|Tuesday, November 26
From performer to mentor, Maddux does it all
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
One of the most common compliments afforded sports stars today is, "He makes the players around him better." Occasionally, it's not even utter hogwash.
Greg Maddux is the rare athlete who does indeed improve his teammates. It isn't because his dad, a Vegas blackjack dealer, gives them tips. It certainly isn't because he teaches them the finer points of personal fitness -- the increasingly paunchy Maddux is a few stars-on-thars away from resembling a Sneetch.
No, Maddux is a human pitching course, every start another lecture in a series from which onlookers have no choice but to learn. (The guy holds office hours too; he's always willing to talk pitching between starts to toss theories back and forth.) Countless pitchers across baseball have cited Maddux as the pitcher whose style they admire most. The young, adrenaline-pumped knuckleheads look up to Roger Clemens; the ones who have been around the block and understand the art of pitching regard Maddux as the master.
While Jim Thome will generate plenty of offense for whichever team hires him, the one that signs Maddux will get a pitcher who emphasizes to every other arm on the team, whether a power guy or control artist, how to pitch properly. No pitcher today more exemplifies the counterattack defenses will have to mount against increasingly patient hitters. If baseball is moving toward an overdue respect for batters who walk, it must correspondingly revere the pitchers who prohibit it.
Maddux doesn't talk about getting hitters out; he speaks of getting at-bats "over with." No other pitcher has such a talent for not making hitters miss, but getting them to hit the ball poorly enough to get themselves out. Fast. "When you're not overpowering, you don't get the swings and misses, and the foul balls," Maddux says. Baserunners are minimized, on-deck hitters don't see what's up your sleeve, you go deeper into games and save the bullpen, often for the next day or two of the schedule. If you're building a pitching staff -- one without several 6-foot-10, 95-mph lefties -- there's no better model than Maddux.
The guy can still pitch, too. Much was made last season about Maddux's 36-year-old body and how it might be beginning to falter. He did miss his first two starts because of an inflamed nerve in his lower back/buttocks, and a strained left calf bothered him for a few starts in June. The result was just 199.1 innings, his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter in 1987.
Still, Maddux did go 16-6 with a 2.62 ERA, second in the National League. There's some justifiable concern over his strikeouts dropping to just 118, but two things temper that: One, his hits per nine innings (8.76) stayed about the same, and two, several years ago Maddux's strikeouts went way down but he immediately bounced back. There's reason to think he can do so again; this is one smart pitcher who is always one step ahead of the opposition.
Of course, valuing Maddux and actually getting him are two different things. Salary and length of contract are a huge issue to his suitors. If agent Scott Boras wants $13-$14 million a year for five years, one has to start questioning whether Maddux will be productive enough into his early 40s to justify that kind of risk.
It's the hidden value that intrigues me, though. Is there any pitcher Maddux can't relate to and improve, if only by osmosis? He has thrown or tried to throw almost every pitch there is, running them in and out to righties or lefties. He knows umpire tendencies and how to get calls. And for those who think he's just a brain on the mound, Maddux uses the brawn he has, too.
"If I think the hitter's maybe staying back or trying to go the other way or maybe looking for an offspeed pitch, I'll throw it as hard as I can," he once told me. "It just don't look like it. But I do it every game." No pitcher can look at Maddux and say, "I can't do that." His is an accessible artistry.
Signing Greg Maddux today will not get you his four Cy Young Awards, his 15 straight 15-win seasons, nor his NL-record 72.1-inning walkless streak. Those are in the past. As for the future, if this still darned-good pitcher can showcase his skills to his teammates around him, that might be the next best thing.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.