There are a lot of rational and plausible reasons and explanations for why the complete game in baseball is a thing of the past. There could be an easy laundry list of items listed to support this assertion. However, I am proclaiming that there is one primary reason, and one only, as to why pitchers no longer pitch nine innings. It can be said in two; no, let’s make it one word: LaRussa.
Tony LaRussa began as a baseball player. I vividly recall him playing for the Oakland A’s when I was a young child. I liked him. He didn’t last with the team, though, and was traded. It was Dick Green who had the primary job at second base. Years later, LaRussa returned to the A’s, and when he did, times changed.
There must be something about the Oakland A’s franchise because throughout the decades, it’s been associated with strange things. Not everything caught on, but a lot of it did. Past owner Charlie O. Finley was eccentric, and he brought to baseball some eccentric things for the day — orange baseballs, colorful uniforms, night games in the world series, ball girls, and the designated hitter. Inadvertently, he was the man who brought about free agency.
Dick Williams managed the A’s through some great times. He had some crazy ideas, too. He rotated his second basemen, each playing three innings and then being pinch-hit for by a better batter. The designated runner came around during his era, too.
It was Tony LaRussa, though, who came to the A’s as a manager and changed pitching forever. Soon, a trade was made that brought Dennis Eckersley to the team as well. That was it. Eckersley became the closer, the ultimate closer, a position honed to success like no other pitcher had ever done. In fact, he was so good that he was oftentimes brought in for a single pitch.
Starters, under LaRussa, pitched five or six innings. There was no such thing anymore as long and short relievers, not as they’d been traditionally. With pitching coach Dave Duncan, also a past A’s player, at his side. LaRussa re-defined pitching. Specialists were the new model, and not just with the closers.
Relievers took on very defined roles on the squad. The A’s had pitchers who were practically assigned to pitch at a certain time. It became routine. Starter A began the game, pitched five or six innings, and was automatically removed from the game. Mid-reliever A would pitch an inning and be gone. Mid-reliever B would pitch the next one, or maybe two, innings and then hit the showers. That left the eighth inning man who might or might not be allowed to start the ninth inning. The ninth became the time of the closer, and that meant Eckersley, or one of the other two closers who worked when Eck couldn’t, which was rare.
The days of a starter going for nine was gone; so was the era of a pitcher being knocked out in the sixth and being replaced by one man who would go the rest of the way. With LaRussa, it just didn’t happen. The Rollie Fingers school of relief had given way to the Dennis Eckersley style.
I miss the complete game. For that matter, I miss pitchers who had to hit. In my day, Jim Hunter had to take at bats, and he was good. Whoever it was who decided pitchers shouldn’t have to focus on hitting, too, is not in my book of favorite people. I miss the complete player; the complete pitcher.
Assign it to strategy, philosophy, stamina, or whatever you want, but the reason for the loss of the complete game is LaRussa. It’s really that simple.