Was Andy Pettitte's complete game the greatest final start ever?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Frequently, terrific pitchers depart the game without looking sharp, but Pettitte's finale was one to remember.

The end of the road can be ugly for any player, and even Hall of Fame caliber starting pitchers can look miserable as their careers come to a close. Walter Johnson was pounded by the lowly St. Louis Browns in his final game, sent to the showers by the fourth inning. Orel Hershiser was even worse in his last go-around with the Dodgers, finishing off a brilliant career with a Game Score of 9. Just a few years ago, the 2009 Yankees dismissed Pedro Martinez, perhaps the most dominant starter of his generation, as Hideki Matsui effectively ended the World Series himself.

After badly struggling in June and July, it appeared that Andy Pettitte was destined for a similar ignominious fate. He certainly looked his age in his starts. He turned it around though, and following an announcement that his start against the Houston Astros on September 28th would be his last, he ended his 18-year career in remarkable fashion.

Using Bill James's helpful Game Score statistic to evaluate starts, we can compare Pettitte's final start to those of his contemporaries, the top 200 pitchers of all time measured by WAR. Whether you think he's a Hall of Famer or not, Pettitte definitely belongs in this group by any measure; WAR is simply a convenient tool to select 200 meritorious pitchers. Complete box scores for seasons only go back to 1916 though, so we cannot evaluate the final starts of approximately 40 of these starters since their careers ended prior to 1916. Nonetheless, it is a large group of amazing pitchers, and the pool is more than worthy of comparison.

It's also important to point out that "final start" does not necessarily mean "final game" since many of these pitchers made a start, then made some relief appearances to end their careers. Additionally, some "final starts" might have just been the their last regular season starts. If they appeared on playoff teams, then their final starts of the playoff year will be what is considered the end since this post is examining the true finales. With these notes in mind, here are the 10 pitchers whose regular season final starts of at least a 60 Game Score missed the cut:

10. Paul Derringer, 9/27/1945: Chicago Cubs 7, Cincinnati Reds 4
9 IP, CG, 8 H, 0 BB, 4 R, 3 ER, 3 K, 60 Game Score
A crucial member of the Reds' 1940 World Series champions, Derringer beat his old team in his last regular season game with the NL champion Cubs. The Tigers he defeated in '40 exacted vengeance on him though, as he struggled in three games out of the bullpen during the seven-game World Series loss to Detroit. The Cubs have not been back to the World Series since the days of Derringer.

9. Curt Schilling, 9/25/2007: Boston Red Sox 7, Oakland Athletics 3
6 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 1 ER, 6 K, 1 HR, 62 Game Score
Schilling's had a strong playoff finale anyway, as he won Game 2 of the 2007 World Series in Boston, but he did not pitch quite as well that day (though he did get the victory).

8. Carl Hubbell, 8/18/1943: New York Giants 3, Pittsburgh Pirates 2
9 IP, CG, 9 H, 3 BB, 2 ER, 5 K, 63 Game Score
Hubbell's famous screwball baffled the Bucs in his last start, but his career should have ended then. He made one relief appearance afterward, giving up two hits to the Cubs without recording an out.

7. Curt Davis, 8/29/1945: Brooklyn Dodgers 2, Philadelphia Phillies 1
9 IP, CG, 8 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 0 K, 64 Game Score
The underrated Davis did not debut until age 30, but he had a fine 13-year career for four NL teams. His last start came against his original team, the Phillies, and he followed it with two relief appearances (one the next year) before calling it quits.

6. Billy Pierce, 9/10/1964: San Francisco Giants 5, Los Angeles Dodgers 1
7 2/3 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 3 K, 1 HR, 1 WP, 65 Game Score
A seven-time All-Star for the White Sox, Pierce's 18-year career ended in '64 with the Giants. He was a bullpen arm, appearing in 33 games in relief, and he pitched well with a 2.20 ERA. In September, manager Alvin Dark gave him one last spot start before a three-inning relief outing on October 3rd completed his career.

5. Greg Maddux, 9/27/2008: Los Angeles Dodgers 2, San Francisco Giants 1
6 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 1 ER, 2 K, 1 HR, 66 Game Score
An incredible 23-year Hall of Fame career for Maddux came to an end in half a season with the NL West champion Dodgers. He beat the rival Giants in his final start, then pitched four scoreless innings out of the bullpen in the playoffs, though the Dodgers lost the NLCS to the Phillies.

4. Chuck Finley, 9/28/2002: St. Louis Cardinals 3, Milwaukee Brewers 1
6 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 1 ER, 7 K, 69 Game Score
The lefty made his mark with the Angels, but it was away from the '02 champions where his career ended. Dealt from the Indians in July to the NL Central champion Cardinals, Finley was strong down the stretch, including his final regular season start. He made two playoff starts, a scoreless no-decision against the Diamondbacks, and an ugly 35 Game Score win against the Giants in Game 3 of the NLCS, the Cardinals' only victory of the series.

3. Hoyt Wilhelm, 9/7/1963: Chicago White Sox 2, Minnesota Twins 4
8 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 2 R, 1 ER, 8 K, 70 Game Score
The knuckleballing Wilhelm barely counts on this list since he made only 52 starts in his 1,070 career games, but it is impressive that he made his great start at age 41. He pitched nine more seasons after his final start, not concluding his career until a couple weeks shy of his 50th birthday in 1972. Knuckleballers, man.

2. Sandy Koufax, 10/2/1966: Los Angeles Dodgers 6, Philadelphia Phillies 3
9 IP, CG, 7 H, 1 BB, 3 R, 2 ER, 10 K, 72 Game Score
Completely unsurprising to find Koufax on this list since his career ended after consecutive Cy Young Award wins due to arthritic pain. He beat the Phillies in his last regular season start, but in the World Series against the Orioles, he was stunningly outpitched 6-0 by 20-year-old Jim Palmer in Game 2.

1. Larry French, 9/23/1942: Brooklyn Dodgers 6, Philadelphia Phillies 0
9 IP, SHO, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K, 91 Game Score
Ugh. The former Cubs ace's one-hit shutout would be far and away the greatest finale of all time if he had not made two more relief appearances. French split time between the rotation and the bullpen (this was his first start in almost a month), as the Dodgers desperately fought the Cardinals down the stretch for the '42 NL pennant. They came up short, tying an unfortunate record for most wins in a campaign without a playoff berth: 104. The soon-to-be 35-year-old French enlisted in the Navy after the season ended; he never pitched again.

***

Now, the greatest true finales of all time, the 10 elite pitchers whose final career game ended in style with at least a Game Score of 60:

10. Vida Blue, 10/2/1986: San Francisco Giants 1, Houston Astros 2 (10)
5 IP, 2 H, 4 BB, 0 ER, 3 K, 62 Game Score
The former A's phenom ended his career 15 years after taking the baseball world by storm in '71. He kept the NL West champion Astros off the board for five innings, but the Giants' offense gave him no support. Although Blue's 17-year career concluded with a no-decision, it was hardly the six-time All-Star's fault.

9. Milt Pappas, 9/18/1973: Chicago Cubs 2, Philadelphia Phillies 5
6 2/3 IP, 4 H, 0 BB, 1 ER, 1 K, 63 Game Score
Pappas had an odd 17-year career, debuting at age 18 in 1957 and retiring when he was just 34. His last season with the Cubs was up-and-down, but he finished well with a fine effort against the Phillies. Pappas departed in line for the win, but the Cubs' shoddy bullpen blew it thanks to a two-run homer by Greg Luzinski against Bob Locker. Despite receiving some Cy Young Award votes just the previous year, Pappas never returned to baseball.

8. Sam Jones, 9/28/1935: Chicago White Sox 6, Detroit Tigers 3
9 IP, CG, 10 H, 4 BB, 3 R, 1 ER, 9 K, 1 WP, 64 Game Score
"Sad Sam" completed over half of the 487 starts in his 22-year career, which featured a no-strikeout no-hitter, four AL pennants, and World Series titles with the 1918 Red Sox and 1923 Yankees. Long after those days of glory, Jones concluded his career with a tough complete game victory over the eventual World Series champion Tigers. Jones held MVP Hank Greenberg hitless with a strikeout, and left the field as a winner. No reason to be sad, anyway.

7. Ron Guidry, 9/27/1988: New York Yankees 5, Baltimore Orioles 1
7 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 4 K, 1 HBP, 1 WP, 64 Game Score
Almost 25 years to the day that another famous Yankees lefty ended his career, Guidry concluded his MLB tenure with a fine finale. Don Mattingly belted a pair of homers against some rookie named Schilling, staking "Gator" to a 3-0 lead that held up. Dale Mohorcic threw a pair of scoreless innings to clinch Guidry's 170th major league victory.

6. Mike Mussina, 9/28/2008: New York Yankees 6, Boston Red Sox 2
6 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 0 ER, 3 K, 67 Game Score
"Moose" was one of the only highlights of the 2008 season for the Yankees, and his quest for the first 20-win season of his career culminated with the final start of his career, a 6-2 victory over Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Wild Card-winning Red Sox. Xavier Nady hit a three-run homer off Dice-K in the fourth, and Mussina left the game with a 3-0 lead after striking out Jed Lowrie in the fifth for his 2,813th and final K and inducing a double play from J.D. Drew in the sixth. A four-out save by Mariano Rivera sent Mussina home a winner for the 270th time in his career and the 20th time in 2008. It was a nice, small moment of personal glory for a fantastic pitcher in an otherwise-dark Yankees season.

5. Eddie Cicotte, 9/26/1920: Chicago White Sox 8, Detroit Tigers 1
9 IP, CG, 7 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 K, 72 Game Score
The 36-year-old Cicotte's excellent career did not end because he was out of gas. 1920 was his third season out of the past four with over 300 innings and 24 complete games. His last start of the '20 season demonstrated his skill, but it would be the end for the righty ace. New commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned him from baseball after the 1920 season due to his heavy involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

4. Charlie Root, 9/2/1941: Chicago Cubs 3, Cincinnati Reds 1
9 IP, CG, 5 H, 5 BB, 1 ER, 5 K, 73 Game Score
Root was the longtime ace for the Cubs and unfortunately is most known for two distinctions: surrendering Babe Ruth's "Called Shot" and losing four World Series in four efforts over a 10-year period with the Cubbies from 1929-38. Root made his final start at Wrigley Field in an age-42 season in '41, one of the last pitchers born in the 19th century to pitch in the majors. He beat the defending World Series champions 3-1 with a five-hitter, his 201st victory.

3. Andy Pettitte, 9/28/2013: New York Yankees 2, Houston Astros 1
9 IP, CG, 5 H, 2 BB, 1 ER, 5 K, 76 Game Score
Pettitte's five-hitter ends up third on this list, a well-deserved lofty place. The hapless Astros were no match for the 41-year-old Texan who pitched them to their only NL pennant in '05. He fanned Brandon Barnes for the last strikeout of his career and got J.D. Martinez to bounce out to third base in the ninth to end it. It was Pettitte's first complete game in seven years.

2. Javier Vazquez, 9/27/2011: Florida Marlins 3, Washington Nationals 2
9 IP, CG, 5 H, 0 BB, 2 ER, 9 K, 1 HR, 78 Game Score
I was quite surprised to see Javy so high on this list, too, but he also threw a five-hitter to end his career. Vazquez's second go-around with the Yankees in 2010 ended as ugly as the first, but he was able to rebound in Florida with a strong 2.9 WAR finish on the Marlins in 2011. His season ended so well that the Marlins tried to talk him out of his early retirement plans at age 35, but ultimately, Javy decided to let his 2011 finale in Miami be the finale of his career as well. Despite his poor reputation in New York, his 14-year career with over 2,500 strikeouts was nothing worthy of shame.

1. Eddie Plank, 8/6/1917: St. Louis Browns 0, Washington Senators 1 (11)
10 1/3 IP, CG, 5 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 3 K, 79 Game Score
Hall of Fame southpaw "Gettysburg Eddie" was quietly superb over 17 seasons, mostly with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, with whom he won four AL pennants and World Series titles in 1911 and 1913. After jumping to the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League in 1915, he also guided them to a pennant and led the fledgling league in numerous pitching categories. The FL disbanded though, and Plank ended his career with the crosstown Browns. His final game of ball is sadly forgotten, a tremendous scoreless pitching duel with Walter Johnson, who was in his dominant prime. The latter pitched 11 shutout innings against the Browns, and despite Plank's valiant efforts, the Senators scored a run off the 41-year-old in the 11th to end the pitching showcase. The next week, Plank announced his retirement due to recurring stomach problems; less than a decade later, he died from a stroke.

***

So those were the top finales of all-time by Game Score. Pettitte's gem could certainly still be argued as better than the two ahead of it. Regardless, it was undoubtedly one of the greatest farewell performances in the history of baseball.

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