Monday, December 8, 2008

Through the Years: Greg Maddux

It's a sad day for Major League Baseball, as Greg Maddux officially announces his retirement (sometime) today. With the "pre-official" announcement he made on Friday, I've been reading tributes and reminisces about Mad Dog all weekend, and it's pretty clear that he made quite an impact on baseball fans across the country. Some remember his brilliant commercials; some have tried to figure out just how this seemingly unremarkable man turned into one of the greatest pitchers of all time; and at least two have taken the time to share their "quintessential" Maddux game. He is obviously a pitcher that people have been fascinated by for these last 23 years.

And I'm no different. And though I'm just as fascinated with Maddux and the way he hypnotized batters and umpires alike, I'm not sure I can add anything that hasn't been said many times before. (I was lucky enough to see him pitch twice, though not until late in his career. He didn't pitch particularly well either time, but I still feel grateful to have seen him.) Instead, I thought it might be interesting to see what people were saying about him from year-to-year as he entered his prime, to see if they were able to realize what was materializing in front of them.

I went through my collection of annual preview guides and found what they had to say about Maddux. Unfortunately, his rise to stardom coincides with the thinnest era of my collection. For those years that I don't yet have a preview guide, I visited the Sports Illustrated vault and looked through their annual baseball issue.

After reading through issues spanning the first 10 years of his career, ending after his fourth consecutive Cy Young award in 1995, I'd say that Maddux's career was much like his game: so much better than a man of his frame should be capable of that no one could really comprehend that it was happening until he had already blown through the line-up multiple times.

Drafted in 1984, Maddux doesn't make an appearance in the preview guides until 1987, his official rookie year. Though he ended up starting 27 games that year, it was unclear if he (or his draft-class mate, the ageless Jamie Moyer) would make it to the big club that year:
[GM Dallas] Green would like to see such youngsters as Moyer and Maddux step into the starting rotation to replace high-priced veterans who have been unproductive since the Cubs' big year in 1984. But Manager Gene Michael said he is not looking to replace Rick Sutcliffe, Dennis Eckersley, Scott Sanderson and Steve Trout.

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Moyer, a 24-year-old lefthander, won seven of 11 decisions despite his 5.05 ERA after being called up from Iowa (American Association) last June. Maddux, who will turn 21 in April, is less likely to join the Cubs right away, but the righthander's combined 14-4 record at Pittsfield (Eastern) and Iowa last season indicate that he'll be ready sometime this year...
Despite a few good games that year (including his first career shutout and his first 10 strikeout game), 1987 was a pretty forgettable year for Maddux, going 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA. That may explain why there is no mention of him in the 1988 Street & Smith's preview guide. But the year turned out well for him, as he posted a 18-8 record with a 3.18 ERA. It also led to this first mention in SI (at least the first mention I can find using SI's search functionality):
FAMILY OF THE WEEK
Greg Maddux became the first Chicago Cub since Milt Pappas in 1971 to pitch complete-game victories in his first two starts of the season. He went 17 2/3 innings before allowing a run. Maddux's brother, Mike, a reliever with the Philadelphia Phillies, had 16 K's in 12 scoreless innings before yielding his first run in his fifth appearance Sunday.
As Maddux threw very solid years in 1989 and 1990, the up-and-down nature of the Cubs kept the focus of the preview articles off of Maddux and on the team. By the time 1991 rolled around, though, experts were able to recognize the growing talent of Mad Dog. The annual Sporting News baseball yearbook made the bold prediction that Maddux would win the Cy Young that year, calling him "a not-so-friendly pitcher, even in Wrigley Field." They also had this to say in the team preview section, under a large picture of Maddux on the hill:
...Returning starters have much to prove from last year, when Manager Don Zimmer had to use 16 starters because of injuries or ineffectiveness. The big three of Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe, and Mike Bielecki fell from a combined 53-30 record and a 3.24 ERA in 1989 to 23-28 and 4.16. Sutcliffe had shoulder surgery in May and didn't pitch until late August, while Bielecki was inconsistent and pitched himself into bullpen duty.

Maddux won 15 games last season despite a horrendous two-month stretch in which he went 0-8 with five no-decisions. In the last three years, he has posted 52 victories.
The season didn't prove as well for Maddux as TSN suggested it would, but he did end up with a respectable 15-11 record with a 3.35 ERA. He proved them right the next year, however, winning his first Cy Young with a 20-11 record, 2.18 ERA, and 199 strikeouts. Of course, Sports Illustrated, in its usual brevity, only had the briefest of notes on him:
Beyond these three, Chicago has ace Greg Maddux and a lot of question marks.
The Cy Young made his free agency that year very compelling, and led to a feature in SI's baseball issue. Speaking with Maddux's father (a card dealer in Las Vegas), his brother Mike, and Greg himself, the magazine had this to say:
"Quality entertainment," Greg says when [Wayne] Newton's name is invoked. "They call it the entertainment capital of the world, and it is." But the brightest new star in that desert-sky galaxy may be Greg. Consider that he won the Cy Young for the Chicago Cubs, a fourth-place team. In seven of his 11 losses last season (how are those, for Vegas numbers?), the Cubs scored zero runs for him. He has won three consecutive Gold Gloves and 87 games in five years. All of which is why Greg hit the free-agency jackpot on Dec. 9, eight days before Mike was traded from San Diego to New York for reliever Roger Mason and a minor leaguer.
Obviously, 1992 was a fantastic year for Maddux, but it was nothing compared to 1993 or 1994. Maddux won his second consecutive Cy Young in 1993, compiling a 20-10 record with a 2.36 ERA and 197 strikeouts. The next year's SI baseball preview had only this to say about him:
Ace: Greg Maddux: No one has won three straight Cy Youngs; he may.
And he did, posting one of the most absurd lines in baseball history in that strike-shortened year: 16-6, 32 walks in 202 innings pitched, and a 1.56 ERA. That's an ERA+ of 271.

Maddux wasn't entirely happy with the way the season ended, though. In an "Opportunities Lost" article in the 1995 Sporting News yearbook, Maddux says this:
...'It would have been special to win 20 three seasons in a row, that's for sure,' said Maddux, who tied for the NL lead with 16 victories in 1994. 'That's always a goal of any starting pitcher. When you win 20, that means you're going out there and taking the ball every fifth day and doing your job. And 20 wins just has that special feeling to it in baseball. It would have been nice, but what could I do? Things happened and I have to be content with what I did.'
What he did was win an unprecedented third consecutive Cy Young Award. His most impressive statistic en route to capturing baseball's top pitching prize was his 1.56 ERA, which was the third-best mark in the big leagues since 1919. Despite the disappointing end of the season, Maddux tried to make the most of his extended off-season.

'In a lot of ways, the strike has been a blessing in disguise,' he said. 'I don't think (players) have had a hard time finding things to do. Your body has recovered from the season and it feels stronger. It doesn't feel like we ever went on strike.'
The team preview for that 1995 Braves team, which would go on to win their only World Series title, was more than impressed with Maddux and his staff-mates:
What pitching coach wouldn't love this staff? Two starters own the past four NL Cy Young awards, two others are former championship series MVPs, and the fifth starter has a pair of no-hitters under his belt [Kent Mercker - who knew?].

Atlanta's top three starters - Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery - are the winningest trio (97 victories) in baseball the past two seasons. Maddux, the first pitcher in history to win three consecutive Cy Youngs, is the undisputed staff leader. After posting a 1.56 ERA last season - the third-best ERA in the majors since 1919 - he is in a league of his own.
But beyond the World Series ring, Maddux accomplished something even more special and rare: winning his fourth consecutive Cy Young, and besting his 1994 season in just about every possible way. His line looked like this: 19-2, 28 GS, 209.2 IP, 23 BB, 0.811 WHIP, 1.63 ERA, 262 ERA+.

At this point, there was no denying the greatness of Greg Maddux, and the Sporting News had no choice but to focus on Maddux, at least a little. They predicted yet another Cy Young for him, saying this:
In Maddux, the Braves have baseball's best pitcher and a model for others to emulate. There is seemingly nothing he can't do. Besides leading the league with 10 complete games last season, a total surpassed by only four other NL teams, he also led the majors with a 1.63 ERA and set a record with 17 consecutive road wins.
They also made him the starting pitcher on their "All Throwback Team", along with such other gritty stalwarts as Will Clark, Chuck Knoblauch, Matt Williams, Steve Finley, and Tony Gwynn. But it was the section called "How Good is Greg Maddux" that proved their true affection:
How Good is Greg Maddux
Facts and figures about Mr. Maddux
  • His ERA over the past four seasons is 1.98
  • With an ERA of 1.57 in 1994 and 1.63 in 1995, Maddux is the first pitcher to have back-to-back ERAs below 1.75 since Walter Johnson in 1918-1919.
  • No pitcher had ever had an ERA a full run better than anyone else in the league - before Maddux. Last season, Maddux came within .19 of Hideo Nomo of doing it two years in a row
  • He was 13-0 with a 1.12 ERA on the road last season
  • He was 17-1 after May 17 last season
  • He allowed one run in the middle innings (fourth, fifth, sixth) all season
  • He yielded one or no runs in 18 of 28 starts last season
That's as good a place as any to stop (if you haven't stopped already). It seems clear that Maddux's status as an all-time great was as deceiving as his fastball. From year to year, contemporary writers knew that they were dealing with a star pitcher. But, even as he compiled Cy Young awards over and over, the writers seemed unwilling or unable to notice that he was more than just an "undisputed ace", until the fact was right on top of them and they could do nothing but stare slack jawed and wonder "how in the world did he do it?"

1 comment:

Josef Carlo said...

An amazing post about the greatest post WWII pitcher. We never saw Cy Young or Walter Johnson pitched but you can always brag that you saw Maddux pitch. People talk about stuff but Maddux has the best stuff in all of baseball - a well located fastball and a beautifully disguised change up. You dare not compare Maddux to any pitcher in his generation because nobody comes close. Seaver had Carlton, Catfish had Palmer but Maddux stands alone. He is the greatest pitcher of his generation. Clemens and Johnson may have won more Cy Young awards but Maddux was the first to win four straight times. Before he did Carlton was the only guy to win the award four times and he did in 11 years.

He should be a unanimous Hall of Famer. Any writer who leaves his name off the ballot isn't watching baseball. A class act and a consummate pro. We will miss you Greg.