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Once in a Life time
Tom Verducci
August 14, 1995
Greg Maddux of the Braves is the best righthander in the past 75 years—but he would rather you didn't know it
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August 14, 1995

Once In A Life Time

Greg Maddux of the Braves is the best righthander in the past 75 years—but he would rather you didn't know it

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Pitcher, Team

Years

ERA

League ERA

Pct.

GREG MADDUX, Cubs, Braves

1992-95

2.02

3.95

51.1

TOM SEAVER, Mets

1968-71

2.25

3.54

63.6

JIM PALMER, Orioles

1975-78

2.49

3.79

65.7

DWIGHT GOODEN, Mets

1984-87

2.46

3.74

65.8

ROGER CLEMENS, RedSox

1987-90

2.77

4.05

68.4

BOB GIBSON, Cardinals

1965-68

2.33

3.38

68.9

ROR FELLER, Indians

1938-41

3.15

4.48

70.3

The best righthanded pitcher born in the past 100 years walks among us today. His career is a masterpiece, available for all to see every fifth day or so as he works atop the pitching mounds of National League ballparks. The rest of us, should we recognize our good fortune, could be eyewitnesses to genius. Did you see van Gogh paint? No, you could respond, but I saw Greg Maddux pitch.

Or maybe you haven't noticed, which is precisely the way Gregory Alan Maddux of the Atlanta Braves would prefer it. He is as consistent as a metronome and, to the casual eye, about as exciting. Despite his unprepossessing frame, he has won three consecutive National League Cy Young Awards and is a virtual lock to win his fourth, with a 12-1 record and a league-leading 1.74 ERA at week's end. Yet Maddux still doesn't have a single major endorsement deal. He is the wallflower who begged out of starting last month's All-Star Game, thus allowing baseball's 1995 media sensation, Hideo Nomo, to start in his place. Maddux's claim that he had a slight leg injury smelled fishier than yesterday's sushi, but it allowed him to stay comfortably in the shadows, away from the national spotlight.

"A hitter will get, say, 600 at bats over a year," Maddux says. "He may see me only six or seven times out of those 600. I'm not going to do anything or say anything that makes him remember me."

"It's amazing," says fellow Brave hurler John Smoltz, "that in this day and age he's kept such a low profile after all he's done. He doesn't want you to figure him out. If you don't know where he's coming from, he's got you."

What sets Maddux apart is an analytical, Pentium-quick mind that constantly processes information no one else sees. At home in Las Vegas he is a formidable poker player, detecting when an opponent has a good hand by the way he strokes his chin or suddenly stops fiddling with his chips. Maddux uses a numerical system in his head that tells him when to stand and when to hit at the blackjack table. But he is even better at analyzing hitters—so good that four times this year, while seated next to Smoltz in the dugout, he has warned, "This guy's going to hit a foul ball in here." Three of those times a foul came screeching into the dugout.

If his radar is that sensitive while kicking back in the dugout, imagine the clues he uncovers while bearing down on the mound. Says teammate Tom Glavine, the last National Leaguer to win the Cy Young Award before Maddux made it his personal property, "I think he's got a gift. He's able to notice things in the course of a game that no one else can—the way a hitter may open up a little, move up in the box an inch, change his stance. I've tried to be aware of that stuff. I really have. But I'm so focused on what I'm trying to do. I don't know how he does it."

This seeming omniscience is complemented by Maddux's mastery of the subtle side of pitching: the movement and location of his pitches. That's how he can dominate without a signature pitch, without anything close to the menace of Bob Gibson's fastball or the treachery of Sandy Koufax's curve. "The more you know about baseball, the more you appreciate Greg Maddux," says Jim Guadagno, who compiles the Braves' statistical data bases. "He gets away with stuff nobody else does. You're always asking, 'How does he do it?' There is always this 10 percent that is the mystery of him. He likes that."

The mystery of Maddux. Maybe 1% of it gets peeled back with this fact he would rather you not know: Over the past four seasons Maddux has been the greatest righthanded pitcher since Walter Johnson, who was born in 1887—so long ago that van Gogh, another chap whose prime passed without proper notice, was still alive.

No righthander has been this good for this long since the Dead Ball era ended in 1920, after which even Johnson, who had ERAs lower than 2.00 for 11 of his first 13 seasons, never again did better than 2.72. Since then, and assuming Maddux maintains something close to his current rate of efficiency for his last 10 or 11 starts of 1995, only two pitchers will have had four consecutive seasons with an ERA of 2.40 or better: Koufax (1963-66) and Maddux (1992-95). And Koufax had his run before the mound was lowered in 1969. What Maddux has done is put up Dead Ball numbers in a Rabbit Ball era.

You scoff. How could this guy who finished a game last month against the San Francisco Giants throwing 81-mph fast-balls be better than Gibson, Bob Feller, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer or even Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden? Because Maddux outshines them all when measured by the fairest means of comparing pitchers of different periods: individual ERA relative to league ERA. It sizes up a pitcher against his contemporaries, the pitchers who are facing the same hitters over the same period of time (box, page 28).

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