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December 14, 2012

Raising Aces

The Good Old Days: Greg Maddux

by Doug Thorburn

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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.

The Braves shelled out $28 million to secure his services for the next five years, with an AAV of $5.6 million that was a record at the time that Maddux inked the deal. The right-hander came to Atlanta at a good time, as a franchise that had languished in anonymity during the 1980s was coming off of consecutive World Series appearances (both losses), and he went on to front one of the greatest pitching rotations of all time.

 

Maddux would achieve hero status, rising to a level of utter dominance that included three more Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons as a Brave, a run that culminated with the 1995 World Series trophy, attaining the ultimate prize that had eluded the Braves for 38 years. Maddux honed his delivery in Atlanta to become a cyborg of pitching efficiency, and he credits pitching coach Leo Mazzone for helping him with the mental side of the game. A fastball that reached 93 mph in his early years had settled into the 89-90 mph range, as Maddux emphasized pitch command at the expense of radar-gun readings, using pinpoint control of his devastating circle-change to exploit batter weaknesses.

Maddux pitched for 11 years in Atlanta, and though the Braves played October baseball in 10 of those seasons, the '95 trophy was his lone championship. He pitched more than 2,500 innings for Atlanta, and he established a dimension of pitch-efficiency that was unprecedented in the modern era. The stats from Maddux's decade-plus in a Braves uniform look like a mirage: a record of 194-88, a 2.63 ERA, and a K:walk ratio of almost five-to-one. He was lower on the totem poll for strikeouts, but Maddux perfected the art of inducing weak contact in his never-ending quest for a quick at-bat, averaging just 3.3 pitches per plate appearance for his career.

Maddux returned to the Cubs at the age of 38, where he would lock down major milestones such as his 300th win and his 3,000th strikeout. He had lost a little bit of zip on his fastball by this point, which proved to be the kryptonite that sapped Superman's ability to stop a speeding sphere from leaving the yard. But the once-in-a-generation pitch command stayed intact, and Maddux would walk fewer than two batters per nine innings in every single season for the rest of his career, including his southern California tours of San Diego and Los Angeles. His consistency was most remarkable, with an uncanny ability to repeat the same efficient delivery every pitch, every start, with virtually the same mechanics for the vast majority of his career.

Maddux was a hyper-competitive player who worked to perfect every facet of his game. He went through extensive training to improve his commercial power at the plate, under the premise that “chicks dig the long ball,” and his extra time spent working on pitcher fielding practice (PFP) led to a record 18 Gold Glove awards. Maddux's mechanical efficiency put him in a good fielding position after release point, and he pursued baseballs like a Labrador chasing bacon, earning his hardware with highlight-worthy hustle even into his 40's.

The picture of durability, Maddux pitched at least 194 innings in every season for 21 straight years from the age of 22 through his retirement. He dominated two of the Three True Outcomes, with a career walk rate of 1.8 free passes per nine innings and just 0.6 homers allowed per nine. He twice posted a sub-2.00 ERA, both during strike years, though he pitched more than 200 innings in each campaign, and he allowed a paltry four home runs in 202 innings during his 1.56-ERA season of 1994. Maddux was an unstoppable force on the mound, making just a single trip to the disabled list and pitching more than 5,000 innings in his 23-year career.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

80

Momentum

60

Torque

65

Posture

70

Release Distance

65

Repetition

80

Maddux's sterling reputation for pitching mechanics is more than justified. The above grades represent his peak mechanics from the mid-1990's, though they hardly wavered for the next 15 years of his career. He could repeat his delivery as well as any pitcher that I have ever seen, with consistent timing and positioning that persisted regardless of pitch type or pitch count, giving the impression that he was never fatigued. During his peak, Maddux had elite grades for his balance and his posture, providing the stability to repeat the other elements of his motion. Repetition, balance, and timing were an integral part of his profile, given an approach that was predicated on pitch command.

It might surprise some to learn that Maddux's power grades on his report card were also well above average. His momentum begins with an immediate move to the plate and an uptick in momentum/speed after max leg lift, an element that was even stronger in his early days [earning a 65-70 grade in his early 20s], though his other grades were not up to snuff in the years with the extra burst. His early momentum stayed strong into his 40s, even as Maddux slowed down his absolute momentum into foot strike.  His torque was also well above average, with incredible timing and sequencing that involved an efficient delay of trunk rotation, letting his hips rotate to increase hip-shoulder separation. The torque is deceiving because Maddux did not have 65-grade velocity, but efficient use of his body took stress off of his arm, and it is easy to believe Maddux when he says that he could have thrown harder, but that the risk of losing pitch command was not worth the trade-off. The combination of elite balance, posture, and timing combined with the above-average burst to the plate to create a very deep release point, which was devastating for batters who hoped to identify his late-fading change-up and sneaky-fast heat out-of-hand. 

Maddux will be on a crowded ballot next year for the Hall of Fame, but he is the rare talent who is a shoo-in for first-ballot induction. The legend of Maddux will continue to grow, and he will have a positive impact on every kid who tries to emulate him on the mound. The ripple effect of his legacy is already felt on the current Braves' staff, as untouchable closer Craig Kimbrel has been watching carefully and taking notes:

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Greg Maddux,  Mechanics

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