March 20, 2019

The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part II: Maddux at His Best–NL’s Best Pitcher in the 20th Century

December 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Notwithstanding his recognized place as one of the greatest pitchers in history, Greg Maddux is not a name one normally associates with being one of the most dominant pitchers in history.  This Baseball Historical Insight makes a case, however, (which I acknowledge is likely a minority viewpoint) for Maddux when he was at his best from 1992 to 1998, without being a dominating power pitcher, being arguably more dominant than any other pitcher in the National League over a minimum of five consecutive years in the 20th century. 

When talking about the best players in major league history we tend to think in terms of the totality of their careers.  Inherent in those evaluations is what each individual player accomplished when they were in their prime, during their best years, but ultimately the discussion usually comes down to bottom line career numbers–like 3,000 hits or 300 wins. With a lifetime record of 355-227 and the fifth-most victories of any major league pitcher since the beginning of the 20th century, Greg Maddux is a lock to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility next year.  His excellence duly recognized, Maddux, I believe, is nonetheless under-appreciated for the dominating pitcher he was.  My previous post focused on Maddux being unique among the most dominant pitchers in that he alone among them was not dominating in the classical sense of being a power pitcher, or a big strikeout pitcher in the context of his times.  The mild-mannered appearance of Maddux on the mound belied his Mad Dog competitiveness, as though Clark Kent did his super deeds without bothering to change into his Superman tights and cape.

Looking at a pitcher’s minimum of five consecutive years when he was at his best using the wins above the average pitcher and wins above replacement metrics and taking account of “adjusted ERA” (also referred to as “ERA+”)–which normalizes a pitcher’s earned run average for both the context of the time and his team’s home park–can be revealing as to which pitchers were the best when they were at their best.  Based on their best years, the pitchers being considered in this analysis are, in order of appearance with their best years in parenthesis:  Walter Johnson (1910-16); Pete Alexander (1911-17); Lefty Grove (1928-33); Bob Feller (1939-47, not including 1942-45 when he was serving in World War II); Sandy Koufax (1961-66); Roger Clemens (1986-92); Maddux (1992-98); Randy Johnson (1997-2004); and Pedro Martinez (1997-2003).  The fact that some of the indisputably greatest pitchers in history (Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan, for example) are not considered in this analysis is only because their margins of superiority over the league average pitcher was not as great in some of their best years.  Their absence from this analysis is not in any way to suggest they were not dominant pitchers, perhaps even better for the course of their careers than those being considered here, including Maddux.

Unlike the other pitchers in this analysis, each of who led the league in strikeouts at least twice during their best years and had strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratios much better than the league average, Maddux’s K-ratio was typically only marginally better than the league average.  K-Man, Maddux surely was not, but his basic numbers for his best years of 1992 to 1998 are impressive:  127 wins against only 53 losses for a .706 winning percentage, an ERA of 2.15, a walks/hits-per inning pitched (WHIP) ratio under 1.00 at 0.97, and control so good that he allowed only 1.4 walks per nine innings.  And 40 of his 269 walks in 1,675.1 innings during those seven years were intentional, accounting for 15 percent of the total bases on balls he surrendered.  After going 20-11 for the 1992 Cubs, who finished the season with a record six games below .500, and signing with the Braves as a free agent, Maddux won 107 and lost only 42 for a .718 winning percentage and had a 2.15 ERA in his first six years with Atlanta from 1993 to 1998.

In 1994, Maddux became the sixth pitcher to win three Cy Young Awards (after Koufax, Seaver, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, and Clemens, who would end up with seven for his career) and the first to win the award three straight times.  (Koufax, Denny McLain, Palmer, and Clemens had won back-to-back Cy Youngs before Maddux.)  The next year, Maddux won his fourth straight Cy Young Award, becoming at the same time the first pitcher ever to win the award that often.  (Randy Johnson matched him with four straight when he was pitching for Arizona between 1999 and 2002, which gave The Big Unit five for his career.)  The last two of his Cy Young Awards, Maddux was the unanimous winner.

After winning 20 games back-to-back in 1992 and 1993, Maddux most likely would have had four straight 20-win seasons were it not for the players’ strike/owners’ lockout that shortchanged the 1994 and 1995 seasons.  He was 16-6, leading the league in both wins and a 1.56 ERA, when the 1994 season was terminated on August 12, only 114 games into the schedule; Maddux would have had at least nine, and possibly ten, more starts had the season been played to completion.  And in 1995, Maddux finished the shortened-to-154-game season with a 19-2 record and a league-leading 1.63 ERA, having missed two starts while the owners and the players union deliberated on ending their standoff.  (Oakland’s Dave Stewart was the last major league pitcher to win 20 games four years in a row, from 1987 to 1990, with not nearly the relative dominance of Mad Dog Maddux.)

Aside from the basic numbers, the case for Maddux as arguably the most dominant National League pitcher in the 20th century includes the fact that his adjusted ERA was more than 150 percent better than the average National League pitcher in 1994 and 1995 and close to twice as good two other years.  Maddux had the league’s best adjusted ERA every year from 1992 to 1995 and again in 1998.  Among the NL pitchers being considered in this analysis, Pete Alexander had an adjusted ERA more than 50 percent better than the league average only three times–in each of his 30-win seasons from 1915 to 1917–and Koufax’s adjusted ERA was more than 50 percent better than the league average only in his last four years before crippling pain in his arthritic left elbow forced his retirement.  Both had the league’s best adjusted ERA only twice during their best years.  Randy Johnson alone is in the argument about whether he or Maddux was the most dominant pitcher in NL history since 1901 based on their “best years,” but his best years in the National League straddled the 20th and this century, and while his adjusted ERA was the best in the league every year between 1999 and 2004, except for when injury limited him to only 18 starts and 114 innings in 2003, he never doubled the league average.

Among the American League pitchers being considered in this analysis, Lefty Grove–who had the AL’s best adjusted ERA four years running at 50 percent better than the league average from 1929 to 1932–and Roger Clemens, who led the league three times between 1986 and 1992, both had only one year in which their adjusted ERA was more than double the league average.  Bob Feller in his best years never led the league in adjusted ERA, probably done in by his wildness.  Walter Johnson’s seven best years from 1910 to 1916 were probably the best of any major league pitcher in the 20th century; his adjusted ERAs relative to the league average over his best years were marginally superior to Maddux’s, and his basic numbers much better.  Johnson, however, pitched in the very different  dead ball era, whereas Maddux’s best years encompassed the first half of the so-called “steroids” era when, as he and Atlanta pitching sidekick Tom Glavine commiserated in a commercial at the time, “chicks dig the long ball.”

Pedro Martinez has the strongest case for best years that were the most dominant in baseball history, for his between 1997 (his last year with Montreal before traded on the cusp of his free agency to Boston) and 2003.  In five separate seasons, Martinez’s adjusted ERA was more than double the league average–and in 2000, nearly triple.  Martinez, however, did not have the durability of Greg Maddux who, rarely missing a start, led the league in innings pitched four straight years from 1992 to 1995 and was in the top three two other times.  Excluding the two strike-shortened seasons, Maddux always started at least 33 games, and he averaged 7.4 innings per start.  Martinez made as many as 33 starts only once in his best years (in 1998) and averaged fewer than seven innings per start in the last three of his best years, the first of which he made only 18 starts because of rotator cuff problems.

A final word on Greg Maddux.  In 1993, his first season in Atlanta (still in the NL’s Western Division), the Braves won 41 of their last 56 games to dramatically overcome the 7-1/2 game lead the Giants enjoyed at the end of July to beat out San Francisco for the division title with 104 wins by only one game in the last true pennant race before the wild card format would have put both teams in the post-season.  Maddux, who went into the month of August with a 12-8 record and a 2.83 ERA, was brilliant down the stretch: 8-2 in 12 starts with an ERA of 1.46 in 92.1 innings.  And in 1994, when the Braves (now in the NL East) were only 20-18 from July 1 till the season was suspended (and ultimately ended) on August 12, slipping to six games behind the Expos, Maddux in eight starts during that dismal Atlanta stretch won six, lost two, and had a sub-one ERA at 0.93.

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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