When Max Scherzer threw a complete-game shutout on Thursday night, helping the Tigers to a 4-0 victory in Chicago, he accomplished a feat that is becoming more and more rare in the modern age of baseball.
It took Scherzer 179 starts to get that first complete game, ending his record-setting run of most games without a complete game to open a career. (Rick Porcello, at 146 games, is third on that list.)
To contrast: When Denny McLain won 31 games for the Tigers in 1968, he made 41 starts. He completed 28 of those games. Cy Young finished his 22-year career having completed 745 games. Young's career began in the 1800s and carried over into what is commonly known as the modern age of baseball, beginning when the first World Series was played in 1903.
The record books are full of pitchers before the modern age —113 of them to be exact — who threw at least 50 complete games in a season. Will White pitched 75 complete games for the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1879. His career lasted another seven seasons.
The modern-day record for complete games is held by "Happy Jack" Chesbro of the New York Highlanders (later Yankees) who completed 48 games in 1904.The Detroit Tigers' record is held by George Mullin, who completed 42 games in 1904. He followed that by completing 35 games in consecutive seasons in 1905, 1906, and 1907. Mullin also holds the career record for the Tigers with 336 complete games.
Mullin does not, however, hold the records for most complete-game shutouts, either in a season, or in his career. McLain pitched nine shutouts in 1969. Mickey Lolich threw 39 shutouts in his career with the Tigers, to Mullin's 34. Lolich threw fewer innings than Mullin, 3,361 to 3,394.
Needless to say, the game has changed dramatically. Complete games used to be the norm, but are now the rare exception. Scherzer's opponent on Thursday, Chris Sale of the White Sox, led the American League with four complete games in 2013. None of Sale's completions was a shutout.
There were a total of 21 shutouts in major league baseball this season. Less than one per team. No Tigers starter had pitched a shutout in 2014. They're not as rare as a no hitter, which is almost always a shutout, and must be a complete game, by definition, for an individual pitcher. But they're pretty darn rare these days.
Scherzer did the yeoman's effort in a shutout of the Houston Astros on May 5, but he didn't complete the game, as the bullpen was called in to finish the job. One year earlier, on May 5, 2013, Justin Verlander shut out the Houston Astros — for seven innings. But Darin Downs was called in to finish the job.
The Tigers have three shutouts in the 2014 season, all Max Scherzer starts.The most-recent Tiger to pitch a complete-game shutout was Anibal Sanchez, who one-hit the Minnesota Twins on May 24, 2013, leading the Tigers to a 6-0 victory.
Five-man rotations, pitch counts, relief specialists, increasing velocity and strikeout rates all have moved the game away from the day when a complete game was commonplace. In the modern game of baseball, what Scherzer did in Chicago was indeed a rare accomplishment.