Greg Maddux is set to announce his retirement from baseball on Monday and while he’s been recognized for his greatness with four Cy Young Awards, eighteen Gold Glove Awards, accolades and respect, it won’t be until he’s compared to other pitchers of his era as he managed to put up absurd numbers while dealing with juiced up batters; shrinking strike zones; QuesTec; minuscule ballparks; and playing for the Cubs. Maddux’s true brilliance can be understood with the following aspects of his career that go far beyond his record of 355-227.
- He was durable beyond belief:
Every year, Maddux put up his 35 starts; every year, he delivered his 225 innings; every year, his managers—-Don Zimmer, Bobby Cox, Dusty Baker among others—-could write down in ink that Maddux was going to be out there every time his turn came up and do his job.
In today’s era of statistics and medically recommended pitch counts, limitations of young pitchers and general soreness that occurs from the unnatrual act of throwing a baseball causing widespread panic, not only did Maddux throw a lot of innings as a young pitcher, but he racked up pitch counts that would get a manager today fired before the game ended.
Looking at Maddux’s stats doesn’t tell the entire story; it’s in looking at the number of pitches he threw in his early 20s when Cubs manager Don Zimmer just left him out there to pitch because he needed him to and didn’t yank him because of some number plucked out of the air masquerading as the “optimal” number of pitches for a young pitcher to throw.
In 1988, at the age of 21, Maddux had games in which he threw 143, 124, 134, 131, 131, 137 and…167 pitches—-and while pitchers like Joba Chamberlain and Clay Buchholz are treated like babies and wind up on the disabled list anyway, Maddux never got hurt. His flawless mechanics played a major part in that fact, but another factor was that he never overthrew. By overthrowing I mean that he never tried to throw 95 mph; in fact, he barely ever reached 90 mph except early in his career. Maddux threw his fastball in the high 80s while his career was at its apex with the Braves and was so dominant because of his exquisite control, movement and changing speeds.
What made Maddux so great in comparison to other pitchers with stuff that would be considered superior, was that he was fearless in throwing any pitch at any time in the count. How many pitchers would have the confidence and audacity to throw a change-up with the count 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning and the bases loaded in a tie game? The answer? Greg Maddux.
Roger Clemens’s dominance was understandable because the confrontation with him was like a bullfight with Clemens deliberately trying to test his manhood against the batter; with Maddux, it was a chess match and he was always three or four or ten moves ahead with what the batter was trying to do and would change strategy to keep anyone from guessing with him to the point where they would just throw their hands up in the air and do the best they could without any idea what pitch was coming.
- For a control pitcher who never walked anyone, he didn’t give up home runs:
The trade off for a control pitcher who doesn’t throw a very heavy sinking fastball a la Kevin Brown or Brandon Webb is that he gives up a lot of home runs, but Maddux never gave up an inordinate number of homers. He threw a load of innings; threw a load of pitches; spent ten years pitching with Wrigley Field as his home; and threw almost nothing but strikes and still only gave up 20+ homers six times in his career and they were all after he turned 34.
- He was unafraid of the knockdown pitch or to pitch inside:
The best example of Maddux’s fearlessness was on July 18th, 2000 when the Braves were in Tampa Bay playing the Devil Rays. In the top of the second inning, Devil Rays pitcher Bryan Rekar hit both Walt Weiss and Fernando Lunar; when the Braves built up a lead, Maddux responded in the bottom of the fifth inning by hitting Felix Martinez; in the top of the eighth, Tanyon Sturtze hit Weiss again.
After Weiss was hit a second time, Maddux was seen in the dugout with a bewildered look on his face, shaking his head; in the bottom of the ninth, Jose Canseco—-6’4″, 240 lbs and juiced to the gills was leading off—-and on the second pitch Maddux drilled him. Canseco, shook his bat in Maddux’s direction and threatened him, but nothing of consequence happened. Many pitchers would’ve been too intimidated by Canseco’s build and reputation to use him for target practice and retaliation, but Maddux didn’t care; he threw at Canseco knowing that everyone else realized what he was doing; knowing that the plausible deniability that is present with most pitchers due to their substandard control wouldn’t be a viable excuse; and he did it to protect his teammates without his manager having to tell him to do it and without caring who it was he was throwing at or the possible consequences.
- He wasn’t just a pitcher, he was an all-around athlete:
Never a poster boy for physical fitness, Maddux had little interest in building up beach muscles as some players are. With a paunchy belly, skinny
arms and legs and at 5’11”, 170 lbs, Maddux looked like a guy who should’ve been directing traffic or pumping gas, but he was quite possibly the best fielding pitcher in baseball history; had the reflexes of a cat; was a great bunter; could hit enough that he wasn’t an automatic out; and ran the bases better than most everyday players.
There will be numerous references to Maddux’s brilliance, but few will mention the other aspects of his game that made him the pitcher he was. Most importantly, he’s retiring while he can still pitch. Even though his fastball is down in the 82 mph range, he’s got enough guile and natural physical ability to pitch for a good team and be their fourth starter, winning 12 games and providing 180 innings; he’s retiring rather than hanging on for another $8 million payday.
Tom Seaver had the highest percentage of votes for induction into the Hall of Fame with 425 out of a possible 430 when he was elected (who exactly were the five who didn’t vote for Tom Seaver, I’d like to know). In five years, Greg Maddux has a chance to eclipse that number because it would be hard to find a more deserving candidate given his record and durability.