King Kaufman's Sports Daily

N.Y. media uproar: The case of the missing complete game! Plus: If minor league umps strike, does it make a sound?


Salon Staff
April 18, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

Twice in the last few days, a prominent New York typist has written a column grumbling about the decline of the complete game.

The complete game! Heavens, next thing you know rotary-dial phones will be a thing of the past.

"Finish What You Start!/Complete Games a Forgotten Art," rhymed the headline and subhead on a column by Bill Madden in the New York Daily News. "The Decline of the Complete Game" was the stately headline on a YES Network column by Phil Pepe, who covered the Yankees in the '60s and '70s for the Daily News.

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Yessir, nothing slips past those New York media boys.

The complete game is in decline all right. There have been five of them so far this year in 193 games, which works out to one complete game every 77.2 starts. Last year there were 189 complete games in 2,431 contests, an average of a pitcher finishing what he began once every 25.7 starts.

So that's a big decline just from a year ago! But the season's young. The stats don't mean anything yet. And before you write to correct my math, remember there are two starters in each game.

Still, as Pepe points out, the New York Yankees alone had 123 complete games in 1904 -- despite the inconvenient fact of being called the Highlanders. And what he doesn't say is that they trailed the league in that category!

In those days, pitchers were pitchers. "What we have now," Pepe writes, "are iPods, cell phones, rap music and 'quality' pitching performances in which the starter courageously huffs and puffs through six innings."

Good grief! These pantywaists today could learn a thing or two from Jack Chesbro of the Highlanders, who completed 48 games to lead the junior circuit in ought-four, or from George Mullin of the Detroit Tigers or Cy Young of the Boston Pilgrims, who each went the distance 40 times.

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Forty? Why, Chris Carpenter, who is almost 31 years old and the defending National League Cy Young Award winner -- the George Mullin Award never panned out -- has completed only 20 games in his entire career. The active leader in complete games is Greg Maddux, who has 108 at the age of 39. Young passed that number when he was 26 and ended up with 749 of them.

And he didn't even have an iPod!

"By now it's rather clear that baseball owners have become resigned to paying starting pitchers more to do less," Madden writes. "Between the dearth of quality starters, brought about by two more expansions over the last 20 years, and the pervasive managerial affliction called acute pitch count syndrome (APCS), the so-called 'quality start' (6 IP, three runs or less), which baseball old-schoolers routinely scoffed at, is now starting to take on an air of legitimacy."

This is all true as long as by "to do less" Madden means "get tougher hitters out in a more competitive environment," and by "dearth of quality starters, brought about by two more expansions," he means to acknowledge that even with the expansions of the last 20 years, and the expansions of the 20 years before that, baseball's talent pool has grown faster than baseball. There are more pitchers for each pitching job today than in 1986, 1966 or 1904.

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And by "starting to take on an air of legitimacy" he means "is totally legitimate, and for good reason because, as Rob Neyer points out on ESPN.com, a 4.50 ERA is pretty close to league average, and league average performance is pretty valuable."

But yeah, I see their point. Let's mourn the complete game. In 1904, major league starters took the hill 2,498 times, and 2,186 of them were still around at the end of the game.

And while we're at it, we can mourn all those other things 1904 had that we don't. Small gloves, players all up and down the lineup who could bunt, hand-operated scoreboards, a complete lack of cellphones or iPods. Vicious discrimination that kept blacks from playing, meaning that Mr. Chesbro got paid for doing a lot less than today's pitchers, who have to face the best hitters in the world.

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And in 1904, the average attendance at major league games was 4,561. But you know what? They didn't leave in the seventh inning! Don't get me started on that!

They really knew how to do things in those days, I tell you what.

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Teams taking minors ump strike in stride [PERMALINK]

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"Minor League Umps May Strike," read a newspaper headline just before Opening Day down on the farms. "Will Anyone Notice?"

The umps are out, and the bad news for the Association of Minor League Umpires is that major league player development directors haven't seemed to notice. Or at least they're not overly bothered by the work stoppage.

The minor leagues are using replacement umps, reportedly from the ranks of college and high school ball mostly, though the leagues have refused to identify the replacements or make them available to the media.

Big league clubs growing impatient with scab umpires blowing calls might put pressure on the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp., a subsidiary of Minor League Baseball, to settle the dispute with the 5-year-old union, which has struck over wages and benefits. But a survey of several farm-system chiefs found no such impatience.

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Several refused to comment, but those who did were sanguine about the strike.

"Ultimately in my position you rely on your managers to let you know guys that might be suffering more than others in terms of dealing with umpire calls," said A.J. Hinch, manager of minor league operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"Generally, managers have a problem with calls whether they're replacement umpires or the regular umpires," he said. "I haven't felt a huge, you know, anger as far as these umpires. They're doing the best they can and our staff hasn't complained too much."

Players and managers who have spoken to the media about the replacement umps have grumbled mildly, the most consistent complaint being a strike zone that's too wide. That might artificially boost a pitcher's results or hinder a hitter, especially one for whom patience and pitch selection are strengths.

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Charlie Wilson, manager of minor league operations for the Toronto Blue Jays, said he hasn't noticed a problem with the umpires at the Florida State League games he's watched, and hasn't heard much complaining from his field personnel.

"I guess if a problem arises in the future, then the minor league managers will just continue to report their daily game reports on our system, exactly what they see happen," he said. "They could say, 'Well, he pitched a great game but the umpire squeezed him all day' or 'He wasn't that sharp but the umpire had a huge strike zone.'"

"I think you're watching the player," said Hinch, whose team has two of the brightest prospects in the game in shortstops Justin Upton and Stephen Drew. "You're watching their adjustments and things like that. We have the same types of conversations with the professional umpires in terms of if an umpire makes a poor call, or what the manager deems a poor call."

One American League player development staff member who didn't want to be quoted for attribution pointed out that it's too early in the season to draw conclusions about any effect the replacement umps might be having. But, he said, "I haven't heard anybody say, 'Boy these new umps are ruining everything.'"

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He said the data will be more reliable as the season goes on, and it's possible the club would conclude that the new umps are having an effect on play, in which case player evaluation would be adjusted accordingly.

None of the executives or staffers reached said they've heard much in the way of chatter or complaints about the strike and the replacement umpires. So the big leagues don't seem to be overly concerned two weeks into the strike.

But what about the public? Has anyone, as that headline asked, noticed?

The union's own Web site offers an unfortunate answer in the form of an unscientific online poll. As of Tuesday morning, 555 voters had responded to the question "Will fans honor the strike and not attend games until settled?" this way (by percentage):

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A majority will stay away: 2.52
Some definitely will not attend: 12.43
Not many: 25.41
No one will even care: 59.64

Previous column: Pitch to Bonds

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