Whatever you affiliation if you were blessed to watch Greg Maddux (Mad Dog) in his prime you saw the best right hander since World War II and quite probably the best of all time. The only one of significance who might not agree is Maddux himself.
The Best of All Time?
“Maddux has the illusionary ability to throw what looks like a strike, and it’s really not. He’s the David Copperfield of pitchers.” Wade Boggs
Today Maddux got 97.2% of the vote and joined his great friend and running mate Tom Glavine (91.9%) and manager Bobby Cox in this year’s induction class. Calling anyone the best of all time is bound to generate a ton of irate responses from fans of guys like Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez , Roger Clemens et al. I accept you may disagree and I’m not going to dig into the minutia to argue about it. I’m going to let others make my case before adding my two cents worth. I’m also going to share some not so well known statistics that I hope make it clear why I feel the way I do.
How Did He Do That?
On XM radio last week C.J. Nitkowski talked about Maddux and the admiration in his voice was obvious. Paraphrasing a bit here he said never has a pitcher done so much with so little. What he and others who’ve uttered similar comments mean is that Maddux didn’t possess high 90s heat like Seaver, Martinez, Clemens or Randy Johnson. Because of that he had to win other ways; in other words he had to be a better pitcher than any of them.
Power pitchers can get away with mistakes up in the zone, finesse pitchers watch them land in the cheap seats. That rarely happened to Mad Dog whose career HR/9 was 0.6. Since 1947 when baseball finally got back to some semblance of normalcy, 13 starting pitchers with 4000+ innings on the bump allowed less than one HR per nine.
“I could probably throw harder if I wanted, but why? When they’re in a jam, a lot of pitchers…try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better.” Greg Maddux (The Baseball Almanac)
The year before Maddux retired Tim Keown wrote a piece for ESPN asking exactly how Mad Dog won so many games and delving into the mythos pretty well. He could have simply asked him.
“I try to do two things: locate my fastball and change speeds. That’s it. I try to keep as simple as possible. I just throw my fastball (to) both sides of the plate and change speed every now and then. There is no special food or anything like that, I just try to make quality pitches and try to be prepared each time I go out there.” Greg Maddux (The Baseball Almanac)
In Keown’s story there’s this gem.
Greg Maddux is quoted in this story saying exceedingly humble things. You are under no obligation to believe them. You are encouraged to believe in the spirit of the words—Maddux is almost obsessively self-deprecating—but that does not make them true. And when he says, “Whenever you’ve had a little success in this game, people think you know more than you do,” don’t believe that one at all.
There are also quotes an anecdotes worth reading like the opening story of catching him blindfolded or the story of his predicting that Jose Hernandez would foul the next pitch off and hit the first base coach; it did. The really good stuff comes from those who played with and against him. Maddux denies the genius tag and even that he does a lot differently than other pitchers. No one believes that but Maddux himself.
“I don’t know what it is, but he just knows. Nobody else knows the way he knows.” – Mark Prior
“He never throws anything the same speed. One pitch moves this way, one moves the other. The radar gun says it’s going slow, but it doesn’t feel that way in the batter’s box. It drives you crazy.” Josh Hamilton
“ (Maddux) has the best feel for how to throw a pitch and when to throw it of anybody, maybe ever.” Bud Black
He Did What?
In his career The Professor inspired awe, frustration and confusion for teammates and opposition alike. The Baseball Almanac has plenty of quotes by and about him. This excerpt from “Greg Maddux’s Art of Pitching” by Jack Etkin (2000) is one I thought added historical perspective to Mad Dog’s career.
Maddux has never thrown a no-hitter and has struck out 200 batters in a season only once (204 in 1998), petty flaws in a career marked by sustained excellence. Since 1992, Maddux’s final year with the Chicago Cubs, his 2.32 earned run average is the lowest for any pitcher in a span of eight or more years since World War II.
Those three pitchers could overpower hitters in ways Maddux never will. His fastball is typically 89-90 mph, which is just average major league velocity. His slider isn’t as sharp or as devastating as teammate John Smoltz‘s. And Maddux’s curveball doesn’t have a knee-buckling snap on the order of St. Louis’ Darryl Kile. What Maddux possesses is an extraordinary changeup, along with exceptionally late movement on his pitches.
On June 20, 2001 Maddux faced the Marlins and in the top of the second inning with two men out walked Charles Johnson. The next walked he issued was to Steve Finley in the top of the third inning on August 12th, 75 innings and 291 batters later. . and it was an intentional walk. That’s still the NL record (Bill Fischer has the AL record with 84 1/3 innings) When ask about being told to intentionally walk a hitter in the middle of his streak, he said that walks weren’t always a bad thing and that the goal was winning the game. That said he didn’t walk many. Twice he had season where he walked less than one man per 9 innings. You know who else had two such seasons?
Combine that with his stinginess in allowing hits and you’ll find four seasons where his WHIP less than one. Once again that puts him in elite company.
ERA+ is a pitchers ERA measured against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors with 100 being average. Four starting pitchers have posted an ERA+ greater than 250. Only one has done it twice; Greg Maddux in back to back years – 1994 (271) and 1995 (260). Pedro came close in 1999-2000 Here’s a list of everyone who ever posted an ERA+ over 200. I don’t know about Dolf Luque , Jack Taylor or Cy Young but all the rest save Maddux have big arms
Baseball Reference has a little table at the bottom of each player page that rates each player’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame.
|Black Ink||Pitching – 87 (10), Average HOFer ≈ 40|
|Gray Ink||Pitching – 336 (6), Average HOFer ≈ 185|
|Hall of Fame Monitor||Pitching – 254 (12), Likely HOFer ≈ 100|
|Hall of Fame Standards||Pitching – 70 (7), Average HOFer ≈ 50|
|JAWS||Starting Pitcher (10th), 106.8 career WAR/56.3 7yr-peak WAR/81.6 JAWS |
Average HOF P (out of 57) = 72.6 career WAR/50.2 7yr-peak WAR/61.4 JAWS
If you review those lists you’ll only see one name consistently appearing; Greg Maddux and as far as I can see that makes him the best there’s ever been.
That’s A Wrap
Today is a great time for the Braves family and the team that made the streak happen; John Smoltz should join them next year. I’m going to end this with my favorite Cox, Maddux, Leo Mazzone story. When Maddux was inducted into the Braves HoF back in 2009 Leo told this story. The Braves were playing Arizona and Maddux was not having a good day. He loaded the bases with 2 out and Bobby turned to Leo and go out and he was going to go see what Mad Dog was thinking. He returned to dugout quickly and Leo ask what he said. Bobby said “Well he told he was going to throw three pitches and that on the third one the batter was going to pop up to third base.” Three pitches later Chipper Jones caught the popup and ended the inning. That’s Greg Maddux, the best you’ll ever see.