July 21, 2018

Are All 1-0 Games Pitchers’ Duels?

July 1, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

As we reach the halfway point of the 2018 season, I would like to note that there have already been 32 games this season in which the two teams combined to score just one run, compared to 28 such games all of last season. This isn’t a tendency or a trend; it is a force to be reckoned with, as it threatens to get worse.

It isn’t the sheer number of 1-0 games that alarms me as much as the style of these games. I read an article the other day that was packed with numbers showing how dull major league baseball has become. The scariest number to me? A ball is put into play once every three minutes and 45 seconds. I’ve seen that “pace of action” measure once before. It’s almost the exact frequency with which Phil Mickelson hits the ball during a round of golf.

I wouldn’t suggest that baseball is as dull as golf for the average sports fan (though I’d rather watch Mickelson hit from a sand trap than watch Joey Gallo pop up). My point here is that the very notion of the 1-0 game has changed in a way that’s more important than the score.

To serious baseball fans who came to the game before the 1990s, a 1-0 game had a special meaning. It was a pitchers’ duel. (Lexicographer Paul Dickson uses the singular–pitcher’s–but I prefer the plural since a game in which only one pitcher excels is merely a shutout.) Two pitchers at the top of their game went to battle, with the suspense building throughout. Which guy would crack first?

The best-pitched game of my lifetime was the duel between Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn at Candlestick Park on July 2, 1963, with Willie Mays contributing the only run on a home run in the 16th inning. Both men threw about 200 pitches. The astonishing thing was that Spahn was 42 years old, and he blew out his elbow that night. After pitching just three times in the next six weeks, with two stints on the disabled list, Spahn came back and reeled off eight consecutive complete-game victories to get to 20 wins for the last time. That’s pitching!

We remember Game 7 of the 1991 World Series less because of the final score than because Jack Morris pitched ten innings to win 1-0. At the time, the performance was hailed as a triumph of stuff, stamina, determination, and a will to win. In 2018, not one of those four traits is even encouraged by major league franchises. Maybe stuff, but not the variety of stuff that gave Warren Spahn options to keep getting guys out on his sixth trip through the San Francisco batting order.

John Smoltz pitched into the eighth inning the night Morris made his stand, so the duel lasted a long time. That was the thrill of the game, making each base runner and each advanced batter matter more. Two-out single–steal a base? What are the chances of getting an extra-base hit against this guy? Everything is crucial when you know a single run is all that other guy will need.

That, I think, is the crucial thing that is missing from the current crop of 1-0 games. We have seen 32 of them so far, making 64 starting pitchers, of whom only six have pitched past the seventh inning. Just two–Patrick Corbin and Andrew Heaney–have pitched a complete-game 1-0 victory, and in both cases they probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity if they hadn’t tossed one-hitters.

I’ve been logging data from these 1-0 games and can accurately estimate the numbers of contests that would qualify as a good old-fashioned, two-pitcher pitching duel: two. Fittingly, both involved Johnny Cueto of the Giants, but he didn’t get a decision in either one. On March 30, the second day of the season, Cueto battled Alex Wood at Dodger Stadium. Each man surrendered just one hit, with Cueto lasting seven innings and Wood eight. Joe Panik’s home run off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning settled it.

On April 17 at Chase Field in Phoenix,Cueto and Arizona’s Corbin staged a vintage battle. Corbin allowed just a single by Brandon Belt with two outs in the eighth inning. Meanwhile, Cueto gave up a pair of singles and fanned 11 Diamondbacks in seven innings. Reliever Tony Watson gave up the deciding run in the bottom of the eighth on a walk, a sacrifice bunt by Corbin (take that, DH!), and a single.

How many times out of these 32 well-pitched games has the starting pitcher even gotten the 1-0 win? That would be 22, so more than one-third of the time, a relief pitcher is winning a 1-0 game. Does that sound nifty? It doesn’t to me (two of the 32 games have gone extra innings, and in six others, the run scored in the ninth inning).

In the 30 games that required work from the winner’s bullpen, 85 relief pitchers were used, or not quite three per game. That’s a lot of subcontracting even in this age of specialization. Half the time, the starter has gone six innings. Now that’s a pattern, like it or not.

The good news–if you wish to consider it such–is that these games go quickly. The lack of action is compressed into a relatively short time. Of the 32 games tracked so far, only six have taken as much as three hours to play (including the extra-inning games). Conversely, 11 have taken two-and-a-half hours or less; not surprisingly, the Corbin-Cueto duel was the shortest game of the season at 2:05.

So here we are, afloat in a sea of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, seeking more action. My contention is that 1-0 games can still be exciting. They can still contain that suspense of not knowing when what will probably be the run will score. They can still contain the thrill of watching a team nursing an early 1-0 lead through the rest of the game. Yes, these things can still happen. Last night, two pitchers logged seven innings of shutout ball before being excused for the evening. This was the seventh time out of 32 1-0 games when both pitchers managed to last that long. I’m sure that was exciting–as far as it went–but like so many other games this season, it became not so much an impressive showdown between hot pitchers, but rather a struggle to see which weak offense might push across a run.

What are the chances that the next 1-0 game you see will feature two pitchers dueling for eight or nine innings apiece? Not good enough for my money.

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