- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

The Complete Game Loss

The first one came early. In the daytime portion of yesterday’s doubleheader against the Rays and Red Sox, James Shields was on his game. He struck out six and walked only one, allowing three runs through eight innings. Unfortunately for him, the Rays scored only one run, leaving him tagged with the loss despite the effort. Later that evening Roy Halladay pitched a typically dominant game, allowing one run through eight. But the Diamondbacks rallied for two in the ninth, both off Halladay, leaving him also saddled with a loss even though he completed the game.

Seeing two complete game losses on the same day is a rare event for sure. Perhaps it’s not as rare as three players hitting two triples in a night, or teams walking off five times, or a triple play on two consecutive days, but it’s a rarity for sure. The complete game loss itself, though, is not so rare. In fact, of the 142 complete games this year 27.5% have ended with losses.

Not only has Halladay thrown three complete game losses this year, but he did it in two consecutive starts. On May 10th he allowed just two runs, one earned, in eight innings against the Marlins. He struck out nine and walked two, allowing just one extra base hit all game. But the Phillies, still without Chase Utley, scored only one run in his defense and he took the 2-1 loss. The next time out he also went eight strong, this time allowing no extra base hits. But the Braves got three against him, and the Phillies managed to score only two. Last night, then, was his first complete game loss in front of the home Philadelphia crowd.

Halladay is not alone atop the complete game loss leader board. Before the trade to Detroit, Doug Fister threw threw three complete game efforts, taking the loss in all three. He came about his a bit differently, though, and his results were not nearly as impressive as Halladay’s. His first came back in mid-April, with the Mariners on the road in Kansas City. Fister allowed three in the third and then two more throughout, leaving him with five runs allowed in seven innings. At 106 pitches, chances are Eric Wedge would have lifted him for the eighth, but the rains came and ended things before he had the chance. It’s a cheapie, but it’s a complete game nonetheless. Halladay has completed 14 games in the last three years in which his team has lost.

In June and July he also completed games while losing. On June 9th he got tagged for four runs in eight innings, which is roughly the equivalent of a quality start. But since the Mariners offense was charged with supporting him, it’s unsurprising that they didn’t come through. That led to Julys heartbreaker, a nine inning effort in which he allowed just one run while striking out seven. Of course, the Mariners gave him no run support that game and he lost 1-0. Former teammate Felix Hernandez knows Fister’s pain; he has lost three complete game outings in the last three years, allowing just six runs in those 24 innings. Those are the only complete games of Fister’s career.

For Shields, yesterday’s outing against the Sox was only the second complete game loss of the season. On July 10th he went eight strong at Yankee Stadium, allowing just one unearned run — though it was on his own poor pickoff throw — through eight innings. But on the other end CC Sabathia threw a complete game of his own. Both Sabathia and Shields are among the 15 pitchers who have thrown at least three complete games this season. Shields leads the majors with nine complete games, two more than Halladay and five more than his next closest AL competitors — Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Jason Vargas, Ervin Santana, and Derek Holland all have four.

Beyond Halladay, Fister, and Shields, four other pitchers have lost more than one complete game appearance this year: Ricky Romero, Brandon McCarthy, Jeremy Guthrie, and Johnny Cueto have all dropped two. And then another 22 have lost at least one complete game. In 2010 there were 47 instances of a complete game loss; Carl Pavano and Cliff Lee led the way with three each. In 2009 there were just 29, though, with only three pitchers doing it even twice (Kevin Millwood, Halladay, and Zach Duke).

One distinct feature of the complete game loss is that it almost always has come on the road. Of the 39 instances, only four have occurred on the pitcher’s home mound. In 2010 only three of 47 instances happened at home. This probably has to do with the mere classification of the complete game. There have likely been many instances where a pitcher threw eight innings at home, but left in the ninth when trailing. On the road that isn’t an issue, since there is no ninth inning for them under those circumstances. Since 2002 there have been 66 instances of complete game losses at home. Who leads the category? That would be Halladay, with six. Bartolo Colon is second with four, and blast from the past Mark Mulder did it three times.

Complete game losses are interesting because they defy expectations. The pitcher wen the distance for his team, but the offense couldn’t produce enough support. They’re rare events, but not quite as rare as we might imagine. Again, they account for 27.5% of all complete games in 2011 and 23.7% of all complete games in the last 10 years. They are, in some ways, unsung heroes, battling for their teams while their offenses provide no support. But it’s really just part of the job. Sometimes you have it and the other guys don’t. It helps balance out all the times that it happens the other way around.*

*Except in the case of the Mariners.