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The death of the shutout

For the first time, no pitcher has more than one

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of a once relevant statistic: the shutout. It’s been in hospice for many seasons, with hardly any pitchers coming to visit. Now, it has finally succumbed to death by singularity. For the first time in history, we may finish the season without a single pitcher accumulating more than one complete game shutout.

Actually, the death of the shutout is even more gruesome than you might think. Never before in either the American League or National League has the shutout leader had fewer than two. This year, neither league has any pitcher with more than one. 17 pitchers are tied for the MLB league, by virtue of having thrown a single complete game shutout:

  • Jose Berrios (MIN): Finished a three-hitter on April 1 despite loading the bases with one out in the ninth inning.
  • Mike Clevinger (CLE): Retired the final 14 batters of his two-hitter on April 21.
  • Gerrit Cole (HOU): A May 4 one-hitter, giving up a double in the fifth inning.
  • Patrick Corbin (ARI): One-hitter on April 17; allowed an infield hit in the eighth inning.
  • Mike Foltynewicz (ATL): Gave up just two hits on June 1: singles in the first and ninth innings.
  • Andrew Heaney (LAA): Another one-hitter, with just a single allowed in the fifth inning on June 5.
  • Corey Kluber (CLE): Scattered three hits on August 4.
  • Sean Manaea (OAK): NO-HITTER on April 21!
  • Daniel Mengden (OAK): Gave up a pair of singles on May 26.
  • Miles Mikolas (STL): Is a four-hitter and almost no-no? Sure, why not? On May 21, he allowed no hits after the third inning.
  • James Paxton (SEA): NO-HITTER on May 8!
  • Max Scherzer (WAS): A two-hitter on April 9, retiring the final 15 batters.
  • Luis Severino (NYY): Five hits allowed on May 2 is tied for the most in any shutout this season.
  • Jameson Taillon (PIT): Gave up just a third inning single on April 8.
  • Masahiro Tanaka (NYY): Spread out three hits on July 24.
  • Justin Verlander (HOU): Here’s the other five-hit shutout, from May 16.
  • Trevor Williams (PIT): A six inning rain-shortened shutout on July 23.

Unsurprisingly, 17 shutouts in a season is the lowest in baseball history by far. The most ever was 348 in 1915, but baseball was practically unrecognizable back then. Even still, as recently as 1998 — the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 70 and 64 home runs — there were 101 shutouts. Just four years ago we saw 51 of them; three times as many as we’ve had in 2018.

Complete game shutouts aren’t just statistically irrelevant, they’re also an endangered species. Let’s examine some of the factors contributing to its near extinction.

Pitch Counts

Depending on your age, you might remember when pitch counts were unheard of. In Roger Clemens’ second 20-strikeout game on September 18, 1996, he threw 151 pitches. It was the third time he eclipsed 150 in that season alone. That could never happen in today’s game. No pitcher has thrown more than 150 pitches in a game since 1999. In fact, only three pitchers in 2018 have thrown more than 125 in a game.

Obviously, it’s hard to throw nine innings without throwing a lot of pitches. For lots of reasons, managers just won’t allow guys to throw too much anymore. There’s an increased injury risk for pitchers who throw too many pitches. There’s also a decrease in effectiveness. Pitchers tend to lose velocity as the game goes on, and opposing hitters improve (this is often known as the Time Through the Order Penalty, but it might be for reasons already inherent). The Rays take this to an even greater extreme with their Openers and Bullpen Games. Much of the time they don’t even use a traditional starting pitcher, eliminating any possibility of a complete game shutout.

No-hitters

On May 4, Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler was pulled from the game after six no-hit innings and 93 pitches. Tony Cingrani, Yimi Garcia, and Adam Liberatore finished the job for the twelfth combined no-hitter in baseball history. Not too long ago, pulling a pitcher from a no-hitter was blasphemy. Now it’s relatively commonplace. Not counting Openers, 11 pitchers have been yanked from games this season with a no-hitter going.

Even relatively recently, pitch counts could be thrown out the window for a no-hitter. Tim Lincecum threw 148 pitches in a no-no on July 13, 2013. Three years earlier, Edwin Jackson threw 149. Managers used to figure that, for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let the guy pitch his arm off to see if he can finish the no-hitter. It just doesn’t happen anymore, unless he can keep his pitch count manageable. There have been two complete game no-hitters this season: Manaea’s, in which he threw 108 pitches, and Paxton’s, who needed just 99.

Relievers

One of the best reasons to pull a starter from the game is because there are better relievers. Across MLB, relief pitchers have a 98 FIP-. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but it’s indicative of at least some advantage that they have over starters. Six of the eight best seasons by MLB relievers by FIP- have come in the last eleven years. Strikeout rate is even more telling of how good relievers have become.

Best MLB reliever K-rates

Season K%
Season K%
2017 23.3 %
2018 23.2 %
2016 22.7 %
2014 22.2 %
2015 22.1 %
2012 21.9 %
2013 21.7 %
2011 20.6 %
2010 20.3 %
2009 19.5 %

The table is almost perfectly in reverse chronological order. Nearly every team has a few flame throwers out of the bullpen that a manager trusts more than the starting pitcher in late innings.

Home Runs

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you might have noticed there are more home runs than there used to be. There’s a lot of factors that go into this, and no one can really know for certain, but home runs are undoubtedly peaking.

Naturally, the total amount of runs are up as well, and there’s a moderate 0.45 correlation between home runs and runs scored (adjusted for league expansion).

If it’s harder than ever to keep the ball in the park, it’s also harder than ever to keep the opposing team off the scoreboard. There are lots of ways to score runs, but it only takes one mistake to lose a shutout. For our purposes, it doesn’t even matter if a pitcher gives up one run or ten. As soon as a single baseball goes over the fence, the shutout is gone.

Weather

This is kind of a weird one, but there might be something to it. The beginning of the season coincided with absolutely dreadful baseball weather. That probably benefited pitchers. The ball might not travel as far in the cold and rain. Pitchers probably don’t tire as quickly as they do when it’s hot and humid. As a result, nine of the 16 complete game shutouts came on or before May 8 (not counting Williams’ rain-shortened shutout).

This means the problem might be worse than we thought. If April and early May weren’t so miserable, how many of these shutouts would we have lost? Maybe a deep fly out would have traveled the extra few feet over the fence? Not a single pitcher in the NL has thrown a nine inning shutout since May.

There’s still about three weeks to go this year. There’s plenty of time for any of the seventeen pitchers above to throw a second shutout and claim the leaderboard for himself, especially with the weather getting colder. But it seems like it won’t be long until every pitcher ties for the league lead in shutouts with zero.


The Baseball-Reference Play Index was heavily used to research this article.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983