When Greg Maddux was in his pitching prime, I spent several days in spring training talking with him about pitching and watching his baseball habits. Almost everything he said was new to me. He was elected to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, yet I have never heard any other pitcher mention his basic insights about pitching. What he did and why his keen mind had chosen to do it that way are largely unexplored.
This week, many will celebrate Maddux's 355 wins, the second-highest total in the last 100 years. His dual personality will get a knowing nod from friends: an average-sized nondescript everyman who could pass for a math teacher, but a tenacious Mad Dog on the mound. In a clubhouse ex-Braves president Stan Kasten said, “He's funny; he's totally nuts.” We'll never know the frat-house anecdotes that caused the most laughs or head shakes.
Maddux should be one of the most-copied pitchers ever, yet few would even know where to begin, because he seldom opened up about what he believed about pitching and why.
First, Maddux was convinced no hitter could tell the speed of a pitch with any meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.
“You just can't do it,” he said. Sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different releases points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher's hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.
“Except,” Maddux said, “for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”
Because of this inherent ineradicable flaw in hitters, Maddux's main goal was to “make all of my pitches look like a column of milk coming toward home plate.” Every pitch should look as close to every other as possible, all part of that “column of milk.” He honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed — like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, changeup 76.
One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux's catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher's glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg's pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.
Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn't taste quite right, he said, “That's all I got.”
Then he explained that I couldn't tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the latter the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.
But not entirely too late: Maddux didn't want swings and misses for strikeouts, but preferred weak defensive contact and easy outs. He sought pitches that looked hittable and identical — getting the hitter to commit to swing — but weren't. Any pitch that didn't conform to this, even if it looked good, was scrapped as inefficient.
“Greg was the only pitcher I've ever seen who never practiced from the wind-up between starts — only from the stretch,” Kasten said. “He said, 'From the wind-up, I only try to keep the ball in the park. I'm good at that. But the only time I have to really pitch is from the stretch with men on base. So that's all I practice.'”
Kasten wondered, “Why hasn't anyone else thought of that?”
When available, Maddux studied tape of every home run hit in the big leagues the previous day. That's all: homers. Where were the danger zones — location, location? Though he didn't try to maximize velocity or break, just late movement, Maddux did believe that almost perfect control of every pitch was the one essential gift for him. And he was a fanatic on command.
One day he pitched alone on an empty field except for his catcher. I've never seen a pitcher use an entire empty field for practice. And I have never seen one show much emotion in a supposedly meaningless practice period.
With no one to distract him, Maddux concentrated like an actual game. He might throw a dozen pitches and show nothing. But on the next, if he missed his spot badly, he would rip the air with a curse, his head snapping with the violence of his yell. Always the same word, like a gunshot; perhaps it hurt his throat, like self-punishment. But in a second, he was calm.
The final pitching product was one of the most elegant, intelligent and fierce self-creations in American sports. Maddux left hitters with an “I-am-stupid, kick-me” sign on their backs. He pitched complete games in much less than two hours without ever throwing one eye-popping pitch. Hundreds of pitchers could do it — in theory. No one else ever has. The sequence, the mind, the command, the intuition, the hauteur was all.
Few pitchers ever worked so quickly or showed such understated arrogance, like his dismissive snag of a shot back through the box or a third-out strut-off third strike — called — on a changeup or swing-back fastball.
From ages 26 to 32, he started 226 games, walked just 222 unintentionally with a 2.15 ERA and a 127-53 record (.706). How could he always seem so certain?
After retiring from the military, Maddux's father moved his family to Las Vegas, where he became a casino blackjack dealer. Growing up, Greg asked his dad if he worried about the large sums of money he might lose for his boss if someone got hot and went on a run. Might it cost him his job?
His father explained there were basic rules for a dealer: when to take a hit and when to hold. He simply had to do what he'd been taught. The odds were in favor of the casino, “the house.” Dad might have a bad night or bad week, but he told his son “in the end, the house always wins.”
Greg Maddux figured out early, and never forgot, that his next pitch was actually the next turn of the (baseball) card. With several pitches, four strike zone quadrants and many changes of speed, the variations were vast. Know their strengths; avoid them. The rest belonged to you — a stacked deck.
But behind every Maddux success was his utter confidence that, with a selection of masterfully controlled pitches that looked identical until the last second, hitters were fundamentally and forever at such a basic disadvantage that he was in complete command of his long-term fate.
“My dad never worried. He was 'the house,'” Maddux said.
After a nice little pause, a slight change of speeds, his sly hole-card grin snuck out.
“I am the house,” he said.