Finishing what he started

If complete games were feathered or fur-bearin’ critters, naturalists would be counting them up and debating whether they belonged in the “threatened” or “endangered” category. Last year’s American League leader in complete games was Justin Verlander with six; his National League counterpart was R.A. Dickey with five. Their totals, however, are not the lowest in history. In 2009, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum tied for the NL lead with four; two years before, Brandon Webb was the NL leader with the same number.

Actually, throughout the 21st century, the leaders haven’t gotten out of single digits. The last man in double digits in either league was Randy Johnson with 12 in 1999. Working backwards through the 20th century reveals an inexorable trend. The curve is jagged rather than smooth, but the trend is undeniable.

The last pitcher with 20 complete games was Fernando Valenzuela with 20 in 1986; the last with 30 was Catfish Hunter with 30 in 1975. Of course, when you go back to the dead ball era, totals in the 30s are common, and in the first decade of the 20th century, so were totals in the 40s.

To put the issue in perspective, the lowest total in the 19th century was 38, when Red Donahue, Clark Griffith and Frank Killen tied for the major league lead with that total in 1897. By contrast, in the 20th century this total was last achieved by Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1916, and has not been matched since. Safe to say this will remain the case in the next few years, and Alexander’s feat will remain the high-water mark for the 100-year period from 1916-2016.

Going back beyond Alexander, the earliest complete game totals in baseball history defy belief. Even given the wholesale changes the game has gone through, it’s difficult not to be impressed. For example, in the Precambrian days of 1879, one Will White had 75 complete games. Also worthy of note is Jack McCormick, who led the majors in complete games from 1880-1882 with a grand total of 194.

The way things are going today, it is conceivable that one fine season, either in the NL or the AL, no pitcher will hurl a complete game. One wonders how that will be listed in the record books. A hundred (or whatever) tied with zero? In recent years, some individuals have managed to spend an entire season in the rotation without ever finishing a game.

The major league record for most starts in a season without a complete game is 37, set by Steve Bedrosian in 1985. That feat, combined with his 7-15 record, doubtless convinced the Braves that his future was in the bullpen. Indeed, two years later, he led the league with 40 saves and won the Cy Young Award, so that judgment was borne out.

Other pitchers, however, started far more games during their careers than Bedrosian, but somehow managed to make it through entire seasons without one complete game. Tied with 35 incomplete starts are Wilson Alvarez and Sterling Hitchcock in 1996, Rick Helling in 2000, and Rodrigo Lopez and Barry Zito in 2005.

Zito gets extra credit as the active pitcher with the longest streak of incomplete games, 185, running from 2003 to 2009, including his tenure with the A’s as well as the Giants. The record, however, belongs to another Giant, Kirk Rueter, who failed to finish 193 in a row. His final complete game was in 1999, yet he remained active through the 2005 season.

So it isn’t farfetched to foresee a season when no starting pitcher will make it to the finish line. But what about going in the other direction? Is it possible to go back to a time when a pitcher hurled nothing but complete games? Let us consider the case of John W. “Jack” Taylor.

For his career, Taylor completed 279 of 287 games started. Granted, he fell short eight times, but there was a long stretch in his career where bullpen pitchers could have gone fishing and it wouldn’t have made any difference in the games’ outcomes.

Taylor’s pro career started with the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League (forerunner of the American League) in 1897. The Brewers were managed by Connie Mack, who had seen 22-year-old Taylor and his semi-pro team defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates (for whom Mack was then a player) in an exhibition game the previous year.

In his pro debut with the Brewers in 1897, he went 8-7 with a 2.54 ERA before a broken arm ended his season. In 1898, his 28-13 record and 384 innings pitched attracted the attention of the Cubs (then known as the Orphans), who purchased his contract in August and put him right to work.

His durability was evident right from the start. For the remainder of 1898 he had an ERA of 2.20 to go with five victories and five complete games in five starts. Altogether, he won 33 games that season and logged 423 innings What more could you ask for in a young pitcher?

Well, the following season—Taylor’s first full season in major league baseball—could be considered disappointing, as he was only 18-21. But his total of innings pitched (354.2) was the highest of his big league career.

More importantly, if you add his 18 wins and 21 losses, the total is 39, the same number of games he started—and completed. This remains the highest total for any pitcher who has completed all his starts in a season.

In succeeding years, there were challengers, such as Bill Dineen, who completed all 38 of his starts for the Red Sox in 1904; and Kid Nichols, who did likewise with his 35 starts for the Cardinals in 1904. That same season, Nichols had a teammate who tied Taylor’s record. It was Jack Taylor himself, completing all 39 of his starts, tying his own record from five years before.

As we noted earlier, Taylor was relieved eight times in his career. The first was in 1900. That year he completed only 25 of 26 games started. The following season he again came up short, completing a mere 30 of 31. His one slip-up occurred on June 13, 1901, when he lasted just four innings against the Giants.

Taylor was doubtless dissatisfied with his performance that day. But better days were ahead, for that was the last time he failed to complete a game for more than five years. He did not require relief again till Aug. 13, 1906, when the Brooklyn Superbas chased him in the third inning..

So there were four consecutive seasons (1902-1905) when Taylor completed every game he started: 33 in 1902 for the Cubs, 33 in 1903 for the Cubs, 39 in 1904 for the Cardinals, and 34 in 1905 for the Cardinals. That’s a grand total of 139 complete games, and when you factor in his complete games from the end of the 1901 season and the beginning of the 1906 season, the streak reaches 187. Included in Taylor’s streak are a 19-inning game and a double-header. In fact, during his streak he appeared in relief 15 times, so he actually was on the mound for the end of more games than he was for the beginning.

By the 1907 season (at age 33), his last in the big leagues, the decline was obvious, as he completed just eight of 13 starts. (Today, of course, that would likely net you the league leadership.) A 7-5 record with a 3.29 ERA is hardly disgraceful, but it was enough for the Cubs to release him before season’s end.

Aside from that last year, there was only a three-game differential between the games Taylor started and the games he completed during nine big league seasons. Averaging one incomplete game every three years is pretty tough to beat. And in his spare time, he served as a utility player. At various times in his career, he was employed in the infield (everywhere but shortstop) and in right field. His prowess at the plate was nothing to write home about, but he managed to hit .223 in more than 1,000 at bats, so as pitchers and utility players go, he was far from the worst.

Curiously, aside from his proficiency at finishing what he started, Taylor’s career is not particularly noteworthy. His 2.66 career ERA places him in good company (among pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings, he is 65th all-time, just ahead of a better-known iron man, Joe McGinnity), but his 152-139 record isn’t going to turn any heads. For the most part, the teams he played on were mediocre. During his first eight seasons, his teams finished in the first division only twice, and never higher than third.

When the Cardinals traded him back to the Cubs during the 1906 season, his fortunes took a turn for the better. During his absence, the Cubs had improved greatly. For one thing, they had acquired Three-Finger Mordecai Brown from the Cardinals when they traded Taylor after the 1903 season.

So while Taylor was biding his time with the Cardinals, the Cubs contended in 1904 (93-60) and 1905 (92-61). After Taylor returned, they won the NL pennant in 1906. Their total of 116 victories is still a National League record, and in 107 subsequent seasons, no major league team has bettered their .763 winning percentage.

After he was re-acquired by the Cubs midway through that 1906 season, Taylor went 12-3 with a 1.83 ERA. Hard to believe, but his performance actually inflated the staff ERA, which was 1.76 for the season.

His one indisputably splendid season was 1902, which began his four-season streak of complete games. That year he went 23-11 for a mediocre (68-69-4) Cubs team. He led the league in ERA with 1.33 and in shutouts with seven. They didn’t keep track of WHIP in those days, but he clocked in at 0.953. The following season he wasn’t far behind at 21-14, 2.45, and 1.069. Nevertheless, the Cubs soured on him. Despite his proficiency on the mound during the season, there were questions about his integrity.

Following the 1903 season, the Cubs and White Sox engaged in a postseason exhibition series and Cubs owner Jim Hart was convinced that Taylor was dogging it. Perhaps he was. Major leaguers have never been fond of games that don’t count, and it would surely be difficult to work up much enthusiasm for a 14-game series (Taylor started four games) played in the October chill of Chicago, even if it did involve some additional income. Whether he gave his all or not, Taylor was dealt to the Cardinals before the 1904 season.

Taylor did himself no good when the Cardinals made their first visit to Chicago in 1904. Responding to jeers from the fans about his lackluster performance against the White Sox the previous fall, he responded by saying, “Why should I have won? I got $100 from Hart for winning and I got $500 for losing.” So then the rumors progressed from simply dogging it to actually throwing games. Aside from Taylor’s wisecrack, there was no evidence of hanky-panky, so he continued his career unmolested.

But once an allegation is made, it tends to stick, even after a not-guilty verdict. In particular, a loss to the Pirates in 1904 appeared suspicious, but Taylor explained it away as the result of a hangover. He went 20-19 that season and again completed all 39 starts. His 352 innings pitched were only 2.2 innings less than he had thrown in 1898, his last 39-CG season. If the Cardinals suspected him of anything, they had no one but themselves to blame, since they gave him every opportunity.

In 1905, Taylor had an off year, going 15-21 with a 3.44 ERA, his second highest ever. He led the league in home runs allowed with 10, a lofty total during the dead ball era. Nevertheless, he completed all 34 of his starts and logged more than 300 innings. But the rumors persisted, and when he again pitched poorly during another intra-city exhibition series (the Browns took five of seven from the Cardinals), tongues began wagging again.

His combined record (20-12, 1.99 ERA, 302 IP) with the Cardinals and Cubs in 1906 should have silenced his critics. Yet he did not pitch for the Cubs in the World Series in 1906. Even though the Cubs thought enough of him to bring him back (owner Jim Hart was gone by this time), lingering suspicions likely kept him out of the Fall Classic against the underdog White Sox, dubbed the Hitless Wonders.

Against all odds, the Cubs lost the series. Would Taylor’s participation have made a difference? We’ll never know, but it’s likely he would have been more pumped for this postseason gig against the White Sox than he was for the post-season series against same three years before.

Considering his age and the persistent rumors, Taylor received no offers to pitch for a major league team in 1908. As was often the case in those days, his career path included a return to the minors at the end of his career. His 30-something odyssey included Grand Rapids, South Bend, Evansville and Columbus. At age 37, he hung ‘em up for good after the 1911 season.

Unfortunately, after he retired from baseball, he was not well-off enough to retire, period. Baseball lore is replete with stories of young men coming out of the coal mines to play professional baseball. Taylor went into the coal mines after baseball and remained there the rest of his life. One suspects that middle-aged men going from the majors to the minors to the mines was not an uncommon career path, though it was less heralded than young men going from the mines to the minors to the majors.

At any rate, it was a humble ending to a career that included a unique—and lasting—achievement. His return to the mines suggests that Taylor was not crooked. If he was, then he should have asked for more money.

There is a sort of irony that someone who put in such long hours on the mound would be accused of lying down on the job. Wonder what Taylor would have thought if he could have foreseen the big bucks made by starting pitchers who rarely pitch into the eighth inning yet still receive plaudits thanks to this new-fangled statistic called a quality start.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    IIRC in “Pitching in a Pinch,” written around 1911, Christy Mathewson counsels something along the lines of: Don’t put everything you have into every pitch. Save your best stuff for when runners get on base and the ballgame is on the line (“in a pinch”). This was probably good advice for the deadball era (it was obviously good for Christy). Most players of that era probably couldn’t hit the dirty, battered baseballs of the time 350 feet if you tossed it to them underhand.

    Thus, the arm strain required to throw close to 400 innings was probably more along the lines of what a modern knuckleball pitcher would experience, sort of playing catch with the catcher all game with 10-12 fastballs thrown in when the going got tough.

    That condition of the game was soon to change, and Christy would live to see it.

    Good piece, Frank.

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