As we all know, in the past starters used to routinely go much deeper into games than they do today. I've been playing with the play finder on Baseball Reference this weekend to find starts in which the starter went farther than nine innings (obviously, these would be extra-inning games). I started this off mainly as a historical curiosity thing, but to my surprise I came up with something that's relevant today -- in terms of something that happened a year ago, and happened again just yesterday.
First, I was a bit surprised to find that ten-inning starts were not uncommon as recently as the mid-1990s. In the years 1990-1995 there were 33 games in which a starter went ten. However, they disappeared very quickly after that. There were none in 1996, and have only been eight since then. The most recent ten-inning start was by Philadelphia's Cliff Lee on April 18 last year, against the Giants. Lee pitched extremely well in that game, allowing no runs on seven hits and seven K's, but he ended up with a no-decision as Matt Cain and four relievers shut the Phillies out, and the Giants won it 1-0 off of Antonio Bastardo in the 11th. That game was the first time a starter had gone past nine since two ten-inning starts in 2007, one by then-Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aaron Harang, and one by then-Toronto Blue Jay Roy Halladay.
When was the last time a starter went farther then ten innings? For that, you have to go back farther. On August 1, 1990, Oakland's Dave Stewart pitched a brilliant, 11-inning complete game shutout against the Seattle Mariners, with the A's winning 1-0. Stewart allowed five hits, three walks, struck out five and did it all in 129 pitches. (In the losing effort, Seattle's Erik Hanson pitched 10 innings of two-hit shutout ball, striking out 11.) A month earlier, on July 6, Andy Hawkins had pitched 11.2 innings for the Yankees -- and wound up as the losing pitcher, as the Yankees were shut out by the Minnesota Twins, 2-0. Allan Anderson pitched nine shoutout innings for the Twins to earn the victory.
To find anything longer than Hawkins' effort, you have to go way back, to June 6, 1986. That day, knuckleballer Charlie Hough put in 13 innings for the Texas Rangers against... Allan Anderson and the Minnesota Twins. Anderson went 10 innings in this game. Both starting pitchers exited the game with the score tied at 2-2, and so both ended the day with a ND for their efforts. I remember noting the box score of this game in the newspaper the next day, and making a comment about it on the old rec.sport.baseball Usenet group. Someone else responded, "Oh no! That breaks a streak of 39 straight decisions for Hough" Sure enough, the records today confirm that.
Longer than 13 innings? We go back to 1980. The Oakland A's have hired a new, first-year manager, a volatile ex-player by the name of Billy Martin. Martin would become much better known for his efforts on the opposite coast, but in his first year as a major league manager, he was determined to bring old-school baseball to Oakland. And that included leaning on his starting pitchers -- heavily. The A's had a rotation of promising young pitchers: Matt Keough, Brian Kingman, Rick Langford, Steve McCatty and Mike Norris. Those five pitchers tossed 1257.1 innings and an incredible 93 complete games, numbers not seen since the 1950s. And all but Kingman had a start of 14 innings that season. Let's focus on one: McCatty's start on August 10 against the Mariners. McCatty pitched well in that game, surrendering two runs on 6 hits and 4 walks, striking out 8. But he took the complete-game loss, 2-1.
All five of these A's pitchers developed major arm problems over the next couple of years. Steve McCatty started having issues in 1982, and his last season as a starter was in 1984. The A's tried moving him to the bullpen in 1985 to save his arm, but he chose to retire at the end of the season. None of the others had a good season after 1983.
What's the relevance of all this today? Consider Steve McCatty's current job description: pitching coach of the Washington Nationals, who famously put an innings limit on their young phenom Stephen Strasburg last year, and have just yesterday shut down Taylor Jordan using the same rationale. Did McCatty advocate for these shutdowns? I don't know for sure, but I assume that the Nationals management would value the input of their pitching coach in making such decisions. And there's no doubt in my mind that McCatty's own experiences with being over-worked as a young pitcher in Oakland has been a major factor in his thinking. I'm old enough to remember the 1980 A's and even at the time, everyone said the A's were abusing their starting pitchers and that problems would follow. Which they did, and it wound up killing the first half of the decade for Oakland. The Nationals' decision on Strasburg has been widely ridiculed, especially in light of their collapse this year. But from the memory of the 1980 A's, and McCatty's own involvement in that, I'm not sure I can blame them.