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Modern marvels: Sparks showcased iron arm

Righty's 44 complete games most among players active this century
Steve Sparks also notched 16 complete games in the Majors, including a career-best eight with the Tigers in 2001. (John H. Reid III/MLB Photos)
February 15, 2021 staff combed through decades of stats to uncover Minor League hitting and pitching leaders among players active for at least one season in the 21st century. In "Modern marvels," we present their stories. We covered the hits leaders, strikeouts leaders, home run leaders and saves leaders in previous editions. staff combed through decades of stats to uncover Minor League hitting and pitching leaders among players active for at least one season in the 21st century. In "Modern marvels," we present their stories. We covered the hits leaders, strikeouts leaders, home run leaders and saves leaders in previous editions.

There's always a measure of satisfaction in finishing what you've started -- a good book, an ambitious project or, in the case of the pitchers on this list, a baseball game. Right-hander Steve Sparks experienced that satisfaction many times. He tossed his last Minor League frame in 2005, but remains ahead of anybody who's taken the hill in this millennium with 44 completed starts across 12 Minor League seasons with 10 different clubs.

The native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, notched at least one complete effort in all but one of those years -- 2005, his final season in pro ball. That year he made 14 combined starts between Triple-A Portland and Triple-A Sacramento and posted a 7-5 mark with a 5.92 ERA. He was limited to just three starts with the Beavers for the first half of that season because of injury.

"I think that's any starting pitcher's thought process going into any game: Get really deep and give your team a chance to win," said Sparks, who is currently entering his ninth season as color analyst for Astros radio broadcasts. "Especially in my case, you're always just one knuckleball away from a double play if you need it. And any time you can give length, it's good for the club. It saves the bullpen and it helps the other starters too."

Sparks developed into a knuckleballer during his fifth pro season. Armed with what he described as "marginal velocity" and a couple of average off-speed offerings, Sparks ran into a buzzsaw when he arrived at Double-A El Paso in the latter part of the 1990 season. He opened the following year back with the Diablos, but continued to struggle. The organization decided it was time to try something new.

"With the stuff I had, if my control wasn't fantastic that day, I was having trouble surviving those games," Sparks said. "The conditions didn't help either, we played our home games at the Dudley Dome, and Midland was also in our division, so more than half of our games were played in band boxes. I wasn't getting out of the third inning when I played in these places. So the Brewers asked me to develop a knuckleball out of the blue. It was either that or get released."

Milwaukee's fifth-round selection in the 1987 Draft returned to Stockton and began working on the pitch that salvaged his career. Sparks finished the 1991 season making 24 starts for the Ports while integrating a knuckleball into his arsenal, and the righty went the distance in one-third of those -- including a pair of shutouts -- while posting a 3.06 ERA in 179 2/3 innings.

The 6-foot, 187-pounder finally found success with El Paso the following year, thanks in no small part to the new offering. Following the '92 season, Sparks played winter ball in Mexico, where he dedicated himself to throwing the knuckleball 100 percent of the time. It was then that he established complete feel for the pitch, and he reached Triple-A New Orleans in 1993 and notched seven complete efforts in 28 starts.

"I finally got over that hump when I came back from Mexico and made that jump to the next level," he said. "I found my footing as a knuckleball pitcher, getting good hitters out, finding success, going deep into games, and that's what it was all about."

Sparks made 234 career Minor League starts and finished with a 4.16 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP over 1,547 1/3 innings. Known for a 1994 freak injury of little long-term consequence, he missed the entire 1998 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

"It was a fluke injury. It was the last spring game in 1997 and I was covering first on a play and the throw was errant. So I went to get it and throw it back home, but the catcher put up the stop sign and I tried to pull my arm back and stop the throw, and the ligament tore off the bone," he said.

The righty made his big league debut with the Brewers on April 28, 1995 and went on to appear in 270 Major League games with the Angels, Tigers, A's and D-backs. He made 182 total starts and tossed 16 complete games in the Majors. In 2001, with the Tigers, he set career bests in wins (14), ERA (3.65), complete games (eight), strikeouts (116) and innings (232).

Here are some recent players who got within shouting distance of Sparks' complete-games total over the course of their respective careers.

Dennis Springer (39 complete games from 1987-2002): The California native notched at least one complete effort in all but two of those years -- 1993 and '95. Six complete games in a season stood as Springer’s career high, a feat he set with Class A Bakersfield in 1988 and matched in 1996 with Triple-A Vancouver. That season, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound righty made 12 starts (and four relief appearances) for the Canadians and compiled a career-best 2.72 ERA over 109 1/3 frames. “The thing that helped out ... was that a lot of my managers along the way knew that I was a guy that, I didn’t worry about statistics and ERA. I worried more about, I’ll throw seven, eight, nine innings and give up four runs,” he said. “If that helps the team and the 'pen, keep me out there, I’m good.” Springer also remains a footnote in baseball history as the Dodgers pitcher who served up Barry Bonds’ single-season record 73rd home run on Oct. 7, 2001.

Doug Linton (35 complete games from 1987-2004): The Blue Jays' 1986 43rd-round selection out of UC Irvine played in 17 affiliated Minor League seasons, but recorded nearly two-thirds of his total complete games in just three of them. In 1990, Linton notched a career-best eight complete efforts over 26 starts with Triple-A Syracuse. Two years later and still with the Chiefs, the righty went the distance seven times in 25 starts -- an effort that got him called up to The Show that August. On the back end of his career, Linton amassed six complete games with Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2000.

Dave Eiland (33 complete games from 1987-2000): The former pitching coach for the Yankees, Royals and Mets suited up for eight different clubs across parts of 14 seasons in the Minors. The seventh-round pick of the Yankees in 1987 moved swiftly through New York’s organization, making it to the International League one year after being drafted. He made his Major League debut at 22 years old, on Aug. 3, 1988. Four years into his professional career, the right-hander compiled 24 complete games -- including 11 with Triple-A Columbus over 26 starts in 1990.

Kent Bottenfield (32 complete games from 1986-2001): The fourth-round selection of the Montreal Expos in 1986 proved to be a workhouse right out of the gate. Bottenfield made 28 of his 32 completed starts over his first seven professional seasons -- with 11 of those coming in the upper levels of the Minors. His career best was in 1988, when he made 27 starts for Class A West Palm Beach and in one-third of those (nine) went the distance -- including a quartet of shutouts.

Nelson Figueroa (29 complete games from 1995-2013): The native of Brooklyn, New York -- who topped the strikeouts edition of this series -- hit the ground running after being taken by the Mets in the 30th round of the 1995 Draft. In his second pro season, Figueroa made 25 South Atlantic League starts and set career highs with eight complete games, a 2.04 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP with 200 punchouts over 185 1/3 innings. The right-hander spent the 2007 campaign in the Mexican League, but he returned to affiliated baseball the following year and appeared for eight different clubs over his final six seasons.

Joe Roa (29 complete games from 1989-2005): Selected by the Braves in the 18th round of the 1989 Draft, Roa did not record a complete game his rookie season as he made four starts in 13 appearances for the Gulf Coast League Braves. However, the righty notched 16 complete efforts while working his way from Rookie Advanced Pulaski to Triple-A Norfolk over the next five years. A true Minor League journeyman, Roa suited up for the Braves, Mets, Indians, Giants, Marlins, Phillies, Brewers and Pirates organizations. In 253 Minor League starts and 300 appearances, Roa amassed a 122-67 record with a 3.50 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.

Turk Wendell (29 complete games from 1988-2004): The right-hander was a complete-game machine early on in his career. Wendell completed 20 games over his first four professional seasons -- including six his rookie season in the Appalachian League and 10 in 1989, when he worked his way up to the Double-A level. In 1995, the Quinnipiac product transitioned into a reliever role and spent the majority of his big league career out of the bullpen. His name should be familiar to longtime Mets fans; Wendell made 80 appearances for New York's NL club in 1999 and 77 the next year.

Omar Olivares (27 complete games from 1987-2002): The native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, was another hurler who proved to be an innings eater early in his career. Olivares tossed all 27 of his complete games over his first four seasons -- including a career-best 11 in 1988 over 27 starts between the Sally and Cal circuits. The right-hander mostly stuck in the big leagues after that as a swingman. Olivares also gained a reputation for being a threat at the plate, finishing with a career .270 average over 111 Minor League at-bats.

Jared Fernandez (25 complete games from 1994-2006): Fernandez is another knuckleballer who was used in multiple roles throughout his career, but he took the hill for 242 starts. The righty recorded at least one complete game in 10 of his 13 Minor League seasons while tossing a trio of shutouts. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 1994 by the Red Sox, Fernandez made his debut in The Show with the Reds in 2001.

Scott Kamieniecki (25 complete games from 1987-2001): The Yankees' 14th-round selection of the 1986 Draft out of the University of Michigan did not make his professional debut until the following year. In 1988, Kamieniecki logged a career-high 177 1/3 innings in the Minors between Class A Prince William and Class A Fort Lauderdale, with eight complete games and three shutouts in 26 combined starts. On a rehab assignment with Fort Lauderdale, Kamieniecki started the nightcap of a doubleheader on April 12, 1992, and twirled a one-run complete game. Later that year, he went on to toss four more for the Yankees.

Brandon Knight (25 complete games from 1995-2009): The journeyman right-hander played in Japan and Korea during his 20-year pro career, but when it came to his 11 seasons in the affiliated Minors, Knight did his best work at the top. The California native recorded 18 of his 25 complete games at the Triple-A level -- 12 with Columbus, five with Oklahoma and one with Buffalo. He made 15 total appearances in the Majors between the Mets and Yankees, but was limited to a pair of starts over that stretch. Knight was announced as pitching coach of the KBO's SK Wyverns in January.

Curt Schilling (25 complete games from 1986-2007): Before the bloody sock and all the World Series lore, Schilling was a highly touted prospect in the Red Sox organization. After posting 13 complete games with five shutouts over his first two-and-a-half seasons, the 1986 second-rounder was dealt to Baltimore in 1988. In the first half of that season, he tossed four complete games and one shutout for Double-A New Britain. Getting seven starts for Double-A Charlotte after the trade, he went the distance twice and threw a shutout. The righty made his debut in The Show that September, going without a decision despite seven strong innings against his first organization. Schilling opened the 1989 campaign with Triple-A Rochester and dominated again, notching a career-high nine Minor League complete games and three shutouts in 27 starts. Schilling went on to compile 83 complete games and 20 shutouts over 20 seasons in the big leagues.

Rob Terranova is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.