Rugby World Cup
This Week's Issue
Life of Reilly
SI for Women
CNN/SI - TV
Golf Pro Shop
MLB Gear Store
NFL Gear Store
SI FOR KIDS
The Book on Maddux
With Greg Maddux on his way to an unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award, SI asked the few hitters who have fared well against the Braves' ace to share their secrets
by Tim Crothers
Posted: Wed July 1, 1998
"If I could have hit against Greg Maddux every game, I'd be in the Hall of Fame," says Jeff Wetherby, nearly nine years after his long-forgotten encounter with Maddux on Sept. 2, 1989. Wetherby stepped into the batter's box on that warm Atlanta evening as a Braves pinch hitter against Maddux, then a member of the Chicago Cubs, with one out in the sixth inning. On a 2-and-1 count, Maddux threw a letter-high fastball and Wetherby swung through it, flailing so wildly that he tore his batting glove. At that moment Wetherby remembered how he had been ribbed unmercifully about his slow bat speed by Cubs catcher Rick Wrona, who had been one of his teammates in winter ball the previous off-season and was now behind the plate catching Maddux. So Wetherby choked up an inch or two and anticipated another heater. That's when Maddux committed a rare mistake. He threw a belt-high inside fastball that Wetherby launched 409 feet over the centerfield wall. The fact that Maddux and Chicago led 10-1 at the time is a trivial footnote...at least to Wetherby.
Wetherby is a member of an endangered species, a hitter who is proud of his record against Maddux in a world full of men who have failed to hit their weight against him. Like a broken record, Maddux just keeps repeating himself. At the rate he's going, he will win an unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award this year. (Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens are the only other pitchers to have won four.) He was 11-2 with a 1.64 ERA at week's end and could easily have been 13-2 if not for some shaky bullpen work. In his last 12 starts he had been especially impressive, with a 9-0 record and a 1.27 ERA. He had not allowed more than three runs in any of those outings and had handed the Baltimore Orioles their first shutout in 129 games. For the season, opponents were hitting just .213 against him.
Well, enough is enough. As a public service to all major league hittersespecially the truly hapless like Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros (2 for 27 lifetime against Maddux), Dodgers shortstop Jose Vizcaino (3 for 27) and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Ron Gant (8 for 50 with 13 strikeouts)SI recently launched a nationwide investigation into the secret of hitting Maddux. Our sources? The select few players who maintain bragging rights against Maddux in their careers.
So how exactly do you hit a guy who pitches each game as if he were filming an instructional video? To start with, remember that patience is not a virtue. This season Maddux has thrown a first-pitch strike 67.1% of the time. That means the first pitch is one of the best hitter's pitches the batter will see (see chart). "He's always going to be around the plate, so I try to be really aggressive against him," says Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Al Martin, who has hit .361 in 36 career at bats against Maddux. "Once he gets you deep in the count, he can carve you up, and when he gets two strikes on you, you're done."
Indeed, why wait? Through Sunday, Maddux had walked only 16 hitters this season; in one April stretch he faced 94 straight batters without issuing a free pass. He rarely even falls behind in the count. In a complete-game, four-hit, 6-2 victory over the Florida Marlins on June 17, Maddux threw three balls to a batter just once. For the season, he has thrown only 44 pitches on a 3-and-2 count and in those situations, batters have gotten just two hits.
While it is easy to understand why Clemens or Kerry Wood can dominate a game with overpowering fastballs, Maddux's foes point out that he doesn't have an intimidating fastball, curveball or slider. Instead they must combat his ball movement, change of speeds and location, location, location. "He throws a ball that looks like it's a foot and a half outside, and it breaks [back] over the outside corner with pinpoint accuracy," says Kansas City Royals outfielder Jeff Conine, a righthanded hitter who played the last five seasons in the National League and has hit .357 in 28 at bats against Maddux. "You've got to be able to control that outside corner by scooting up on the plate a little bit and looking to rightfield."
Naturally, as soon as you devise a strategy that seems to succeed against Maddux, he'll change the game. Braves manager Bobby Cox calls him the smartest player he's ever known, and others have called him the shrewdest scout in the sport. Nicknamed the Professor, Maddux admits that he looks for subtle signs in a hitter's behavior, such as the way a batter's back foot opens up slightly when he's trying to hit to the opposite field. "Maddux constantly changes his approach," says Colorado Rockies catcher Jeff Reed, a lefthanded hitter who has hit .317 in 60 at bats against Maddux. "So one at bat I might say I'm going to wait on the ball a long time and take him the other way, but if he's busting me inside, I'm going to change. It's a guessing game, and he probably knows me better than I know me."
Maddux seems to have a photographic memory, so five years later he still remembers the time he made a batter look bad on a certain pitch, and he'll fool him with it again. Many hitters also swear he's clairvoyant. "Sometimes I would see the sign and think, Why's he throwing that pitch?" says former Braves second baseman Mark Lemke, who's now with the Boston Red Sox. "Then the batter will pop it up. He'll work to a hitter's strength, only not when he's expecting it. It's like he knows what the hitter is looking for, so he throws the opposite."
Says Maddux, "In order to be a good pitcher, you've got to think like a hitter. Why do you think I sit beside our hitting coach every game when I'm not pitching? It ain't because I like him so much."
Another former Atlanta teammate, centerfielder Marquis Grissom, recalls a game against Florida in '96 when Maddux was struggling with his fastball. Unable to spot it with his usual precision, Maddux had to alter his preferred pattern against Gary Sheffield, then the Marlins' most dangerous hitter. "He told me, 'I'm going to throw him a slider and make him just miss it, so he hits it to the warning track,'" recalls Grissom, who is now with the Milwaukee Brewers. "Sheffield came up and, sure thing, he hit the ball to the track. That's just sickening, and he does that to a lot of hitters."
Grissom, who has hit .386 in 44 at bats against Maddux, believes that a batter can't go to the plate with any preconceived notion, because Maddux will outsmart him. A hitter has to hope Maddux will leave a pitch over the plate that he can handle. If that pitch arrives, Grissom says, the batter shouldn't overswing. At week's end Maddux had allowed only five home runs in '98. He rarely allows even a fly ball. About 72% of the balls put in play against him are hit on the ground. "That's why I never try to go deep," Reed says. "He pitches the corners, and he keeps the ball down. If you try to hit that pitch too hard, you lose your bat control and it's a ground ball to second base instead of a line drive."
It's hardly surprising to learn that the top active hitter in the National League with at least 20 at bats against Maddux is the equally cerebral Tony Gwynn, who has hit .459 and never struck out in 86 plate appearances. "I just hit what he throws and don't try to create something that's not there," Gwynn says. "I get my hits off him, but I probably haven't hit a ball hard off him in two years."
Apparently the only guy who doesn't secretly dread facing Maddux is, well, Maddux. "I wouldn't mind hitting off me because I know I'd see strikes and I wouldn't be overpowered and embarrassed," he says. "I might get tricked, but I wouldn't strike me out four times in a game."
When Maddux is asked whom he least likes to face, he first points to the opposing pitcher, because there's no satisfaction in pitching to a guy who's expected to make an out. (Of course, few hurlers are as tough to pitch to as Maddux, who was batting .302 at week's end.) The hitters Maddux hates to face come from the two extremes: the thinkers (such as Gwynn) and the hackers (such as the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and the Rockies' Vinny Castilla). But his most dread adversary is a little bit of both, Barry Bonds, who has hit .305 against him in 95 at bats, with eight homers and a .611 slugging percentage. "Bonds is one of the few players in baseball who walks up to the plate already in scoring position," Maddux says. "He is so dangerous because he can hit for average, he'll take his walk, and he has the ability to knock any pitch out of the ballpark."
On his list of antagonists Maddux neglects to name Franklin Stubbs, who has been out of the major leagues since 1995. However, Stubbs, a .232 career hitter in parts of 10 big league seasons, batted .500 against Maddux, the highest average for anyone with at least 20 at bats against him. Stubbs, a lefthanded hitter who acknowledges that he did his damage early in Maddux's career, before the Cy Youngs began piling up, studied countless videotapes of Maddux and made a specific adjustment. "I noticed that he'd strike guys out with that nasty fastball that starts inside and tails back over the plate, so I'd move back from the plate two or three inches to get the head of the bat on the ball," says Stubbs, now a rookie league manager in the Braves system. "I don't think it's a miracle cure, but it allowed me to get a few lucky hits off him. Even blind squirrels find nuts once in a while."
Which brings us back to Wetherby. While Maddux has gone on to get 153 victories (against only 74 losses) since allowing that unlikely homer, Wetherby had only 12 more at bats in his career and never got another hit. Wetherby still has the bat and ball that he used to hit the homer; they're mounted on a plaque in his office in Tampa, where he works as a scout for the Detroit Tigers. Nearly a decade later, Wetherby says he is still occasionally asked if he has any secrets to hitting Maddux. "I tell guys that he'll work away most of the time but keep you honest inside, so protect the plate and pray a lot," Wetherby says. "Believe me, if I had the real answer, I'd be sitting on a yacht, sipping beers and giving out advice on my cell phone to the entire National League."
If the right answer exists, Maddux isn't telling. As a recent conversation with him concluded, he was asked if he was at all dismayed about his archenemies' conspiring against him in this forum. "No, because I know most hitters are smart enough to lie," said Maddux with a devilish twinkle in his eye. "Just like I've been doing for the last 20 minutes."
Issue date: July 6, 1998
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.