There have been plenty of great players over the years to don an Atlanta Braves uniform. Names such as Henry Aaron, Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy immediately come to mind. Our focus today however will be on perhaps the greatest pitcher of the modern era. The Braves of the 90s were known for pitching and their vaunted staff produced three Hall of Fame players, but none stood out more so than Greg Maddux.
At first glance, there was nothing intimidating about Maddux. He was just a skinny kid weighing all of 145 pounds when he showed up to Pikeville, Kentucky for his first season as a professional in the Appalachian League. Chicago drafted Maddux in the second round of the 1984 Draft out of Valley high school in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Maddux would make his Major League debut for the Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 2, 1986 as a 20-year-old against the Houston Astros allowing a home run to Billy Hatcher in the 18th inning of an 8-7 loss. He would largely struggle the next season posting a 5.61 ERA in 155 2/3 innings. However, things would start to click in 1988 as he would make 34 starts while posting a 3.18 ERA in 249 innings. He made the first of eight trips to the All-Star Game that summer and began to establish himself among the best pitchers in the game.
Over the next four seasons, Maddux would go 69-49 for Chicago with a 2.97 ERA in just over 1,000 innings. He struck out 676 batters and walked just 289. He was rewarded with the NL Cy Young Award in 1992 when he won 20 games for the first time with a 2.18 ERA in 268 innings. Ironically, that would be Maddux’s final season with Chicago until he returned to close out his career.
Maddux signed a five-year, $28 million deal with the Braves and turned down a bigger offer from the New York Yankees for a chance to win. Atlanta had already been to the World Series in 1991 and 1992 largely on the backs of a strong starting rotation. Now they were adding arguably the best pitcher in the game in Maddux. His joining the Braves would begin one of the most dominant stretches by a pitcher in the modern era.
Maddux would win 20 games again in 1993 while leading the league with a 2.36 ERA and innings pitched at 267. He won his second straight Cy Young Award but that Braves team fell short during the postseason. Maddux took his game to an even higher level in the strike shortened season of 1994 leading the league with a 1.56 ERA while throwing 202 innings in just 25 starts earning him yet another Cy Young Award. Maddux’s crowning achievement would come the next season when he posted a 19-2 record with a 1.63 ERA in 209 2/3 innings. More importantly, he helped the Braves to their first and only World Series win over Cleveland.
Maddux agreed to a five-year, $57.5 million contract extension in August of 1997 which made him the highest paid player in the game eclipsing Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and Cleveland slugger Albert Belle. One of my favorite Maddux stories came during that 1997 season when he returned to Wrigley and tossed a complete game defeating the Cubs 4-1 while throwing just 78 pitches. Maddux was a wizard in terms of pinpoint control. He was every bit as dominant on the mound as the big strikeout pitchers that are currently lighting up radar guns around the league. He relied on his pitching smarts and precision for success and that was never more on display than that game in Chicago.
Maddux’s run with the Braves would continue throughout the length of that contract and he would return for an additional season in 2003 at the age of 37.
Maddux’s numbers with the Braves would have been a great career in their own right. He recorded a 194-88 record with a 2.63 ERA in over 2,500 innings. He accumulated 1,828 strikeouts in an Atlanta uniform and walked just 383.
After leaving Atlanta, Maddux would pitch five more seasons. He would return to the Cubs and would also pitch for the Dodgers and Padres before retiring in 2008. His career numbers look like a misprint. He tallied 355 wins, a 3.16 ERA in 5,008 1/3 innings. He struck out 3,371 batters and walked 999. While the win stat has largely been devalued in today’s game, it was different in Maddux’s era. His team’s won games and more often than not, it was due to his performance. As such, Maddux was inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27, 2014 on his first try, capturing a record 555 votes and 97 percent of the electorate.
If you were a fan of those 90s era Braves teams then you understand Maddux’s greatness. He played for a Hall of Fame manager in Bobby Cox, a third baseman in Chipper Jones and was part of a rotation that featured Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz so it was often easy to overlook him. Still, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest pitchers of our generation and it was always a joy to watch.