On the brilliance of Greg Maddux

By Jason Wojciechowski on December 7, 2008 at 4:01 PM

This is a great post by the always-reliable Joe Posnanski, reviewing the game he considers to be Greg Maddux's greatest. It's a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of each at-bat in a game when Maddux faced just 28 hitters and threw just 84 pitches in shutting out the Yankees in July, 1997.

You should read the whole thing, because it's great, but I wanted to make two comments about Posnanski's preamble. First, take a look at the ERA+ chart for Maddux's prime. The first two entries are this: Maddux, 191, Clemens, 153. It's cliche, but it bears repeating: Maddux was the most dominant non-dominating pitcher ever. When he really muscled up, he could get his fastball up to 92. He never ever blew away a single batter. His strikeout rates in his prime were very good, but never at the level of the other great pitchers in history. He might be the only top-ten-all-time pitcher to be there because he didn't walk anyone, didn't give up home runs, and got ground balls. As we've learned from the progeny of Voros McCracken, though, if you combine a (merely) good strikeout rate with absurdly good walk and homer rates, you will be a great pitcher. It's just that it's so rare to actually see that combination.

The second thing is Posnanski's review of the pitches Maddux threw. The brilliant thing about Maddux, as Posnanski notes, is that he didn't really have three or four or five discrete pitches. He had a continuum. He threw the curveball, which was it's own discrete pitch. But other than that, he had a fastball that ranged from straight-and-92 to wicked-movement-and-82, and then a circle change that he threw with a different grip but that was really just a continuation of the fastball continuum -- it'd move even more ridiculously than the slow fastball and be even slower.

People talk about Greg Maddux's pitching intelligence, but I think his physical pitching ability might be underrated. There's of course the ability to throw the ball 92 mph in the first place, which is obviously incredibly uncommon. But combine that arm with the manual sensitivity and muscle control necessary to finely adjust the pressure points on the ball and the speed of the pitch to achieve that infinite variety of pitches. You also don't win 173 Gold Gloves, or whatever the actual number was, without being a talented athlete. (The game review linked above touches on this as well, as he threw a perfect pickoff throw to second base to erase a runner at one point.)