December 14, 2012
The Good Old Days: Greg Maddux
The legend of Greg Maddux already has a life of its own, and he has been retired for only four years. The widely held perception of the bespectacled right-hander centers on his reputation as “the smartest pitcher who ever lived,” and the prevailing wisdom tends to overlook the raw talents that he brought to the mound. Maybe it's the glasses, with the clichéd connection between poor vision and intelligence. It could be the K rate, which hovered around the major-league average through his career, or maybe it was the indelible impression of a 42-year old Maddux retiring massive sluggers with an 85-mph fastball, but this was not a pitcher who survived only on guile while mentally calculating triple-integrals for every pitch thrown.
Maddux's reputation for intelligence was well-earned, as he had a cerebral approach to pitching and advanced knowledge of his craft. Maddux understood the concept of Effective Velocity long before Perry Husband had conducted his extensive research on the subject, thanks to Maddux's recognition of the relationship between pitch location and batter timing. He knew that a hitter had to begin his swing earlier in order to hit the ball squarely on a pitch located up and in, but that the hitter had a longer time to react to a pitch that was low and away. He also followed the words of Warren Spahn, who said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
When asked if he had a particular pitch sequence that stood out, Maddux replied that he did have one three-pitch approach that stood out as especially effective against even the most advanced hitters (read: Barry Bonds), and the sequence was rooted in Effective Velocity. Maddux claimed that he would start with a change-up located up-and-in to the hitter, would follow it up with another change-up down and away, and finish high and inside with his fastball. The Effective Velocity of that particular sequence was approximately 83, 77, and then 94 mph, with a timing adjustment that made the fastball feel like Clemens-level heat after being lulled to sleep with the cambios. Making life hell on opposing batters was a skill that Maddux learned from experience, resulting from a competitive desire to outwit his opponents.
Maddux was selected by the Chicago Cubs out of a Las Vegas high school in the second round of the 1984 draft, and less than two years later he was pitching in Wrigley Field. Like so many rookies before him, Maddux struggled through his first taste of the majors, surrendering loads of baserunners and watching too many of them cross home plate. Something clicked in his age-22 season, as he trimmed his WHIP by 25 percent and earned a trip to the 1988 All Star Game. He finished in the top three in Cy Young voting in '89, though his peripheral stats were still relatively unimpressive. Then his learning curve hit a three-year climb that included more strikeouts, fewer walks, and which culminated in the 1992 Cy Young award.
Maddux's mechanics were solid from the get-go, but he did have some flaws in the delivery at a young age. His balance wavered in his 1986 debut, leaning back toward first base on his way to the plate, as the extra weight of his mustache must have thrown him off-kilter. The 'stache was gone by 1989, and Maddux over-corrected his mechanical flaw by crouching forward from max leg lift into foot strike, an imbalance that created an obstacle to his repetition. He continued to hone his mechanics, and Maddux had begun to harness his balance and timing before he left Chicago, and the pattern of improvement that was defined his first six-plus years with the Cubs paved the way for his career path. Maddux entered free agency on the heels of his Cy, at 26 years old and having pitched more than 1,250 innings over the previous five seasons.