yost said. "No doubt about it. Even more so than pitch counts, it's the bullpens."
The numbers seem to back up that argument, as well. On 46 occasions this season, a starter has pitched at least eight innings and been pulled before completing the ninth despite having thrown 100 or fewer pitches. In all, starters have thrown at least eight innings but fewer than nine (not including games that ended before nine full innings) 160 times this season.
Rays manager Joe Maddon made the decision to make such a move earlier this season, removing starter Roberto Hernandez just one out shy of a complete game. On May 29, Hernandez had limited the Marlins to just one unearned run off two hits and held a 3-1 lead through the first eight innings.
After retiring the first two batters in the ninth, however, Hernandez conceded a single through the left side of the infield on his 92nd -- and final -- pitch of the night. With the potential tying run stepping to the plate, Maddon -- who afterwards said he noticed Hernandez laboring on the mound -- turned to closer Fernando Rodney, who promptly closed the door on the Rays victory.
In a different situation, such as the one Athletics left-hander Tommy Milone faced on July 5, Hernandez may have been given another chance or two to finish what he started.
In Milone's case, the southpaw carried a shutout into the bottom of the ninth inning against the Royals, though he had a much larger cushion than Hernandez, with the A's leading, 6-0. Milone was given multiple opportunities to finish his bid for a complete game, but Oakland manager Bob Melvin finally turned to closer Grant Balfour after Milone conceded four consecutive one-out base hits.
"The pitch count was right there for him to finish the game, making his pitches all night long," Melvin said of Milone, who had thrown just 87 pitches entering the ninth and ended the night having thrown 101. "It didn't even look like he broke a sweat. Gets the first guy out in the [ninth] inning, and now they string four hits together and I gotta take him out.
"It would have been nice to see him get that complete-game shutout. He just didn't make his pitches there."
Just as Rodney did in relief of Hernandez, Balfour came on and shut the door to earn the save and preserve the win for Milone. And in the end, regardless of all the numbers floating around a manager's head when he's contemplating a call to the bullpen, the decision ultimately comes down to what gives his team the best chance to win.
Though starters may not be doing it all themselves, they too are benefitting from the work of setup men and closers. Last season, despite the lack of complete games, starting pitchers combined for 1,738 wins, the third most in any one season, trailing only the 1998 (1,740) and 2005 (1,742) campaigns.
"As a manager, the last thing I want to do is let one of my starting pitchers, who has pitched his [butt] off, get beat in the eighth inning when I've got a good bullpen sitting down there," Yost said. "I'm not going to let it happen -- or at least try not to anyways."