Posted: Tuesday August 9, 2005 1:27PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 5:54PM
Even at 39, Greg Maddux can still field his position with Gold Glove ability.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Tom Verducci will answer select questions from SI.com users in his Baseball Mailbag.
On July 5, though it went virtually unnoticed, a sad moment occurred in Major League Baseball. The career ERA of Greg Maddux officially exceeded 3.00.
At the start of this week, Maddux's ERA sits at 3.004, and it might not ever see the south side of 3.00 again, not when you consider that through 2002 his ERA was 2.93, and since then it's been 4.13. This season his ERA is 4.57, his worst since 1987, and he's likely to keep pitching in 2006. Maddux needs to throw only another 38 2/3 innings to guarantee his 2006 salary at $9 million. He turns 40 next April.
Why should we care about Maddux's 3.00 ERA? There's something just not right about it, like Mickey Mantle retiring with a .298 batting average or Sam Rice with 2,987 hits. It's the reason gas is priced to the nine-tenths and that $19.99 DVD seems a whole lot cheaper than if it were marked at $20. We live not just on margins but the perceptions of margins, and 3.00 doesn't impress quite like 2.99.
There is this, too: Maddux seems to deserve a sub-three ERA. For the sum of a career, Roger Clemens may be the greatest pitcher who ever lived; for the greatest peak of a career, Pedro Martinez can out-Koufax Sandy (with the strategy of the modern game, of course, allowing Martinez more rest and less responsibility in the eighth and ninth innings). But when it comes to the art of pitching, Maddux was as sublime as any of the great masters. Even now, with his record of at least 15 wins in 17 straight seasons in jeopardy (he needs seven victories with about 10 starts left), Maddux still is worth the price of admission.
Speaking about the wonder of Clemens, who just turned 43, Maddux said, "But he still has this -- " and made a zooming motion with his hand to indicate a fastball. "Try going out there at 84, 85 [mph]."
Clemens' career ERA sat at 3.12 this week, unlikely to get below 3.00 before he -- perhaps --- retires. But the amazing one did begin this year with a 3.18 ERA. How in the world do you cut that much off your ERA after more than 4,000 innings?
Look at Clemens' improvement another way. Entering this season, Randy Johnson led Clemens in career ERA by a clear margin. Now the difference is almost nothing. Check out their career ERAs entering 2005 and at the start of this week (see chart, right).
Give Clemens two more seasons with sub-2.00 ERAs and ... no, wait. That's just a crazy thought. Isn't it?
Anyway, career sub-3.00 ERAs just don't happen anymore, as Maddux is finding out. Of all the pitchers born since 1900, only six retired with at least 200 wins and an ERA below 3.00. The entire membership of the 200/2-something Club looks like this:
Seen another way, no one born in the past 50 years or who began his career after the mound was lowered in 1969 has retired in the 200/2-something Club. Maddux's application apparently will be lacking, but there is another pitcher -- and maybe the only one in sight -- who may break the drought.
Martinez, 33, began this week with 194 wins and a 2.72 ERA. He has three more seasons remaining on his contract with the Mets, after which he has hinted that he may not pitch again. Maddux's ERA at age 36 was 2.93. He has added 40 wins since the season in which he turned 36, bringing his lifetime total to 313, moving him past Seaver into 15th on the all-time list. He has moved up that chart, however, at the cost of a sub-three ERA, one of rarest of career feats for starting pitchers of postwar generations.