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No matter how well-known a player is for a certain role, it is rare for anyone to spend his entire career in that role. Most position players play more than one position at some point, and most pitchers serve as both starters and relievers. It is especially rare for a pitcher to never pitch out of the bullpen.

The list below contains all 19 pitchers to have made at least 100 (regular-season, MLB) starts without pitching in relief. Most of them are still active, which means that many of the players on this list could (and probably will) fall off of it before their careers end. But all of them–even the star pitcher who comes in 2nd–have a loooong way to go to catch the all-time leader:

Rk Player G GS From To Age IP ERA ERA+
1 Tom Glavine
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682 682 1987 2008 21-42 4413.1 3.54 118
2 CC Sabathia
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355 355 2001 2011 20-30 2364.1 3.51 125
3 Ben Sheets
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241 241 2001 2010 22-31 1547.1 3.79 113
4 Juan Guzman
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240 240 1991 2000 24-33 1483.1 4.08 112
5 Felix Hernandez
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205 205 2005 2011 19-25 1388.1 3.24 129
6 Justin Verlander
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199 199 2005 2011 22-28 1315.1 3.54 124
7 Paul Maholm
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185 185 2005 2011 23-29 1143.2 4.36 96
8 Jered Weaver
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177 177 2006 2011 23-28 1131.2 3.31 128
9 Terry Larkin
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176 176 1876 1880 20-24 1567.1 2.43 102
10 Joe Saunders
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161 161 2005 2011 24-30 986.2 4.16 103
11 John Danks
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150 150 2007 2011 22-26 917.2 4.03 112
12 Chris Young
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139 139 2004 2011 25-32 775.2 3.74 111
13 Jim Devlin
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129 129 1876 1877 27-28 1181.0 1.89 158
14 John Lannan
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128 128 2007 2011 22-26 751.0 4.00 103
15 Johnny Cueto
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116 116 2008 2011 22-25 687.0 3.83 108
16 Jair Jurrjens
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115 115 2007 2011 21-25 702.1 3.40 120
17 Mark Prior
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106 106 2002 2006 21-25 657.0 3.51 124
Al Atkinson
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106 106 1884 1887 23-26 915.0 3.96 88
19 Harry McCormick
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103 103 1879 1883 23-27 884.0 2.66 99
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
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Generated 2/2/2012.

Tom Glavine’s lead over everyone else in MLB history is nearly 2-to-1. His lead over 2nd-place CC Sabathia is a whopping 327 starts, which means it’d take Sabathia about 10 more full seasons at his current pace to catch Glavine. While that’s certainly possible if Sabathia can stay healthy (he’s only 31), I’d rate it as extremely unlikely. All it takes is one emergency relief appearance in a pennant race to take his name off the list*. Injuries and early retirement are also very large obstacles, too, of course.

* And actually, if we count the postseason, Sabathia is already disqualified. He pitched in relief in Game 5

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of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers.

Among retired players, Glavine’s lead is even greater, as he’s made 440+ more starts than Ben Sheets (he’s retired, right?) and Juan Guzman. That’s about 14 years’ worth of starts!

Glavine actually did make a relief appearance in professional baseball… but it was as an 18-year-old in rookie ball for the 1984 GCL Braves. And it was just one appearance. He made at least 83 starts in the minors after that, which would push his consecutive starts streak to 765 between the majors and minors. Throw in Glavine’s 35 postseason starts (with no relief appearances, natch) and you’re up to exactly 800 straight starts. Wow.

After Sabathia, the next-best bet to reach Glavine’s record is probably Felix Hernandez, at 205 starts and counting. Justin Verlander isn’t far behind at 199, but he’s 3 years older, which complicates his pursuit. Hernandez is still just 25 (he turns 26 in April), but he’ll have to pitch about 15 more full seasons without a relief appearance in order to catch Glavine. That’s a really tall order.

If you’re wondering who else came close to making this list but just missed, here are the 10 pitchers with the most starts but just 1 career relief appearance:

Rk Player G GS From To Age IP ERA ERA+
1 Mike Mussina
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537 536 1991 2008 22-39 3562.2 3.68 123
2 Livan Hernandez
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475 474 1996 2011 21-36 3121.2 4.39 96
3 Frank Viola
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421 420 1982 1996 22-36 2836.1 3.73 112
4 Tim Hudson
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378 377 1999 2011 23-35 2503.1 3.40 127
Brad Radke
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378 377 1995 2006 22-33 2451.0 4.22 113
6 John Lackey
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295 294 2002 2011 23-32 1876.0 4.10 108
7 Eric Milton
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271 270 1998 2009 22-33 1582.1 4.99 94
8 Jake Peavy
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251 250 2002 2011 21-30 1581.1 3.47 114
9 Henry Porter
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207 206 1884 1889 26-31 1793.1 3.70 95
10 Matt Cain
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204 203 2005 2011 20-26 1317.1 3.35 126
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
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Generated 2/2/2012.

None of these players were much of a threat to Glavine’s record. The closest to being a serious contender was Mike Mussina, who made his first and only career relief appearance in 2007, after 498 straight starts. Even that was almost 6 full seasons of starts away from matching Glavine.

Livan Hernandez is an interesting case; his only relief appearance came in his very first MLB game, his only game of the 1996 season. So he’s on a 474-game start streak, which is fairly impressive, if nowhere near what Glavine accomplished.

Another near-miss is Roger Clemens, who appeared in 709 MLB games, 707 of them as a starter. What’s more, Clemens made his two relief appearances in his first year (1984) and his last year (2007), so they were nearly 23 years apart! In between, he made 681 starts. That’s exactly one start shy of Glavine’s regular-season consecutive-start record.

I hope this post has increased your appreciation for Tom Glavine, who was an all-time great but who rarely did anything flashy to make himself stand out from the fantastic crop of contemporary pitchers (aside from that World-Series-clinching performance). He just kept chugging along, pitching well while making start after start for more than 20 years. Here’s hoping he gets to keep this record for a long time.

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3 Responses to Pitchers Who Never Appeared In Relief

  1. Burly
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    says:

    Note that every single player on both lists either started his career after 1980 or finished his career before 1890. In the early days of baseball, teams often had only one main pitcher, with players who played at other positions coming in to pitch in case of emergency. Relief pitching was relatively rare in those days in part because team rosters were half the size (25) they are today.

    In the present game, players are so strictly categorized as “starters” or “relievers” that often if one starts his career as an effective starter, he never ever comes in to pitch relief no matter what the circumstances. The exorbitant salaries and resulting greater fear of injuries are a big part of it.

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  2. Nathan says:

    Another good post. Thanks.

    You say, “Another near-miss is Roger Clemens, who appeared in 709 MLB games, 707 of them in relief.” I presume you mean he appeared in 707 games as a starter.

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    • J
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      says:

      Thanks, Nathan. That was what I meant. I’ve been slipping lately; that’s my second typo in a week!

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