The smartest pitcher who ever lived – Rob Neyer
Even before players enter the Major Leagues they are scrutinised and picked apart by scouts armed with radar guns, looking for guys over six foot with broad shoulders who are able to throw harder than the last flame throwing 20 year old. It is somewhat ironic that arguably the greatest pitcher of the last twenty years was a man who barely threw over 90 mph.
Greg Maddux has made a career not out of overpowering hitters with a blazing fastball or a sharp breaking curve but by doing exactly the opposite of what hitters expected and establishing a reputation as one of the smartest guys ever to take the mound.
Slight of build and with a game built on control and movement rather than throwing hard, a number of teams passed on the opportunity to sign Maddux and he eventually went in the second round of the ‘84 amateur draft to the Chicago Cubs.
He made his debut for the Cubs two years later as a pinch runner of all things and the youngest player in The Bigs. Admittedly it was the 17th inning and he would pitch the 18th, giving up a home run and the first loss of his career. He would soon get to doing what would become more familiar a few days later making his first start and pitching a complete game for his first win. His last start of the year would see him defeat his own brother, Mike, in a game against the Phillies, the first time two rookie brothers had ever faced each other in a Major League game.
1987 would be a rough year for Greg but in 1988 he would win 18 games with a 3.18 ERA. He would not fail to win at least 15 games in a season for another 16 years, something no other pitcher, not even Cy Young, has ever accomplished. As things stands Greg Maddux is ninth in career wins with 347.
His streak of 17 consecutive seasons in the top 10 for wins has only been matched by Warren Spahn and those seasons helped him win 175 wins in the ‘90’s, easily the most for the decade. He might have been able to pad his lead if not for the strike of 1994 which shortened his two greatest seasons.
The Earned Run Average
In 1994 he would post an ERA of 1.56, the second lowest since the mound was lowered in 1968 to Doc Gooden (1.53 in 1985) and would follow that with an ERA 1.63, the third lowest. With those two seasons he became only the second player to post consecutive seasons with an ERA below 1.80 (Walter Johnson 1918/19) and Maddux did it at a time when the league average was comfortably over 4.00.
So dominant was Maddux from ‘92 – ’98 that his 2.15 ERA during that time was 47.2 % better than the league ERA over that period (4.08); the largest differential in the history of Major League Baseball. Only Walter Johnson from 1910 to 1916 was close (47.1%).
For many the greatest period of dominance by any pitcher was Sandy Koufax in the ‘60’s but even his best four seasons couldn’t match Maddux’s four Cy Young years. Koufax was 46.8% better than the rest of the league from 1963-66 compared to Maddux and his 50.9% from ‘92 to ’95 .
It’s one of the most often forgotten part of his game but Greg Maddux is presently ranked eleventh all time in strikeouts with 3,273 and 3,000 strikeouts has long been the benchmark for games great power pitchers – something Maddux has never been.
The calling card for Maddux has always been his control and one thing that he has over the ten pitchers with more strikeouts than him is that he has far fewer walks to go with it. Don Sutton and his 1,314 walks is the closest to Maddux and his 969 and of the fifteen pitchers with at least 3,000 strikeouts, he is one of just four with less than 1,000 walks.
Wade Boggs once said of Maddux’s ability to do the unexpected that, it’s like he has a crystal ball hidden inside his glove.
He wouldn’t win his first Cy Young Award until 1992 and then would become the first to win four straight tying him for third most behind Randy Johnson (5) and Roger Clemens (7). His four Cy Young Award seasons did not include 1997, where Maddux won 19 games with a 2.20 ERA, and 1998 where he would win 18 with a 2.22 ERA. Both those seasons ordinarily could easily have won him a couple more awards.
An excellent fielder, Maddux has also won 16 Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess, tied for the most all time with fellow pitcher Jim Kaat and third baseman Brooks Robinson. Many have questioned whether or not he deserved all of those as, while an agile fielder, his methodical delivery has also made him susceptible to the stolen base. In fact the number of Gold Gloves Maddux has won has helped fuel the argument that Gold Gloves tend to be more about reputation than actual relative defensive prowess.
Some critics have also attributed many of his gaudy win numbers to his presence on an Atlanta Braves side that won the division in each of the eleven years Maddux played there. Those critics fail to remember that those teams were successful because of the pitching and Maddux was always the ace. In fact, if not for inconsistent run support his numbers could have been even better.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the play-offs where, despite their sustained regular season success, Atlanta were only able to win one World Series. The brunt of the blame went onto their vaunted pitching staff and their ace but the record books show that in his three World Series appearances Greg Maddux had a 2.09 ERA.
Never a hard thrower, Maddux’s fastball was no longer even registering 90mph and his margin for error was getting slimmer. Recognising that age was catching up with him, Maddux and the Braves parted company in 2004.
Maddux landed back with the Cubs where he would pick up his 300th win (August 7th, 2004 against the Giants) and struck out Omar Vizquel for his 3,000th strikeout (July 26th, 2005 also against San Francisco). He would also end his streak of seasons with at least 15 wins in 2005 when he went 13-15 with a very un-Maddux-like ERA of 4.24, a mere 0.03 below the league average.
He would have a minor renaissance in Los Angeles in 2006, winning 15 and placing in the top ten for wins for the 18th time – another record. However his season would end with a disappointing loss in the play-offs as the Dodgers were swept in the Divisional Series – Maddux started the last game surrendering four runs in four innings.
Now pitching for the Padres, Maddux has climbed to ninth overall on the all time win list with 347 but he has been overshadowed by his contemporary Roger Clemens who has had some of his best years since turning 40. Also, with the emergence of exciting young pitchers like Johan Santana, Josh Beckett and his own team-mate Jake Peavy, Maddux has been lost in the shuffle.
Always quick to deflect attention away from himself it may be left to history to fully appreciate the breadth of his accomplishments and in the meantime Maddux himself put it best, When people say (nice) things you take them as compliments and it’s nice, but it won’t help you win your next game. The thing I am trying to keep in mind is that relying on my past performance will not make me win my next game, it’ll only get in my way.