Monday, July 31, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #3: Greg Maddux


Since I began this blog more than five years ago, I've gotten to write for and manage maybe the most substantial Cleveland Indians fan site on the internet, and to accept an award honoring Let' Go Tribe as Cleveland's best sports website. My name has appeared in Sports Illustrated and a number of newspapers, including the New York Times, and has been mentioned on Baseball Tonight and during a couple of MLB broadcasts. Probably none of that would have happened if while perusing the sports section on the morning of Monday, June 8, I hadn't decided to have a third bowl of cereal. During my first and second bowls, I'd been reading coverage of the previous day's NBA Finals game, in which the Bulls had obliterated the Jazz 96-54 (still the most lopsided Finals game in history), but by the third bowl of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch I had turned to the baseball page. My Indians had beaten the Reds 6-1, led by a strong outing from Dave Burba, who also became the first Tribe pitcher to hit a home run since before the designated hitter was introduced in 1973. I was checking other box scores when I saw that Greg Maddux had shut out the Orioles and thrown only 99 pitches.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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A shutout on fewer than 100 pitches seemed notable, special. If it had been any other pitcher, it probably wouldn't have captured my interest, but Maddux was my favorite. If I had checked the newspaper more carefully the very next morning, I'd have seen that Bartolo Colon pitched a shutout on just 96 pitches, and I might have figured the accomplishment wasn't as special as I'd first thought. Instead, my checking for them was sporadic initially, and I noticed only a couple more of the ones that were pitched that year. When I got more diligent about it in 1999, there were only three of them all season, solidifying the idea that they were rare. It was September of 2000, when Greg did it in back-to-back starts that I wondered if perhaps this was something he did more often than anyone else, and when I began to thing of these games as Madduxes. All the cool things that have happened for me because of this blog really happened because of that extra bowl of cereal, and because of Greg Maddux.

Perhaps because my own modest pitching accomplishments in Little League happened without the benefit of ever being able to throw very hard, I was drawn to Maddux's ability to make the ball dip, dive, and turn as it completed its journey from his hand to the plate. I remember being at Wrigley and seeing Maddux pitch in 1992. My dad took me to a game one night after he got home from work. I remember that the Cubs were playing the Mets, and that Maddux pitched a complete game. He went on to win the Cy Young Award that season. It would be 12 years before I saw him pitch in person again.

Since the Deal Ball Era (generally recognized as 1901 through 1919), the best ERA+ (a statistic which accounts and adjusts for the era and particular stadiums a pitcher performed in) for a starting pitcher is 291, by Pedro Martinez in 2000. Second on the list: Maddux's 271 in 1994. Third on the list: Maddux's 270 in 1995. By adjusted ERA, Maddux had two of the three best seasons in the last century, and he did it in back-to-back years. In those two seasons he won the final two of his four consecutive Cy Youngs. He finished among the top five of the voting in five other seasons as well.

Maddux was known as one of the most intelligent players ever to play the game. There are all sorts of stories from former teammates about him correctly predicting that a foul ball was about the come screaming into the dugout, things he supposedly saw coming just from looking at how the batter was standing and knowing what pitch the pitcher was going to throw. He's said to have intentionally allowed batters to hit the ball hard off him in low-stakes moments, in order to lure them into expecting the same pitch down the road, so that he could get them out with a different pitch in a more important moment. Those stories are unprovable, but they speak to Maddux's reputation among fellow players.

From 1992 through 1998, Maddux averaged 239.1 innings per season, despite losing more than a dozen starts to the labor battle that caused an early end to the season in 1994, and a late start in 1995. His ERA during those years was 2.15, and that was as offense was exploding to historic levels. Maddux's ERA+ for that stretch was 190, meaning he was 90% better than an average pitcher. In the 70 years since baseball integrated, there have been only 9 instances of a players posting an ERA+ of 190 or better while throwing 239 or more innings in a season. Maddux averaged those numbers for seven years.

Maddux was also known as a practical joker. Among the more famous of his pranks was a recurring one: He would frequently stand next to a teammate in the shower and strike up a conversation, distracting the other man from the fact that Greg was peeing on their leg. More recently, Maddux wore prosthetic makeup and a body suit to fool current NL MVP, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant:



From 1988 through 2007, Maddux never pitched fewer than 198 innings, and incredible two-decade stretch of durability. He pitched more than 5,000 innings, he recorded more than 3,000 strikeouts. Pitcher wins are pretty stupid, but I'll mention Greg's 355 of them anyway, because they are the most by any pitcher whose career began after World War II. He won 18 Gold Gloves, as in addition to incredible movement and command of his pitches, he was a tremendous fielder. He pitched in numerous All-Star Games and postseasons. He pitched a record 13 Madduxes. He co-starred with teammate Tom Glavine in probably my favorite commercial ever:



On August 1, 2004, I went to Wrigley alone to scalp a ticket and see Greg try for his 300th career win. He was 38 years old by then, still good but no longer great. That's how he pitched that afternoon, good, not great. He allowed three runs in six innings, but the Cubs didn't take the lead until after he'd been removed from the game. I was watching on TV when he picked up the milestone win six days later in San Francisco. He pitched a few more seasons after that, and was eventually elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame with one of the highest vote totals in history.

Maddux wasn't my childhood baseball hero. He wasn't even the first pitcher I really liked, but he grew on me and grew on me, so that by the end of his career he'd become my favorite. That my small amount of fame is due to a thing I named after him, he'll almost certainly always be the player I'm most attached to. He wasn't quite the best player I've ever seen, but he was close, and he's the smost special to me.

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