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Starting Nine: A study in No. 31, Greg Maddux

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The deep dive into the Braves’ retired numbers continues with one of the defining arms of the Expansion Era

MLB: Baseball Hall of Fame-Induction Ceremony
In the Expansion Era, Greg Maddux is one of only five pitchers with 250 or more wins who rank in the top 10 in Baseball Reference WAR, ERA, ERA+ and wins.
Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

They tried to convince us that chicks dug the long ball, but in Braves Country, they we know they instead dug pin-point accuracy and living on the edges of the plate just a little bit more.

Greg Maddux was the epitome of that, winning three straight Cy Young Awards in Atlanta and in 11 seasons was a six-time All-Star, going 194-88 with a 2.63 ERA, a 163 ER+ and collecting Gold Gloves as if they were cheaper the dozen.

Of could have turned out very different. In the winter of 1992, the Braves had a deal on the table with the Pirates for Barry Bonds — sending Pittsburgh reliever Alejandro Pena, outfielder Keith Mitchell and a yet-to-be-named prospect — but it was shut down with help from manager Jim Leyland. Then when the Braves’ pursuit turned to Maddux, they had competition from the Yankees, who offered him five years at $34 million with a $9 million signing bonus, but he turned it down to join the Braves for $28 million over five years. The reason?

“The decision for me — at the time, I was an NL player and there was an opportunity for me to go to Atlanta. You’ve got to remember, this is 1992, too. The Braves were really good in 1991, 1992. And I had an opportunity to go there and my decision back then — I wanted to stay in the NL and I wanted the chance to be a World Series winner. Back then, I kind of thought Atlanta would have fit both of those needs.”

The Professor made the right choice as the anchor of one of the greatest trios any staff has boasted. As we continue our deep dive of the Braves’ retired numbers, we zero in on No. 31, Greg Maddux.

A study in No. 3 Dale Murphy

A study in No. 6 Bobby Cox

A study in No. 10 Chipper Jones

A study in No. 21 Warren Spahn

A study in No. 29 John Smoltz

1. A defining arm of the Expansion Era

With all due respect to John Smoltz and Tom Glavine — the latter pitching what amounts to the most important game in Atlanta history, when he willed the willed the Braves to a title in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series — joining Maddux in the big three of his era are Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. Since the start of the Expansion Era (1961-on), among starters with at least 250 wins, Clemens leads in Baseball Reference WAR (138.7) and ERA+ (143), is second in wins (354) and fourth in ERA (3.12); Maddux is first in wins (355), third in ERA+ (132), third in bWAR (104.8) and fifth in ERA (3.14); Johnson is second in ERA+ (135), fourth in bWAR (103.5), ninth in ERA (3.29) and 10th in wins (303). They are — in that range of 250-plus wins — among only five pitchers to rank in the top 10 in each of those categories (bWAR, ERA, ERA+ and wins) over the last 59 years, joined by Tom Seaver and Gaylord Perry. Seaver played his last game when Maddux was a rookie in 1986, and Perry’s career was done three years before that, so that list — Clemens, Johnson and Maddux — represents the best of the best during Maddux’s ride. If we’re adding in hardware, Clemens has seven Cy Youngs to five from Johnson, while Maddux won four, and Clemens has something the other two don’t, an MVP. Of course, he has also the steroids cloud hanging over him, something that never haunted Johnson nor Maddux, and which only strengthens those two’s accomplishments in the eyes of many. PED talk aside, Clemens may be the only one with the complete resume to rival or even surpass Maddux, but the point is, from the late-1980s on, baseball’s pitching kings have been that trio, and the ace of the Braves greatest rotations has an argument to be the best of the bunch.

2. Maddux at his best (1995)

He had a career-best FanGraphs WAR in 1997 at 8.0, won 20 games in 1992 and ‘92 and his top ERA (1.63) was in the strike-shortened season of 1994. But from a complete resume standpoint, Maddux was at his very best in 1995, when he had a 7.9 fWAR to go with a 1.63 ERA while going 19-2 in 25 starts with a 2.26 FIP. He would led the majors in wins, winning percentage (.905), ERA, complete games (10), shutouts (three), innings pitched (209 2/3) ER+ (260), WHIP (0.811), HR/9 *0.3), BB/9 (1.0) and SO/W (7.87), while winning the third of four straight Cy Youngs. Maddux earned every first-place nod in that Cy Young voting and finished third in the MVP voting, and given today’s analytical lens probably would have beaten out the Reds’ Barry Larkin to become the ninth pitcher to take both awards. Maddux’s fWar was 2.6 higher than the Cincinnati shortstop and was 0.2 better than any other NL player.

3. A Maddux and a new definition of dominance

The invention of writer Jason Lukehart in 2012 as a tribute to his favorite pitcher, the “Maddux” requires a complete game shutout in fewer than 100 pitches. There have been 341 instances of a Maddux since 1988 by 261 different pitchers, and fittingly, the Braves have the most with 22 — the latest coming via Shelby Miller in his All-Star season of 2015 — and no one has more than Maddux himself with 13 (Zane Smith is second with seven). Five Madduxes were thrown in 2019, the last of which was from the MarinersYusei Kikuchi on Aug. 18, 2019, when it took him 96 pitches. Glavine has five such games on his resume, and Steve Avery had one, but missing from the list of 261 arms to complete the feat: Smoltz.

4. The only thing missing on this great’s resume

It remains one of the most stunning footnotes from the era of the Big Three that neither Glavine, nor Maddux, nor Smoltz was able to throw a no-hitter in their shared time in a Braves uniform, the lone instance coming via Kent Mercker on April 8, 1994. That was arguably the only thing missing any of the three-headed monster’s Hall of Fame resumes, with Maddux throwing nine one-hitters in his career (seven with Atlanta). But to tell Eddie Perez — who caught 121 of the 363 starts Maddux made for the Braves — the right-hander didn’t throw a no-hitter, because, simply, it didn’t appeal to him. “Even umpires would ask me, ‘Hey, has he ever thrown a no-hitter?’” Perez told me. “I told them, ‘I don’t think he wants to throw a no-hitter.’” Maddux did come mind-numbingly close at 40 years old on Aug. 3, 2006 with the Dodgers, when he had no-hit the Reds through six innings before rain hit Great American Ballpark. After a 46-minute wait, with Los Angeles up 2-0, Maddux bowed out. “If it was five or six runs, I’d love to have gone out there and rolled the dice a little bit,” Maddux said. “But two runs in this ballpark? It’s easy to hit home runs here and they’ve got a lot of guys who can do it. I mean, what are the odds? If it was a bigger lead I would love to have tried it, but it’s not about me. This was a game we needed to win.”

5. The Gold (Glove) standard for pitchers

Maddux’s career defensive WAR is nothing special. At 0.1 over his 23 seasons, that has the righty 80th overall and tied with the likes of his former rotation mate Steve Avery — Steve Carlton, Clay Carroll, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton lead at 0.4 dWAR — and he’s 14th in defensive runs saved at the position (25), four behind Tom Glavine and he trails all-time leader Mark Buehrle by a whopping 62. Let them have those statistical records, for Maddux has more hardware than, well, anyone. His 18 Gold Gloves are not just the most for any pitcher, but two more than any other position player has at their defensive spot. Said Chipper Jones of Maddux’s defensive acumen: “How can you just stick your glove out and catch the ball even when your eyes are turned because of your delivery? He seems to do it. And when you have that, it’s like having another shortstop in the middle of the field.”

6. An unmatchable consistency

Regardless of how you view wins in the age of analytics, they paint part of the picture of just how dominant Maddux was for an unprecedented amount of time. In 1987, Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA, then rattled off 17 straight seasons (1988-2004) of 15 or more wins and had a 2.83 ERA in that span. Those 17 straight seasons of 15 or more wins are two more than the previous record, set by none other than Cy Young. As John Smoltz said in 2003, when Maddux was on the verge of breaking Young’s mark: “That says it all. This record is not tainted. This is going to be one of the best records ever.”

7. The Clairvoyant One

There are countless stories of an ability to read into tendencies that you can quantify as Maddux seeing into the baseball future, or simply being the thinking-man’s ace. The best I’ve been told first-hand came via Marquis Grissom, who before the Braves were to face Barry Bonds. “I’m going to make him hit it to the warning track,” Maddux said to the center fielder. “I’m going to make the ball move just enough and he’s going to hit it to the warning track in left-center. I know he can hit it out of right field but make him hit it to left-center and you can catch it on the track.” When he was ready, Maddux turned to Grissom and pointed to the left, and, just as he had foretold, when Bonds made contact, it died on the warning track.

8. Number also retired by the Cubs

Maddux is one of 63 Hall of Fame inductees to have a plaque without a team, something that was a touchy subject when he announced he wouldn’t be picking sides between the Braves and Cubs. Maddux summed it up justly: “I can’t think of having my Hall of Fame plaque induction without support of both of those fan bases, so, for that reason, the cap on my Hall of fame plaque will not feature a logo.” Maddux did, after all, pitch 11 seasons for the Braves and 10 with the Cubs, winning a Cy Young in both uniforms. The Cubs also retired Maddux’s number, a multi-city legacy has him in unique company as one of only eight men — not including Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which is retired with every franchise — to have their digits so honored with multiple teams along with Hank Aaron (Braves, Brewers), Rod Carew (Twins, Angels), Rollie Fingers (A’s, Brewers), Carlton Fisk (Red Sox, White Sox), Reggie Jackson (A’s, Yankees), Frank Robinson (Reds, Orioles) and Casey Stengel (Yankees, Mets).

9. Yes, we’ll end on the gross stuff

Former teammate David Wells called Maddux “The Silent Scumbag,” who was known to urinate on teammates in the shower; he’d light guys’ shoes on fire; he’d rear end other players’ rental cars at stops until their bumpers fell off, and when he got into those rental cars he was known to spit tobacco juice everywhere. But maybe the highest on the Mad Dog Disgusting Scale was via Tom Glavine, who recounted his rotation mate going into other players’ lockers, taking out their shirts wiping his butt with them and putting them back into their locker. Basically, the dude was extremely gross.