Fifteen

He wanted to come back. It was where his career had started and where he wanted it to come to a fitting end. Greg Maddux left Chicago young and angry, Cy Young in hand, with five seasons of 15+ wins in a row. Eleven years later, he would come back with 16 consecutive seasons of 15+ wins and with three more Cy Youngs under his belt. He came back with 194 more wins, 1,898 more strikeouts, and 2,526.2 more innings pitched. He came back with a legacy, and a shot at being the greatest of all-time. He came back a winner.

***

Greg Maddux never had an ERA over 4.00 in his 11 seasons with the Atlanta Braves. He never had a losing season either. Never had a year with under 15 wins, even in 1994 and 1995, which were both strike-shortened. Even then. Especially then. Maddux had maybe the two greatest consecutive seasons ever those two seasons, with ERAs of 1.56 and 1.63. He led the league in innings pitched both seasons and was the only guy with over 200 in 1994. He was dominant. But he wasn’t.

Maddux never had a change up like Pedro Martinez, nor did he have a fastball like Bob Gibson, or a curve like Sandy Koufax. And yet he was greater than every one of them.

He always prepared like a madman. Hours watching videotape, studying tendencies and then … two hours, and another win. Money in the bank, every five days.

Anyone who has ever watched a Maddux game knows that it’s boring and yet tantalizing at the same time. He makes a pitch, the batter hits a grounder. The fielder picks it up, and throws the runner out. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

3.3. That’s the average number of pitches batters have seen per plate appearance in Maddux’s career. It’s one of the greatest marks ever. The man’s efficient. Even as he declined during the last few years, he never went above 3.4. He came after you, even if he didn’t have any stuff.

Maddux throws seven different pitches according to the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. A fastball, a circle change, a slider, a cut fastball, a splitter, a sinker and a curve. Imagine having to guess which one is coming next. That’s why he got all the grounders. Meek swings at hittable pitches. But they’re only hittable if you can guess which one is coming next. And you know what? If you look into it, I’ll bet you’ll find that one of every seven swings against Maddux resulted in a hit.

But the other six, those were the ones off of which he thrived. The double plays, the pop-ups, the occasional swings-and-misses. You never knew what was coming, but you could be damn sure it would get you out.

Lay off? Not a chance. In an era where three walks a game was the norm, Maddux was walking well under two. He wasn’t giving away bases. Every time he came out on the mound, it’s like he was facing the Cubs.

***

When he signed with Chicago, Maddux was 11 wins shy of 300. Roger Clemens, who came home in 2004 as well, was already there. But who was the greatest of our era? It was still a question. Maddux had saved 70 fewer runs than Clemens over his career, but he had time on his side. Over the previous five seasons, Clemens had averaged 12 runs saved a year, while Maddux had averaged 27. Maddux was 37, and Clemens was 41. Who knew how their careers would play out from that moment?

As we found out, no one. Clemens went on to post the two greatest consecutive seasons a pitcher has ever had after turning 40, while Maddux, though still his consistent self, declined as expected.

But we were there. Don’t forget that the question existed. It was a question. And questions are the story of Maddux’s career. How did a guy who couldn’t throw a pitch over 90 be as good as a man with a mid-90s fastball and split-finger fastball that sinks all the way to China five feet from the plate?

***

“Don’t be fooled,” Michael Geffner wrote in the Sporting News. “The mixture is perfectly calculated and unrelentingly diabolical, strikingly stunning, pitch after pitch, at the hitter’s weakest points, straight for the kill … Until the poor hitter can’t even see straight. Until he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Maddux? Diabolical? Going for the kill? This is a guy who seems to look at pitching as more of an academic experience than a physical one. The guy who Dusty Baker once said “is always studying,” the man who Bob Klapisch once called a genius. But he’s all of those things, and he always has been.

He’s cool, he’s calm, and he’s a monster. Just ask the over 13,000 hitters he’s gotten out over his career. Geffner was right—don’t be fooled.

***

June 3, 1995 was the first time Maddux’s career ERA went under 3.00. He kept it that way for the next 3,711 days, up until July 31, 2005. He gave up six runs in four innings that day, and it was probably the last time his ERA will have started with two.

But we knew this was going to happen. Pitchers get older, and they decline. Maddux is no Clemens, and it happened to him too. We saw the signs. In 1999, he put up a 3.57 ERA, the first time his earned run average had jumped above 3.00 since 1991. In four of his last five years with the Braves, Maddux’s ERA started with a three. In 2002, when it was 2.62, Maddux pitched under 200 innings for the first time since 1987. No one expected him to be the Cubs’ ace; all Chicago needed was a solid guy to go every five days.

And Maddux gave the Cubs what he was asked to give. He pitched every fifth day, as he has every year of his career. He’s never been injured. He gave them a chance to win, put up good ERAs and pitched a bunch of innings. He’s won 29 games in the last two years, and he would’ve won more if the Cubs could hit.

Sure, he declined. He put up ERAs of over 4.00 in these two years; 2004 was the first time he had an ERA that high since 1987. He still won 16 games though. Like everything he did, Maddux declined graciously. He kept the streak alive: 17 straight years of 15+ wins. He won his 300th game with the Cubs and struck out his 3,000th batter.

There was the bad too. The last two years, Maddux gave up more home runs than in any previous season, and this season was the first time in his career that Maddux allowed over 100 earned runs. And he lost the race against time in terms of career ERA; it will be over 3.00 for the rest of eternity, in all likelihood. But despite all of this, he gave the Cubs a chance to win, even if they didn’t take it.

***

So he posted his 15th loss of the season on October 2. The streak of seasons with 15+ wins ended at 17. It’s a record. Cy Young used to have it; he did this 15 straight years. Yet Maddux, a guy who has pitched more than 3,000 fewer innings than Young, broke it. The skinny guy from Texas, the egghead, the guy who many have accused of being the epitome of a modern pitcher—like giving way to your bullpen after 7 spectacular innings is the 11th deadly sin—he broke Cy Young’s record. He’s probably the last guy who will ever break one of Young’s major league records. Maybe there is something to studying after all.

Dusty Baker pitched Maddux to let him get back to .500, but it didn’t work out. Instead he’ll have his first losing season since 1987, when he was with the Cubs. But the man’s so classy, so quiet, that no one noticed.

Maybe he’ll come back next season to end his career on a better note. Maybe he’ll hang up his spikes and reappear five years from now on the Hall of Fame ballot, with 318 wins and 14 Gold Gloves.

We’ll find out in the offseason, though rest assured if Roger Clemens announces his intentions for next season, ESPN won’t even bother giving Maddux’s decision more than a few minutes. They’ve forgotten that only two years ago, Maddux was going to pass Clemens and be the greatest pitcher of all time.

That’s how it’s always been. Maddux is never in spotlight. He’s quiet. Diabolically so.

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