Greg Maddux officially becomes a Hall of Famer today, and the only controversy surrounding his election is that it won’t be unanimous. He is, without question, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. So, let’s celebrate the things that made him great.
Greg Maddux threw 200 innings in every single season from 1988 to 2001, with the streak snapping after throwing just 199 1/3 innings in 2002, before he proceeded to throw four more consecutive seasons with 200 innings pitched. That streak stopped in 2007, when he just threw 198 innings. Or, put another way, Maddux threw 198 or more innings in every single season from age-22 to age-41, even though the 1994 strike ended the season in 1994 (202 innings in 25 starts) and caused it to begin late in 1995 (210 innings in 28 starts). For 20 straight years, Maddux was a guaranteed 200 innings, even if Major League Baseball didn’t even bother to finish their season.
In 1994, the league average home run rate per nine innings jumped to 1.04, up from 0.90 in 1993, which is one of the main reasons it is often labeled as the start of the “Steroids Era”. When the strike occurred, Matt Williams was on pace to break the all time single season home run record, and five other players looked like they might get close to it as well. And in that year, the beginning of the home run boom, Maddux allowed four home runs for the entire season. Four. It’s the only season of the last 60 years where a pitcher has thrown 200 innings and given up fewer than five home runs, and it happened in the era when home runs were most plentiful. While people remember Maddux for having impeccable command, his walk rates are not historically unprecedented. His ability to never give up home runs, though, might not ever be seen again.
Of course, we shouldn’t just ignore his ability to never walk anyone either, because that was a significant part of why he was so good. In a time where offensive levels were surging and pitchers could be forgiven for avoiding the heart of the plate, Maddux pounded the strike zone like few others ever have. From 1995 to 1997, Maddux walked 2.7% of the batters he faced; among the pitchers who threw at least 600 innings in those three seasons, only two — Shane Reynolds and Denny Neagle, at 5.0% and 5.2% respectively — posted walk rates that were not twice as high as Maddux’s walk rate. When it came to not walking hitters, Maddux regularly lapped the field.
And it’s not like he was Bob Tewksbury, just grooving the ball over the plate and hoping for soft contact. While Maddux was not Randy Johnson, his strikeout totals have often been undersold because strikeout rate has often been measured as total strikeouts per nine innings, rather than per batter faced. Because Maddux never put anyone on base, his innings often consisted of just three batters instead of four or five, giving him fewer opportunities to record a strikeout each inning. On a percentage basis, though, in-his-prime Maddux was actually a prolific strikeout pitcher.
Take 1995, for instance. Among pitchers who threw just 100 innings — a lower barrier than usual due to the shortened season — Maddux’s 7.77 K/9 ranked just 18th in baseball, in between Jeff Fassero and Mark Gardner. But by K%, which just looks at strikeouts per batter faced, his 23.1% strikeout rate was 5th best in baseball, putting him in a near tie with John Smoltz, who no one considered a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower. In fact, Maddux’s strikeout rate in 1995 was 35% better than the league average, and if you translate that into 2013, his 1995 strikeout rate was essentially equivalent to the K% that Matt Harvey put up last year. 1995 Maddux was 2013 Matt Harvey if he also never walked anyone and gave up the fewest number of home runs in recent baseball history.
Not surprisingly, that 1995 season posted by Maddux is one of the best of all time. By ERA- (and minimum 150 innings pitched), it’s the 5th best run prevention season in baseball history. Only it’s not even Maddux’s best year, as his 1994 season ranks 3rd on that list. Two of the top five seasons in baseball history, in terms of run prevention relative to the league average, belong to Greg Maddux.
And remember, he threw 200 innings in both of those seasons despite the strike reducing his number of starts, so he wasn’t just getting lifted early and letting the bullpen strand his runners. In 1994, he averaged more than 8 innings per start. He went at least 7 innings in 22 of the 25 starts he made that year, and threw 9 innings in 11 of them. He put up the third best ERA- in baseball history in a season in which he basically never let his bullpen in the game.
But maybe the greatest thing about Greg Maddux wasn’t any of these accomplishments, but instead, how he did it. Unlike Randy Johnson, he didn’t look like a super hero who threw 100 mph. He looked like one of us. He was 6’0, wore glasses, and dominated with pitches that didn’t look like they should dominate. In an era of oversized athletes and outsized personalities, Maddux was just a guy doing his thing and embarrassing everyone else in the process. There wasn’t anything particularly flashy about Greg Maddux, until you looked up two hours later, realized the game was over, and the opposing team had only managed a couple of weak singles.
Greg Maddux personified greatness and humanity at the same time. I fully expect that he’ll be the best pitcher I ever see take the mound. Welcome to Cooperstown, sir. You deserve it more than just about anyone.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.