July 29, 2014

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part I: Not a K-Man, But Dominant Nonetheless

November 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Greg Maddux, in his first year of eligibility, is among the headliners on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot.  Even among Hall of Fame pitchers, there are very few whose dominance on the mound is so vastly superior to the average pitcher every year for at least five years running that they count as epic.  Greg Maddux is the outlier among these pitchers because he alone among them was not a big strikeout pitcher relative to the context of the times.   This Baseball Historical Insight is the first of two on the unique Maddux phenomenon: a dominating pitcher without overpowering stuff.   

It is often said that the game’s dominant pitchers, in the past as well as today, are the K-men–power pitchers whose strikeout ratios are significantly higher than those of the average pitcher.  It is somewhat counterintuitive, then, given how we think about a pitcher’s dominance over an extended period of time, to count the seven years Greg Maddux had from 1992 to 1998 among the most dominating of any pitcher in modern history (since the birth of the American League in 1901).

Using both the wins above average pitcher and wins above replacement pitcher metrics for player value and the advanced statistic of “adjusted ERA” (also referred to as “ERA+”)–which normalizes a pitcher’s earned run average for both the context of the time and for his home park–as a baseline for assessing a pitcher’s dominance over at least five consecutive years, some of the greatest pitchers in history (Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan to name a few) are not among this group, not because they didn’t have outstanding seasons that were better than virtually all of their peers for as many consecutive years, but because their margins of superiority over the league average in some years was not as great.

Going back in time, the other pitchers being considered in this analysis as having dominated their time include Walter Johnson from 1910 to 1916, when he won 199, lost 100, and never had an earned run average higher than 1.90 (the Big Train’s ERA for the seven years was 1.56 in 2,485 innings); Grover Cleveland Alexander–later best known as “Pete”–from his rookie season in 1911 to 1917, during which he won 190, lost only 88, and had three consecutive seasons (1915-17) of 30 wins and ERAs well under 2.00; Lefty Grove from 1928 to 1933 (152-41 for a phenomenal .788 winning percentage), which included four consecutive ERA titles and a 31-4 record in 1931; Bob Feller from 1939 to 1947 (not including four years when he was serving in World War II), with five consecutive 20-win seasons, leading the American League each time; and Sandy Koufax, whose performance from 1961 to 1966 was said in my youth to rival that of Lefty Grove for the best five or six years any pitcher ever had at any time (verbal redundancy deliberate).  Koufax voluntarily retired because of crippling arthritis in his pitching elbow after back-to-back 26-8 and 27-9 seasons, and finished with five straight National League ERA titles, during which his earned run average was 1.95 over 1,377 often painful innings.

More recent claimants to such a string of outstanding seasons on the mound include Roger Clemens in his Boston years from 1986 to 1992, which included four ERA titles; Pedro Martinez from 1997 to 2003 (including an injury-curtailed 2001 season when he made only 18 starts), with 5 ERA titles, an ERA of 2.20 during those years, and a .766 (118-36) winning percentage; Randy Johnson from 1997 to 2004 (including an injury-curtailed 2003 season when he made only 18 starts), who led his league in winning percentage three times and in ERA three times; and Maddux from 1992 to 1998.  After winning his first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards in 1992 with a 20-11 record for the Chicago Cubs, who were six games under .500 for the season, Maddux  won 107 and lost only 42 for a .718 winning percentage in his first six years with the Atlanta Braves, had an ERA of 2.15, leading the league four times, and allowed less than one base runner per inning.

Maddux did not once lead the National League in strikeouts, although he was in the top five six times and in five consecutive seasons from 1991 to 1995 was in the top three in total Ks.  His ratio of strikeouts-to-innings pitched, however, was typically only marginally better than the league average.  Greg Maddux was not a K-man.  Each of the others won at least two strikeout titles during their best consecutive seasons being considered in this analysis, and their strikeout ratios were much better than the league average.

In the first half of the century, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Bob Feller figured in one of those great baseball debates–the one about which of the three had the most overpowering fastball.  Johnson led the AL in Ks 12 times during his career, including eight seasons in a row, and twice struck out more than 300 in the dead ball era, when teams averaged only 4.2 strikeouts per game.  Grove also led the league in strikeouts eight consecutive times.  Feller won seven straight strikeout titles (discounting his four war years when he had priorities other than throwing a baseball at blazing speed), including 348 in 1946 for a strikeout ratio of 8.4 per nine innings that was nearly double the league average of 4.3.  Pete Alexander may not have been in the fastest-ever discussion, but he led the NL in Ks in five of the seven years he was at his best.

That Maddux’s strikeout ratio of 6.9 per nine innings from 1992 to 1998 was higher than Alexander’s ratio in any one season, was exceeded only twice in any season by Walter Johnson (both times when he struck out 300 batters), and was better over seven years than the highest single-season K ratio achieved by Grove–whose fastball was nonetheless legendary–was only because Maddux pitched in an era when hitters were much more disciplined and focused on making contact.  Indeed, throughout the first half of the 20th century, striking out was an embarrassment for most hitters.  (Well, maybe not for the Babe, but even he never struck out more than 93 times in a season.)  Indicative of the difference between then and now, fireballer Feller and finesse artist Maddux had exactly the same 6.1 strikeout ratio per nine innings for their career.  In the only season Maddux corralled 200 Ks (1998), his career-high 7.8 strikeout ratio matched Feller’s second-highest K ratio–in 1938 when Rapid Robert won his first strikeout title with 240.

Strikeout ratios for power pitchers increased dramatically after the 1950s, and Maddux’s 6.9 K-rate in his best years from 1992 to 1998 pales in comparison to those of Koufax, Clemens, Martinez, and Randy Johnson–not to mention other great power pitchers like Seaver and Ryan.  Sandy Koufax exceeded 10 Ks per nine innings five times in his career, including when he set a new major league strikeout record with 382 in 335.2 innings in 1965 (broken by Nolan Ryan with one K to spare in 1973).  In 18 of his 24 years on the mound, Roger Clemens (who led the AL in Ks five times) averaged at least 8 strikeouts per nine innings.  Pedro Martinez, meanwhile, struck out more than one batter an inning nine consecutive years with a K-ratio of 10.8 from 1996 to 2004, including 13.2 with 313 strikeouts in 213.1 innings in 1999. Randy Johnson, The Big Unit, led the major leagues in Ks every year from 1998 to 2002, averaging 350 over those five years with a strikeout ratio of 12.4 per nine innings pitched, and led the majors again with 290 in 2004.

Greg Maddux was most definitely not a dominating power pitcher. He was an artist who pitched with command and finesse. Yet from 1992 to 1998, the years he was at his best, Maddux was one of the most dominant pitchers of all time.  My next post in Baseball Historical Insight will explain why.

Bryan Soderholm-Difatte is a frequent contributor to the Society for American Baseball Research’s flagship publication, The Baseball Research Journal; has presented at each of SABR’s last four annual conventions; and is author of the online manuscript http://www.thebestbaseballteams.com/.  His work can also be found at Baseball Historical Insight.

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