Players’ View: Maddux or the Big Unit?

I recently posed a question to five players, three coaches and a broadcaster. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it may not even have a right answer.

Who was better, Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux?

The question was phrased exactly that way. It was up to the people responding to interpret the meaning of “better” and to elaborate accordingly. They were asked face-to-face, with no opportunity to reference statistical data on their phones or on their laptops. Their responses — listed below in alphabetical order — were both interesting and varied.


Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “As far as stuff goes, Randy Johnson. Same for intimidation. But watching Greg Maddux go from a guy who threw 92-93, with movement, to a guy who threw 85 and had to pitch — to adapt to not having the velocity — speaks volumes to how good he was. He got people out on a consistent basis by moving balls from off the plate to catching the corner, and vice versa. I’ve never met either one, but from sitting back and watching them, I’d say Greg Maddux.”

Greg Colbrunn, Boston Red Sox hitting coach; “I was fortunate enough to play with both of them. I spent five years with `The Unit’ and he won the Cy Young in four of them. I played with Greg Maddux in 1997. I think I faced The Unit about 10 times and had one hit. I faced Maddux about the same number of times and don’t think I ever got a hit off of him.

“It’s an unbelievable question. You’re talking about power and dominance with `The Unit,’ and Greg could be unbelievable; I’ve seen him throw 92-, 95-pitch shutouts. I’ve seen `The Unit’ punch out 15, 16, and throw one-, two-hit shutouts. In their own different ways, they were tremendous. `Doggy’ was smartest pitcher I ever played with, but if I had to pick one, I’d probably pick `The Unit.’”

Steve Delabar, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher: “You can’t go wrong with either of them. Both had over 300 wins. Randy Johnson had over 4,000 strikeouts. Which of them threw the most innings? When comparing guys like that, numbers are big.

“If I were hitting, I’d probably rather face Maddux; he didn’t have 98 with a power slider. Randy Johnson was going to go deep into games and get 12 or 13 punch outs. Greg Maddux was going to go deep and not walk anybody. It’s tough to say, but I guess I’d have to go Randy Johnson. He had the intimidation. He was a monster who ate up innings.”

Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox pitcher. “Maddux. He had better numbers, and it’s the numbers that matter. Greg had, quite possibly, two of the most dominant years ever, in 1994 and 1995. If you take out what people consider dominance, which is strikeouts… somebody could throw a two-hitter with no strikeouts and they wouldn’t consider it a dominant performance. I think that’s really funny.

“When you look at the ability to go out there and win at least 15 games for 16, 17 years in a row… what a great run. Maddux won four straight Cy Youngs. He also had better stuff than a lot of people give him credit for.”

Mark DeRosa, Toronto Blue Jays infielder: “They were completely different pitchers. But who was better? Greg Maddux. The reason I say that is his ability to make the ball do so many different things. He didn’t have the explosive fastball Randy Johnson had, or the explosive slider. He did what he did based on smarts and being able to manipulate the ball. He reinvented himself time and time again.

“I know I didn’t too good against Johnson. I think I got one hit off him. Greg was my teammate for a couple years, and I think I only faced him once. I’d have to go with `Doggy.’”

Andrew Miller, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “They obviously got to their numbers in different ways. They both had really long careers and were dominant for a long time. They’re two of the greatest pitchers of our generation, if not the greatest. There’s the steroid talk about some guys. My instinct says Maddux, but maybe that’s because I watched him more. Randy Johnson did some pretty unbelievable things. I think it’s Maddux by a nose.”

Luis Rivera, Toronto Blue Jays first base coach: “Who was better? I don’t know. Who was tougher to face? I think I got a few hits off Randy Johnson, but you would maybe feel more comfortable facing Maddux, because he didn’t throw as hard. But Maddux could throw the pitch wherever he wanted, and make the pitch move. When I faced him, he wasn’t like that; he was early in his career, pitching for Chicago. It was his first year and my first year. Then he became ‘that guy.’

“When I faced Randy, he was playing in Montreal. He threw real hard and had a hard slider. The thing with Randy is that he was intimidating on the mound. He was very intimidating. And if he got the slider going, you almost wouldn’t have a chance. If not, you just looked for the fastball. Who was better? I probably have to say Maddux, because he could get you out easy.”

Pat Tabler, Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster: “They’re both unique in their own way. One was power and one was smarter than anybody else. You could hear Randy Johnson’s slider coming in. It was hard and nasty, and it broke so much. His fastball was outstanding. Maddux was more carve you up, dissect you, take you apart. He had great control. Two different types of pitchers.

“I did take Maddux deep once; I remember that. I faced Johnson more, because we were in the American League at the same time. He was a big left-hander, and I was a right-hander, and that slider would come in, starting way outside, and whoooosh, it would break right across the plate. Who was better? It’s hard to pick one over the other — they’re both hall-of-famers. But if the question is, ‘Who would you rather have on the mound in the seventh game of the World Series?’ I’d have to go with Maddux.”

Shane Victorino, Red Sox outfielder: “Man, you’re putting me in a hot spot right here. I didn’t face either of those guys in their prime; I faced them later in their careers. But when they were on — and I’m not trying to give you a politically-correct answer here — they were both dominant.

“Obviously, I feared Randy Johnson a lot more, because he threw harder and he was so long. Maddux was more of a finesse guy who hit his spots. While I feared Johnson, it was a tougher at bat against Maddux. He moved the ball a lot more: He was in and out. But again, I faced these guys later in their careers. Johnson was probably topping out at 94; he wasn’t 97. Maddux was 84-85 by then.

“Both were great, so I guess I‘ll have to go with the one who had more wins. That was Maddux, right? I‘d have to pick Greg, because he had more success in his career.”

Pete Walker, Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach: “Maddux. From a personal standpoint, he’s my type of pitcher. He was a guy who commanded the baseball tremendously — probably as good as anybody ever in the game of baseball. He manipulated the ball and made it move. He didn’t rely on sheer power, which is what Randy did. As far as changing speeds and locating pitches, Maddux was just a pleasure to watch.

“I’m sure there was fear when certain position players faced Randy Johnson, but when Maddux took the hill, I don’t think the opposing clubhouse had a great feeling.”


Maddux: Eight votes (Buchholz, Dempster, DeRosa, Miller, Rivera, Tabler, Victorino, Walker)

Johnson: Two votes {Delabar, Colbrunn)

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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8 years ago

This was the best of the ‘who’s better’ articles so far since they played contemporaneously. You didn’t get everyone making the same ‘different era’ comments and just got the meaty player comparison. Great read.