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April 24, 2006

Prospectus Today

In Praise of Maddux

by Joe Sheehan

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Forgive me, but I need to get a little fanboy for a moment.

How about Greg Maddux?

The living legend, who had taken his share of lumps over the past couple of seasons, has opened the 2006 season by allowing just three runs in his first four starts, posting a league-leading ERA of 0.99. Maddux has coughed up just one homer and five walks in 27 1/3 innings, and has generally looked like the mid-'90s version of himself. He's not doing it the easy way, either; he's faced the Cardinals twice and the above-average offenses of the Reds and Dodgers once each. That's as difficult a slate as any NL pitcher has seen.

This is one of the best stories of the season to date. Maddux, whose streak of 17 consecutive seasons with at least 15 wins ended last year, has been sliding back towards average since 2002, which was the last time he posted an ERA below 3.00. After producing at least six Wins Above Replacement and a Normalized ERA below 4.00 for a dozen seasons, Maddux hadn't reached either of those markers in his past three years. Meanwhile, Roger Clemens had discovered a second wind, extending his lead over Maddux in a number of categories and settling the debate as to who was the best pitcher of his era:

                     Clemens                         Maddux
          W   Pct.  ERA   PRAR   WARP3     W   Pct.  ERA   PRAR  WARP3
-2002   293  .660  3.15   1630   168.1   273  .642  2.83   1338  141.9
2003-05  48  .696  2.92    262    25.9    45  .570  4.07    182   15.8
Career  341  .665  3.12   1892   194.0   322  .630  3.00   1537  159.5*

*includes WARP1 for 2006, not WARP3.
Maddux is my favorite pitcher ever. I used to build my schedule around catching his starts when he was in his prime, wanting to see if this was the day he completed a game in 70 pitches, or forced SportsCenter to come on 70 minutes early, or threw a three-hit shutout on the gravity-free surface of the moon. So even though I know this is just four starts, not meaningful or likely the start of a Clemensesque career kick, I have to say that it's hard for me to be completely rational about it. Maddux is one of the, what, five greatest pitchers in history, and he has a Q rating comfortably wedged between Kevin Goldstein and the guy who made your mocha this morning. In an era defined as much by an obsessive media as anything else, all we really know about Maddux is his work and his enjoyment of golf. His ratio of accomplishment to exposure is as high as any player ever; he's like the baseball inverse of Paris Hilton.

Now, let me put my analyst's cap back on. Maddux's ERA is going to go up. Like Clemens last year, he's benefitting from a very low batting average on balls in play (.192, fifth in MLB among pitchers with at least 15 IP). His peripheral stats don't support a league-leading anything, and his groundball-to-flyball ratio is the lowest of his career, which is contributing to that BABIP. That he's given up just one home run and three doubles on 18 fly balls is an accident, and can't be expected to continue.

Regardless, this is a good moment in a season where we can't take good moments for granted. Maddux is the story in this news cycle, and he hasn't been that since winning his 300th game two summers ago. While fully expecting Maddux to finish the season as a six-WARP pitcher, throwing 200 innings with an ERA in the high-3.00s, we can take this opportunity to admire what he's accomplished in his career. Even if he ends up being worth less than Clemens in the end, he'll have some markers in terms of efficiency, pace and approach that Clemens didn't.

Sometimes, you just have to get your head out of a stat book and watch a game once in a while.

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

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