More complete games than wins?! (It’s not only possible–it used to be commonplace)

Bob Gibson finished his career with 255 complete games and 251 wins / Icon SMI

Back in the old days of baseball, pitchers complete most games that they started. In 1904, for example, 88% of games started ended up as complete games. That means that lots of pitchers registered plenty of complete game losses.

As a result, there are lost of pitchers who ended up with more career complete games than wins (thanks to all those complete games losses.)

Here are the top 20 pitchers (1900-present) with more complete games than wins, ranked my most career complete games:

Rk Player CG W From To G GS L
1 Walter Johnson 531 417 1907 1927 802 666 279
2 Pete Alexander 437 373 1911 1930 696 600 208
3 Christy Mathewson 434 373 1901 1916 630 551 185
4 Eddie Plank 410 326 1901 1917 623 529 194
5 Warren Spahn 382 363 1942 1965 750 665 245
6 Ted Lyons 356 260 1923 1946 594 484 230
7 George Mullin 353 228 1902 1915 487 428 196
8 Red Ruffing 335 273 1924 1947 624 538 225
9 Cy Young 331 225 1901 1911 401 369 146
10 Burleigh Grimes 314 270 1916 1934 616 497 212
11 Robin Roberts 305 286 1948 1966 676 609 245
12 Vic Willis 302 187 1901 1910 399 366 167
13 Jack Powell 294 167 1901 1912 423 369 194
14 Eppa Rixey 290 266 1912 1933 692 554 251
15 Bob Feller 279 266 1936 1956 570 484 162
16 Wilbur Cooper 279 216 1912 1926 517 406 178
17 Bill Donovan 279 182 1901 1918 351 314 129
18 Red Faber 273 254 1914 1933 669 483 213
19 Mordecai Brown 271 239 1903 1916 481 332 130
20 Doc White 262 189 1901 1913 427 363 156
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/12/2012.

As you can see, a lot of these guys are from way, way back. If we limit the list to just guys who pitched at least one season as recently as 1960, here’s the new list:

Rk Player CG ▾ W From To G GS L
1 Warren Spahn 382 363 1942 1965 750 665 245
2 Robin Roberts 305 286 1948 1966 676 609 245
3 Bob Gibson 255 251 1959 1975 528 482 174
4 Juan Marichal 244 243 1960 1975 471 457 142
5 Ned Garver 153 129 1948 1961 402 330 157
6 Rick Langford 85 73 1976 1986 260 196 106
7 Mark Fidrych 34 29 1976 1980 58 56 19
8 Jay Hook 30 29 1957 1964 160 112 62
9 Herb Moford 6 5 1955 1962 50 14 13
10 Steve Barr 4 3 1974 1976 24 13 7
11 Gary Ryerson 4 3 1972 1973 29 18 9
12 Bob Meyer 3 2 1964 1970 38 18 12
13 Rafael Novoa 2 0 1990 1993 22 9 4
14 Jay Pettibone 1 0 1983 1983 4 4 4
15 Jack Jenkins 1 0 1962 1969 8 3 3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/12/2012.

Yeah, it doesn’t happen much anymore. The CG-loss is a pretty rare bird, certainly far rarer than the non-CG win, so guys just don’t do it much anymore.

How about these guys–those most recent pitchers to have a season with more CGs than wins:

Rk Player Year CG W G GS L
1 Gil Meche 2010 1 0 20 9 5
2 Jamey Wright 2003 2 1 4 4 2
3 Jason Standridge 2003 1 0 8 7 5
4 Jim Parque 2001 1 0 5 5 3
5 Rafael Novoa 1993 2 0 15 7 3
6 Bill Wegman 1993 5 4 20 18 14
7 Eric Hillman 1993 3 2 27 22 9
8 John Cummings 1993 1 0 10 8 6
9 Matt Young 1992 1 0 28 8 4
10 Rod Nichols 1991 3 2 31 16 11
11 Mike Birkbeck 1989 1 0 9 9 4
12 Mike Maddux 1989 2 1 16 4 3
13 Jack Morris 1989 10 6 24 24 14
14 Chris Bosio 1988 9 7 38 22 15
15 Mike Morgan 1988 2 1 22 10 6
16 Rod Nichols 1988 3 1 11 10 7
17 Dan Petry 1988 4 3 22 22 9
18 Walt Terrell 1988 11 7 29 29 16
19 Bobby Witt 1988 13 8 22 22 10
20 Greg Swindell 1987 4 3 16 15 8
21 Mike Moore 1987 12 9 33 33 19
22 Danny Jackson 1987 11 9 36 34 18
23 John Butcher 1986 2 1 29 18 8
24 Tom Candiotti 1986 17 16 36 34 12
25 Lee Guetterman 1986 1 0 41 4 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/12/2012.

Jack Morris in 1989 is the last guy to have double-digit complete games but fewer wins.

This feat has gotten rarer and rarer, but might become a bit more common if the pitching trends of the last few years continue.

Leave a Reply

48 Comments on "More complete games than wins?! (It’s not only possible–it used to be commonplace)"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dr. Doom
Guest

I had no idea there were guys pitching in the 80s for whom his was true (if we exclude the single-digit-CG guys). That’s incredible. My first guess would have been that Warren Spahn was the last player to have a career like this, but then I saw the picture of Bob Gibson and thought, “Surely, he must be the most recent.” I was wrong. You learn something new every day, I guess. Especially on HHS. 🙂

Doug
Guest

Fergie Jenkins would have made the career list if he had retired after his age 37 season in 1980.

Jenkins had CG >= W in 10 of 11 seasons from 1967 to 1977, with 205 Wins and 221 CGs for that period.

Doug
Guest

Rick Langford, #6 on the post-1960 career list, compiled 21 more CGs than Wins in only a four-year period (1979-1982), with a 54-54 W-L and 75 CGs in 117 starts.

All that work took its toll. After 1982 (his age 30 season), Langford had only 23 more starts in his career, with zero CGs.

Dr. Doom
Guest

I noticed that, too. Does anyone know what happened following the 1982 season? Was there an injury, or was it just wear-and-tear? I mean, the 12.15 ERA in 7 starts is REALLY bad. How does that happen to a guy who was a pretty decent pitcher beforehand?

Also interesting is that, while he had 75 of his CG in just a four-year period, all 85 of his CG were in a six-year period (199/260 total games pitched). In the other 61 games of his career, he had none (that would be 24/196 starts). Interesting career.

Doug
Guest

I think it was overwork.

Oakland had the same 5 starters (Langford, McCatty, Keough, Norris, Kingman) 4 years running (1979-82) and they compiled CG totals of 37, 93, 59 and 38 in those years, the last 3 years under manager Billy Martin.

In 1979, they were aged 23, 24, 24, 25 and 27. Yet, all were out of the majors after the 1986 season, and two were gone after 1983.

Dr. Doom
Guest

Holy cow! I knew Martin had that reputation with pitching staffs, but knocking a bunch of 20-somethings out of the majors that quickly almost takes purpose. I mean, even Mulder/Hudson/Zito have managed longer careers than that.

Ed
Guest

I think most people trace it to 1980, Martin’s first year with the A’s. He increased the workload of all 5 starters, some of them substantially. Here are the increases from the prior year for each of them:

Langford: 218.2 IP to 290 IP
Norris: 146.1 IP to 284.1 IP
Keough: 176.2 IP to 250 IP
McCatty: 185.2 IP to 221.2 IP
Kingman: 111.2 IP to 211.1 IP

All five pitchers were fairly young at the time, between 24-28. I think this is where the notion that you should limit the total innings and the year-to-year increase for young pitchers began.

John Autin
Editor
Tangent — Can anyone make sense of Rick Langford’s bWAR progression? 1978 — 176 IP, 106 ERA+ = 2.5 WAR 1979 — 219 IP, 95 ERA+ = 4.1 WAR 1980 — 290 IP, 116 ERA+ = 2.6 WAR 1981 — 195 IP, 116 ERA+ = 0.8 WAR 1982 — 237 IP, 92 ERA+ = 1.1 WAR How the fudge does he get 4.1 WAR for 1979, with a 95 ERA+? That’s the worst ERA+ for any pitcher with 2+ WAR that year. And how can 1980 be worth just 2.6 WAR, with 290 IP and a solid 116 ERA+? I… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest

I would imagine defense was a huge part of it. a 215 run swing is pretty dern big. It does look odd, though. You’d think 290 IP alone, even at a 100 ERA+, would be worth 3-4 WAR. Maybe that’s just me, though.

Ed
Guest

For comparisons sake, fangraphs has Langford at 2.9 WAR for 1979 and 3.3 for 1980.

kds
Guest

(I’m replying to JA @19, but I don’t have a reply button.)
He pitched about 15% of the A’s innings in ’79 and 20% in ’80. So that adds about 18 runs to replacement level over an average defense in ’79 and subtracts 20 runs in ’80. So, yeah it is mostly defense.

MikeD
Guest

Reviewing Langford’s 1980 season, Martin almost duplicated Hunter’s 300/30+ season. Langford finshed with 290 innings and 28 complete game.

Langford’s 80/81 seasons under Martin can be compared to Hunter’s 75/76 seasons under Martin. Heavy workload, and both collapsed in the following seasons, ’82 and ’77. Hunter had much heavier innings in prior seasons, but I believe it was the peak workloads that no doubt damaged their arms.

Both careers were effectively over by the time they reached 30, or very shortly thereafter.

MikeD
Guest
I’m pretty sure Martin ended Catfish Hunter’s career. In 1975, Hunter became the first pitcher in more than a generation to pitch over 300 innings and complete 30 games in a season. Bob Feller had been the last. In fairness (in spreading the blame), Martin took over as Hunter’s manager midway through that season, replacing Bill Virdon, but it was Martin who rode Hunter hard down the stretch as the innings were mounting, so he deserves the majority of the blame. Looking back at Hunter’s gamelogs August forward, it’s just insane, even for the period, as the Yankees were out… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
“Hunter became the first pitcher in more than a generation to pitch over 300 innings and complete 30 games in a season. Bob Feller had been the last.” Mike, there were 4 other pitcher between Feller and Hunter who had 300+ IP and 30+ CG in a season: — Robin Roberts, 1952-53 (age 25-26) — Juan Marichal, 1968 (age 30) — Fergie Jenkins, 1971 (age 28) — Steve Carlton, 1972 (age 27) After those seasons: — After ’52, Roberts had an even bigger year in ’53, then averaged 23 wins, 28 CG, 313 IP and a 128 ERA+ for 1954-55.… Read more »
MikeD
Guest
John, thanks, you are correct. That’s a stat that I didn’t check since I had it firmly locked in my mind as correct for more than 25 years. The correct statement is that Hunter was the first American League pitcher in more than a generation (since 1946) to pitch over 300 innings and complete 30 games. That statement alone is still saying something. Yet the convenience of the 300/30 isn’t quite the point, but more an indicator of the substantial workload Hunter was under that season and at that point in his career. He pitched a career high 328 innings… Read more »
Doug
Guest

Interesting breakdown by decade.

CG >= W in 20 win seasons.

1950-59, 23 times, Spahn (7), Roberts (6)
1960-69, 16 times, Marichal (5), Jenkins (3), Gibson (3)
1970-79: 31 times, Jenkins (4), Palmer (4), Perry (3)
1980-89: 3 times, last by Guidry and Morris in 1983

Chris
Guest

A bit off topic but I’ve never seen this addressed. Everyone loves to mention the good ole days when starters pitched complete games – but is it possible that those pitchers were less effective late than a reliever would have been? Isn’t is possible that having starters pitch 6 innings and turning it over to the bullpen is a more effective strategy?

Andy
Guest

Chris, I don’t think there’s any question that using relievers is more effective, which is why MLB gradually shifted that way. It’s quite possible that today we see an over-adjustment, in terms of too many relievers being used, starters not used to pitching deep enough, etc., but in general I think it’s clear that the optimal usage is to have at least one reliever available.

Jason Winter
Guest

I’ve often thought the same thing, and a snapshot look at older seasons seems to bear it out, at least going back a few decades:

2011 SP: .731 OPS
2011 RP: .696

1991 SP: .713
1991 RP: .697

1971 SP: .681
1971 RP: .683

1951 SP: .712
1951 RP: .714

So it looks like somewhere between 1971 and 1991 was when relievers started getting “better” than starters, which is probably about what conventional thinking would have given us. I’m too lazy to look at every year, but it sure seems like it would make for a nifty chart 🙂 (if there hasn’t been one already)

Dr. Doom
Guest
Of course, the way a bullpen is constructed now is completely different than in the 1950s. In the ’50s, you didn’t have a “relief ace” (certainly not more than one) whose only job it was to pitch in relief. Most relievers were failed starters or soon-to-be starters. You didn’t get into baseball with the intention that you’d be a reliever. A lot of guys now, though, know they’re going to be relievers from day 1, and that’s exactly how they end up. Plus, if a guy showed promise in the ‘pen in the 1950s, he’d become a starter. If he… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Chris, I think everyone who’s given it serious thought accepts that a fresh reliever is usually more effective than the SP would be in the 8th and 9th innings.

The debate is on whether modern strategies optimize the potential gains from relief pitching.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
John A., This is a perfect example of the official adoption of a stat (Saves) influencing strategy. “Saves” were created as a separate category in 1960, but was not official until 1969. It didn’t happen immediately, but the rule of the best reliever shifted gradually from the “fireman” role of Radatz and Hiller, to the “closer” role of Gossage and Sutter. Of course it was Tony La Russa using Eckersley in 1987 in 9th inning only/save-only situations that encased the closer’s role in cement. My own personal opinion is that there’s just too many relief pitchers now; an 11-man pitching… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

I prepared a list that demonstrates the trend toward relief pitchers. It is by decade and shows the number of pitchers who had a season with 20 or more game appearances, all in relief. Of course a good portion of the increase after 1960 is due to expansion. I made a correction for the 2001-2010 decade only.

1901-1910…….0
1911-1920…….2
1921-1930……15
1931-1940……52
1941-1950……95
1951-1960…..192
1961-1970…..499
1971-1980…..604
1981-1990…..895
1991-2000….1486
2001-2010….2033 (1084 when corrected for a 16-team league)

An Anonymous Reader
Guest

Um, I’m pretty sure most pitchers complete all the games they finish.

Andy
Guest

LOL. That’s an awesome typo. Thanks.

John Autin
Editor

On the other hand, you never see a Complete Game and a Game Finished in the same team’s box score.

birtelcom
Guest
Complete Game Losses 2000-2011: 1. Roy Halladay 15 2. Livan Hernnadez 12 T3. Jeff Weaver and Randy Johnson 9 T5. Sabathia/Vazquez/Ponson/Colon 8 There have been 169 CG Losses in the NL since the beginning of 2000, and 326 in the AL. In addition to these regular season events, there has been one CG Loss in the post-season over the 200-2011 period, and for that you have to go back to 2000 (Tim Hudson for the A’s, vs. the Yanks, ALDS 2000). Tom Glavine has not just the most recent Complete Game Loss in the World Series, he has the two… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Jack Taylor completed EVERY game he started from 1902 to 1905. He only led in CG (39) in 1904, though. He had 279 CG in 287 starts from 1989 to 1907 (97%). Even against pitchers such as McGinnity, Walsh, and Chesbro, that is very impressive.

He had 152 Wins against those 279 CG.

Richard Chester
Guest

According to information I dug up Taylor pitched 187 consecutive CG, a record. The games from 1902 to 1905 are embedded in that streak.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Richard,

I’m kind of surprised that one those 1880’s workhorses like Radbourne or Galvin or Will White doesn’t hold this record for consecutive CG. For most of the 1880s the concept of a separate “relief pitcher” did not exist; the starting pitcher swapped positions with another position player. Substitutions were not allowed except in case of injury.

Any 19th century historians out there to elaborate on this?

oneblankspace
Guest

Prior to 1950, the requirement to qualify for the ERA title was 10 CG. About that time they changed it to IP based on your team’s schedule.

Richard Chester
Guest

Are you sure? In 1927 AL ERA leader Wilcy Moore had only 6 CG.

Mark in Sydney
Guest
There was a post on MLB Trade Rumors recently about Yu Darvish saying, in part, that “Essential to [the Rangers] strategy is to ween Darvish off the high-pitch-count outings he frequently posted in Japan in favor of more efficient pitch counts.”[1] This is clearly related to to concept of relief and complete games. But I really don’t know what “efficient pitch counts” are. Can anyone help with this? I mean, if a guy goes 9K/9 and 1.5K/BB over 140 pitches, isn’t he just as efficient as a guy doing the same over 85 pitches? Or is this just a way… Read more »
Fireworks
Guest
In your example, 140 pitches versus 85 pitches, you ask about efficiency. Unless you are implying that they pitched a different number of innings, at the same pitch-per-inning rate, obviously the 85 pitch guy is more efficient. Efficient is absolutely the wrong word when discussing the Rangers’ plans for Darvish. Darvish has a very low BB rate for a strikeout pitcher; as far as I know he pitches very efficiently for a strikeout pitcher. I think the heart of the Rangers strategy is just that they’re not going to want Darvish to throw 130 pitches routinely, thus even if he… Read more »
Mark in Sydney
Guest
I apologize. What I wrote was a bit confusing. The point I was attempting to make was that modern idea of pitcher management is more related to pitch count than actual effectiveness. Those “old timers” often threw over 300 CGs over a 20 year career with lifetime WAR of over 75 for the top five. Doc is the active leader today with 66 CG and a WAR of 62 (over 14 seasons). My question is, given we have gotten so much better in terms of conditioning, bio-mechanics and so forth, why is it that the pitching has become, on an… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Mark — One simple thing in favor of relievers: Any pitcher is generally more effective in his first 20-30 pitches than he is thereafter. For example, starters last year allowed a .700 OPS in their first time through the lineup, but .729 the second time.

About 84% of all reliever appearances last year were 25 pitches or less, and 85% were 6 batters or less.

Steven
Guest

In the late sixties, Gibson went a year or two without even being relieved while pitching in an inning.

Timmy Pea
Guest

When I was growing up in Boys Town, Bob Gibson use to come visit us and talk with us. He’s one of my heroes, a great Nebraskan, and a great American.

Paul E
Guest

Timmy:
Boys Town? So, you must know former Iowa QB Will Hollis?

Timmy Pea
Guest

Wilburn, was was before my time. I’m in my 40’s.

PhilM
Guest

I recall Bob Feller citing this as his personal measure of a good pitcher: at least 100 more wins than losses, and more complete games than wins. (Maybe quoted by Bill James at some point?) Of course, Feller himself fits the bill, as does Juan Marichal: barely, by exactly one game on each parameter!

Richard Chester
Guest

Feller and Marichal are 2 of 23 pitchers to have 100 more wins than losses.

topper009
Guest

How about this:

Most recent seasons with more CG than decisions

Player Year CG Dec Tm GS W L
Harry Ables 1909 3 2 CLE 3 1 1
George Crable 1910 1 0 BRO 1 0 0
Bill Crouch 1910 1 0 SLB 1 0 0
Ted Goulait 1912 1 0 NYG 1 0 0
Jack Rowan 1913 5 4 CIN 5 0 4
J Richardson 1915 2 1 PHA 3 0 1
H Kimberlin 1938 1 0 SLB 1 0 0
Jack Hallett 1942 2 1 PIT 3 0 1
Warren Spahn 1942 1 0 BSN 2 0 0

Doug
Guest

Spahn got his lone CG in 1942 in a forfeited game. Neither pitcher was awarded a decision.

Hallett had one of his CGs in a tie game.

I imagine the others are along similar lines.

Fireworks
Guest
Mark in Sydney: There are a variety of things to look at. 1. Perhaps our notions of what constitutes a good workload isn’t quite optimal. Some old timers say pitchers don’t throw enough nowadays. 2. I’ve heard guys like Feller or W. Johnson threw as hard as anyone. I find it difficult to believe that pitchers threw harder. Perhaps the common story of the farm boy that developed hard little muscles in the earlier days of baseball before becoming professional pitchers plays a role there. All I know is that nowadays evidence tends to show that guys that throe several… Read more »
kds
Guest
Not bad at all. One thing to add is that starters have to pace themselves, or they won’t have anything left for the later innings. This was strongly considered to be the rule in dead ball times and its influence only slowly waned. If you move a pitcher from the rotation to the bullpen you expect his fastball velocity to increase. (iirc by about 1 mph, on average.) So, for Walter Johnson, there probably was a noticeable difference between his average fastball speed and his occasional top speed. With Feller not so much, and today considerably less so.
wpDiscuz