Tonight in San Diego, Greg Maddux takes the mound for the Padres, making his 17th start of the season. He’s been essentially a league-average pitcher for the Pads this season, with a 3.66 ERA that reflects the benefits of pitching in the friendly confines of Petco Park as much as his own efforts. For a total outlay $10 million, he’s providing better performance than most of the more expensive pitchers signed this past offseason.

For all of the attention paid to Roger Clemens over the past two seasons, the will-he-or-won’t-he dancing and the if-yes-where speculation, Maddux has been the more valuable pitcher simply because he takes the ball all year long. For one start, or one month, Clemens is still the better bet because of his stuff, his ability to miss bats, and his lesser reliance on his bullpen. But innings, especially average or better innings, have tremendous value, and Maddux provides those: 34 starts and 210 innings last season, on pace for similar numbers this year. Maddux has made at least 33 starts in every season since 1996, and would have a streak stretching back to 1988 but for the strike of 1994/lockout of 1995.

I’ve compared the two at various intervals over the past few years, with similar conclusions: Clemens’ career has been greater than that of Maddux. How does this look now? Clemens has extended his edges in WARP (196.4-161.8) and runs saved (1954-1628) to margins that Maddux will almost certainly be unable to close unless he pitches until he’s close to 50. Clemens also has a higher, if less concentrated, peak, which means his edge in value is a bit higher than is shown here.

I started thinking about Maddux last week while writing about Mark Buehrle. Not because the two are similar in type, but because of this: Mark Buehrle’s career is basically Greg Maddux’s decline phase:

                       IP    ERA     WARP    PRAR
Buerhle, career      1528    3.79    46.5     461
Maddux, 2001-2007    1386.2  3.71    40.4     440

We’re actually shorting Maddux here by giving Buehrle credit for 50 good innings, mostly out of the bullpen, in 2000. Give Maddux 50 random innings from 2000, and he closes the gap in all three counting categories. As you can see, though, the two pitchers have been essentially equivalent in value over this time, and it’s not like Buehrle’s peripherals have been that much better than Mad Dog’s. Maddux has a higher aggregate Stuff score, although Buehrle’s best seasons have been slightly better–and more recent–than Maddux’s. Setting aside handedness, we’re dealing with similar pitchers here, durable strike-throwers whose strikeout rates aren’t very good, who don’t overpower hitters with their stuff, and who occasionally have trouble with the long ball.

The White Sox seem prepared to pay Buehrle $50 million or more to retain his services for the next four seasons, and that’s a discount of $30 million or more in total contract value compared to what the market would offer the left-hander. Maddux just came off of a three-year deal for $27 million (signed during a bear market for baseball players) and is currently working on a one-year, $10 million deal that includes an option for 2008, one of the smartest contracts any team agreed to this winter.

I know that age is a consideration here, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Greg Maddux, while being an afterthought in award voting and the national consciousness since 2000, has essentially been just as effective as a perceived star who’s about to become incredibly wealthy. The comparison to Buehrle is reasonably close, at least; if you compare Maddux to the free-agent class of 2006-07, the ones he was on the market with a year ago, it becomes a bit silly. Greg Maddux’s decline phase dwarfs the entire careers of Ted Lilly and Gil Meche and Vicente Padilla.

Admittedly, I’m not objective. Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher ever, someone whose starts I built my schedule around for years, and a pitcher whose greatness, I fear, may never be recognized because he had the misfortune to peak during a season truncated by a work stoppage. Unlike pitchers who are perceived as superior, he had the poor timing to pitch through one of the greatest hitting eras the game has ever known, and yet he stayed in the rotation and kept runs off the scoreboard. Even in the twilight of his career, his work stands toe-to-toe with the work of pitchers who will be treated as the belles of the ball when it comes time to court.

So tonight around 10 p.m. Eastern, flip on your TV, or your radio, or your computer, and catch some of that greatness from San Diego. Maybe Maddux isn’t the subject of bidding wars and speculation each offseason, but that doesn’t make his contributions any less entertaining.

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