The complete game is on life support.
Don't mourn. It lived well. During its heyday, pitchers loved throwing it. In 1879, Will White started 75 games for the Cincinnati Reds and finished every one of them. More than 100 years later, Rick Langford threw 28 for the 1980 Oakland A's staff that pitched 94 complete games.
From there, it ran into trouble. Respiratory issues, arthritis, broken hip. You know. At the turn of the century, its descent into nothingness accelerated, and it might well be irrelevant now if not for the one pitcher who is legitimately capable of throwing a complete game every time out.
"I don't think it's something that will ever come back," Roy Halladay says, and even as the complete game's foremost – and lone, really – modern practitioner, he's a skeptic. It's a shame, too, because Halladay, the luminescent Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, is on the verge of doing what no pitcher has done since 2003: throw four straight complete games.
And who was that pitcher?
Like you had to ask.
"Of course it's him," says Dustin McGowan, the Blue Jays' hard-throwing 26-year-old starter. "We all want to finish our starts. It just doesn't work that way. It's really hard in today's game. Except for Roy."
For Halladay to complete the quartet on Tuesday, he'll need to brave Boston's lineup, the highest scoring in the American League, and do so in Fenway Park, where his career earned-run average is 4.96. Daunting as it seems, Halladay is the perfect antidote to the Red Sox's patience and, accordingly, the ideal pitcher to throw complete games in a climate where starting pitchers are conditioned throughout their minor-league careers not to go nine innings but to get as deep as possible on a preordained pitch count.
Halladay combines all the necessary elements for the modern complete game: low pitch count, high first-strike percentage and effectiveness against left- and right-handed hitters. While Boston's lineup grinds down pitchers with its patience, Halladay's offerings carry some mystical power that cause hitters to get twitchy, flail and do all sorts of things they later regret. He's the meth of the mound.
Perhaps it's just that Halladay throws strikes. In his five starts this season, 67 percent of his first pitches have gone for strikes. Though it's early, it's the highest percentage of his career, and Halladay emphasizes first-pitch strikes for a reason: following an 0-1 count, batters hit .226 and have a measly .588 on-base-plus-slugging against him.
"I take a lot of pride in how many first-pitch strikes I throw," Halladay says. "It's hard to say you want to go out there and throw some number of pitches in an inning, because you never know. But you can put yourself in the situation by getting and staying ahead."
Just so happens that Halladay is the most efficient pitcher around, too; his 13.1 pitches per inning are the fewest in the major leagues this year. In each of his full seasons since 2002, Halladay has placed in the top 10 in baseball in pitches per inning, and three times he finished second.
Because he keeps his pitch count so low, Halladay rarely treads into the territory that gives managers quick trigger fingers, lest they anger a general manager who treats pitchers' arms as though Faberge eggs (and most do). In his three previous complete games this season, Halladay threw 110, 117 and 107 pitches. When he went four straight in 2003, the numbers were even better: 109, 99, 93 and 102.
"My perfect game," Halladay says, "is 27 pitches."
By that, Halladay means no disrespect to the strikeout, a noble pursuit that happens to contraindicate with today's complete game. Strikeouts generally take a large number of pitches. Halladay prefers fewer, and his fastball-slider-curveball-changeup repertoire plays with a predilection toward ground balls. His groundout-to-flyout ratio this season is 2.85-to-1, fourth best in the major leagues, and by begging for contact, low pitch counts come to him. In Halladay's third career complete game, a two-hit shutout against Cleveland in 2001, he threw 83 pitches. Only four nine-inning complete games this decade have seen fewer pitches.
Lost in all of the numbers and accomplishments is the simple fact that Halladay, when healthy, is among this generation's best pitchers. He won 22 games and a Cy Young award in 2003. Lefties (career .699 OPS) and righties (.669) find him almost equally troubling, which helps Blue Jays manager John Gibbons' head err toward leaving Halladay in the late innings. The benefit of yanking him so a left-hander can face a left-hander is almost negligible. The era of specialization still bows to Halladay.
"If what you're going to bring in from down there isn't as good as what you've got in there, you oughta leave him out there," Gibbons says. "But I'm conscious. You want this guy year after year, whether I'm here or not. He's the organization's No. 1 guy, so you can't abuse him, either."
Gibbons joined the Blue Jays as a bullpen catcher and used to lament his sessions with Halladay because his hand ached afterward. He knows Halladay's mannerisms well enough that he can spot fatigue. So Halladay's 19 complete games since the 2005 season tend to skew away from abuse and toward effectiveness, his pitch count exceeding 120 only twice and 10 times staying under 100.
Granted, 19 over three years seems positively embarrassing next to the ironmen of old. Langford threw 22 in a row in '80. He was Halladay's pitching coach in Double-A and used to talk about the value of a complete game. He probably didn't say that all five of the A's starters from that season were cooked by 1983, but, hey, why let the facts get in the way of a good lesson?
Whatever Langford said stuck. Halladay is first in complete games over the last three years by a longshot, his friend and former teammate Chris Carpenter seven behind. Only nine pitchers in that same period have more complete games than Halladay's got complete-game losses (six). His three-game streak is just the 15th of its kind in the last 10 years.
McGowan says he hopes to throw two or three complete games this season. He calls the 30-year-old Halladay, four years his senior, "old school." Halladay doesn't see himself as any kind of warrior or standard bearer or keeper. Just as someone who simplifies.
When Halladay was demoted to Class A in 2001, he began talking with renowned sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. Rather than have Halladay focus on pitching nine innings, Dorfman encouraged him to concentrate on each pitch. Those pitches would add up to outs. And those outs to innings. And those innings to complete games.
"I'm thinking about making that one pitch," Halladay says. "And I'm going to make pitches until they take me out.
"It's not a goal you set. It just happens as a product of other little goals. This isn't something I've tried to do."
Nor will he ever try. Halladay will throw complete games because that's what he does, and the complete game will continue to endure, not prosperous, not even lucid, a shell of its former self. But alive nonetheless, and with one man to thank.