In 1979, Bob Stanley pitched nine complete games for the Red Sox, including a 10-inning shutout in a 4-0 victory over Kansas City. The nine complete games he had that season were a career high for Stanley, and it equaled the number of complete games Boston's entire staff threw last season.
In 1980, A's right-hander Rick Langford tossed 22 consecutive complete games, including a 14-inning win over the Indians. He was one out away from 23 straight when manager Billy Martin gave him the hook. Langford never left the game for the rest of the season, bringing his complete-game total to 28.
Last season, the Giants were the only team in the big leagues to have more than nine complete games. They had 10. Twenty teams combined for fewer complete games last year than Langford's 28 in 1980. Fernando Valenzuela was the last pitcher to throw 20 complete games in a season. It was 31 years ago.
Times have changed.
"Complete games were, you go as far as you can for as long as you can, as long as the hitters let you do it," Stanley, the Bisons' veteran pitching coach, said before their game Thursday against Rochester was postponed. "It's just the way it was."
"We didn't have pitch counts," Stanley said. "The hitters let you know when you were done."
Picked seventh overall out of a New Jersey high school in the 1974 draft, Stanley was a sinkerball pitcher with a fastball in the 88-90 mph range. "I probably wouldn't get drafted" today, he said. He had 21 complete games in 85 starts, became a reliever and appeared in 637 big-league games, including the memorable 1986 World Series against the Mets, in his 13-year career.
Stanley pitched 168 1/3 innings in 48 games in 1982, still the AL single-season record for a reliever. The mark could stand forever. Relievers these days usually don't throw more than three innings per game, and they definitely wouldn't be expected to sustain that workload for a full season.
In 2016, Padres lefty Brad Hand led the majors with 89 1/3 innings out of the bullpen while David Price led all pitchers with 230 innings. The AL and NL have not had pitchers throw for 250-plus innings in the same year since 1998. Steve Carlton, in 1980, was the last pitcher in the majors to toss 300 innings.
Starting in 1962, when the schedule for both leagues expanded from 154 games to 162, there was at least one pitcher who threw 300 innings every year until Carlton. Last season, on average, starters lasted only 5.6 innings. The innings-per-start could decrease this year with more pitchers specializing in specific situations.
"The whole game has changed because of that," Stanley said. "When I played, we had five guys in the bullpen, so the starters had to go a longer distance. Guys were trained to go nine innings. Now I don't think they're trained to go nine innings. If you go nine innings now, it means you didn't have a lot of pitches. It has nothing to do with anything else. It's pitches."
It's not just the top pitchers throwing more than 90 mph, either. Nearly everybody does at the big-league level. No wonder why strikeouts have increased every season for 11 years.
Sports Illustrated's cover story last week was about California schoolboy Hunter Greene, a terrific power hitter with a fastball topping 102 mph. He's 17 years old. Most college teams in Division I have several pitchers on the roster who throw 90 mph or more, including many who throw more than 95 mph and some who approach 100 mph. The numbers likely will increase in the coming years.
"Some guys throw 100, but it's as straight as a string," Stanley said. "It's not how hard you throw, but where you put it. If you can throw 96 and paint the outside corner or inside corner, it's better than 101. There are fastballs that are 100 mph, but there are guys throwing 93 that have better fastballs. It's because it's heavier, has better movement and more life on it."
One reason for the uptick is improved radar guns, which measure pitches as they're released from the hand. Their predecessor clocked velocity as the ball crossed the plate. While true, the advancement in weight training and other methods have contributed to pitchers throwing harder than their forefathers.
Years ago, the theory was pitchers could only add a limited amount of velocity. Your arm speed was your arm speed, give or take a few miles per hour. It's an outdated concept that has been debunked in the past 10 years.
Certain pitchers are born with arms stronger than others, but science has proven velocity can increase dramatically with proper training. Pitchers are lifting weights and becoming stronger overall. They're also using programs designed to strengthen shoulders and backs, allowing them to transfer more energy.
"You can create arm speed," Stanley said. "You can work on your fastball (by throwing more often), but you only have so many bullets in your arm."
Stanley devised a smaller version of a baseball with a hole drilled into one side, where a towel is inserted. Pitchers exercise against wind resistance without actually throwing the ball. The mechanism, based on a simple concept and patented this spring, can be found on performancepitch.com.
Kids, listen up.
Young pitchers still develop velocity and control through natural athleticism and repetition. Knowledgeable pitching coaches can help prevent injuries with proper mechanics, so long as they work to pitchers' strengths and refrain from steering them toward their own personal preferences. Some can do more harm than good.
"A good pitching coach helps the kid, but he doesn't put his stamp on him," Stanley said. "There are a lot of guys who say, 'Oh, I showed him this' or 'I did that.' … You have to work with what he has. I could never throw a curveball, so I threw a slider. It depends on the individual."
Regardless, the harder pitchers throw, the more likely they will tire sooner and last fewer innings. Big-league teams spend a fortune on pitching staffs, and they're intent on preserving arms and protecting investments. Advanced analytics and more options in the bullpen led many to embrace pitching by committee. Why? Because it works.
Randy Johnson was the last 300-game winner, in 2007. He could be the last with starters leaving sooner and having fewer won-loss decisions. Bartolo Colon has the most victories (234) among active pitchers. He's 44. Clayton Kershaw is the only current pitcher younger than 30 years old with 130 wins or more.
In order to reach 300 wins, pitchers need to average 20 wins for 15 seasons. It's astronomical by today's standards but nothing when stacked against Cy Young's 511 victories. Young had 749 complete games, finishing 92 percent of the games he started. He had 40 complete games in nine separate seasons, and he failed to lead the league in seven of them.
Times have changed, indeed.