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One way to appreciate the greatness of Greg Maddux is to look at how he was able to make other great pitchers, like Glavine and Smoltz, seem ordinary by comparison. Another is how he was so great in 1992-1995 that he too seemed ordinary afterwards, so that he could be the best pitcher in the league and yet people would ask, “What’s Wrong With Maddux?” if he gave up six runs over two starts.
Maddux was the Cubs’ second-round pick in the 1984 draft, which means he was pretty high up there, 31st overall, which would make him a sandwich pick today. He was taken 16 picks ahead of Tom Glavine, who was born three weeks earlier in 1966, 19 picks ahead of Al Leiter. [Joke omitted for taste.] Scouts are not, actually, stupid in the aggregate. Maddux maybe didn’t throw 90 unless he had a tailwind, but the scouts understood that he could get people out. I remember reading, in a Barnes & Noble, a book containing amateur scouting reports on future stars, and the report on Maddux was generally a rave.
Maddux rushed through the system, debuting with the Cubs at 20 and up for good at 21. At which time he was a fairly awful pitcher and went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA. Having got that out of his system, he began a run of sixteen straight seasons with 15 or more wins. In 1992, he won the Cy Young Award, which helps a lot when you’re entering free agency. The Braves didn’t really need Maddux, but signed him anyway.
In 1993, Maddux won the Cy Young again, going 20-10 with a 2.36 ERA. Oddly, this was the only time he would win 20 games in a Braves uniform. It didn’t help that his two finest seasons were in strike years.
First, 1994, in which Maddux carried the Braves throughout as most of the rest of the team fell into slumps, going 16-6 with a 1.56 ERA and winning the Cy Young for the third straight year. He made it four in 1995, and his 1995 season was as dominant as anyone’s ever had. Leaving aside 19-2 and a 1.63 ERA. Maddux threw 209 2/3 innings, leading the league for the fifth straight season. He was third in strikeouts, threw ten complete games (nobody else had more than seven), had 7.87 strikeouts per walk (second best was 4.73), won his usual Gold Glove, was the unanimous Cy Young winner for the second straight season, and should have been the MVP.
Nobody could keep that up, and Maddux was merely great in the next few seasons. He stopped throwing more innings than anyone else, and was usually just among the leaders, and started having some minor injuries that limited him. From 1996-1998 he was just as good as he’d been in 1991-1993, and on average was still the best pitcher in the league. Another example of how great Maddux was for the Braves is that in 1999, when he went 19-9 with a 3.57 ERA (in a 4.34 ERA context) this was a terrible year for him. He bounced back after that, with two more standard Maddux years.
Another example of how good Maddux was is that in 2002, he put up a 2.62 ERA for second in the league, and nobody noticed and he didn’t get a single Cy Young vote. The standards were just so high for him that it seemed kind of a disappointment that he had only 16 wins. After that season, he accepted arbitration, thereby outraging an increasingly tetchy John Schuerholz, and didn’t pitch particularly well in 2003 — though he was still above-average. He left as a free agent and has been a little above-average in Chicago and LA. I wouldn’t mind the Braves bringing him back.
Maddux’s most-similar pitcher through Age 40 or overall is Tom Seaver. The top eight through age 40 are all in the Hall; the next two are Clemens and Glavine, who obviously will be… Not thought of as a strikeout pitcher, but in the early nineties finished as high as second, and finished third four straight times. He’s twelfth all-time in strikeouts, just ahead of Bob Gibson. Three years younger than Clemens, who has 15 more wins; if Clemens retires after this season will probably wind up with the most wins by a righthander since 1920.
The Javy thing… Well, he and Javy Lopez didn’t get along. My guess is that Maddux, who always thinks he knows best (generally because he does) and prefers a catcher he can bully. Maybe not, I don’t know. Anyway, it didn’t really cost the Braves as a team anything, because Lopez would have sat out about as much time anyway. It probably cost Maddux several wins and maybe an additional Cy Young in 1998, when he outpitched Glavine but had three fewer wins to show for it… Maddux is slightly overrated as a hitter. Interestingly, his most-similar hitter through Age 40 is Phil Niekro.
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