Greg Maddux was the greatest finesse pitcher of all time, as the story goes. Balls into tea cups and all that. Maddux had arguably the best command in baseball, as this bananas two-seam fastball amply demonstrates:
The Mad Dog turns 50 today and he probably still has filthy stuff. pic.twitter.com/24Ueek4iIo— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) April 14, 2016
There is a complication in the whole finesse pitcher argument. Fans, writers, and analysts too often use it to set up a philosophical dichotomy between a guy like Maddux and a guy like Randy Johnson. Johnson had the nasty stuff and the big fastball, whereas Maddux rarely topped 90 miles per hour and worked the corners with his changeup. Johnson was a bulldozer; Maddux was a surgeon.
Nobody would deny that Johnson struck a ton of guys out or that Maddux could hit his spots and induce a lot of ground balls. Of course, Maddux was also the most efficient pitcher of his generation to the point where he had a pitching feat named after him. Here’s the truth about Greg Maddux, though: He was a power pitcher too.
Why has this been ignored when Maddux’s legacy is discussed? It mostly has to do with how we understand the concept of a “power pitcher.” A power pitcher, we have been led to believe, is a player who throws really hard and has a vicious secondary pitch that can induce a lot of strikeouts. Johnson, for example, threw serious gas at a time when fastballs above 95 miles per hour weren’t nearly as common as they are now. His slider was devastating, maybe one of the greatest sliders of all time, especially when Johnson could throw it hard. Johnson’s strikeout rates certainly speak for themselves, so there’s no revisionism when it comes to the Big Unit as a power pitcher.
Maddux’s fastball hovered in the low 90s in the prime of his career, so he never had the velocity to qualify as a power pitcher. That didn’t matter too much, because not only did Maddux rarely walk anyone and get tons of grounders in his prime, he also sat plenty of hitters down.
Take a look at his strikeout rate compared with the league average in each season of his prime, along with his MLB rank among qualified starters.
|K%||League Average K%||MLB Rank|
1995 should jump out at you. Maddux won four NL Cy Young awards in a row, but most consider his 1995 campaign with the Braves to be his greatest ever. He was a strikeout machine. Only Johnson, Hideo Nomo, and John Smoltz topped his strikeout rate that season.
It makes sense that Maddux was a power pitcher as well as a finesse pitcher. The above gif perfectly illustrates how Maddux was not only able to hit his spots all the time but also had nasty movement that kept hitters off balance. Of course hitters got rung up! Would you want to face a two-seamer that looks like it’s gonna be inside only to tail out and catch the corner at the very last second? Maddux didn’t need velocity to strike guys out, but strike guys out he did.
Maddux matured in perhaps the first true age of the power pitcher. Those guys had always been around, but usually they stood alone. Suddenly, Maddux was competing with the likes of Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and above all, Roger Clemens. They redefined the concept of a power pitcher. Maddux had great control and wasn’t a superhuman strikeout factory like the rest of them, so you couldn’t be at fault for not adding him to the conversation.
He was in that conversation, however. Maddux’s prime lasted from 1991 to 1998. Among pitchers who logged at least 1,500 innings in that time, only five surpassed his 19.5 percent strikeout rate. Maddux may have done his job with a scalpel, but he owned you just as brutally as the Big Unit.
This is not an insignificant quibble, either. More than a couple people have compared the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks to Maddux due to the low velocity and impeccable command. Hendricks, however, has an elite defense playing behind him, something that helps when you generate ground balls at alarming rates. Hendricks strikes guys out at only about a league-average rate. If his defensive support were different, that sparkly ERA he is sporting might creep up. If he stopped getting calls around the edges of the zone, his margin for error would vanish.
This is not to denigrate Hendricks, whose contact suppression is definitely a skill in part. Hendricks may start getting more strikeouts as he develops, something that happened to Maddux as his career progressed. Rather, it serves to illustrate that, while walk and contact suppression are big parts of a pitcher’s skill, strikeouts are just as big, if not bigger.
Greg Maddux had it all. He was many things when on the mound—durable, efficient, and in complete control of his arsenal. He was also a power pitcher. It’s high time the history books reflected that.
Evan Davis is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.