Greg Maddux in . . . the Nagging Question

December 9, 2008
Who is the greatest pitcher of your lifetime?

I’m tempted to go with Tom Seaver, because I marveled at his feats as a kid and count a game I saw him pitch at Fenway in his last season among the most memorable games I’ve ever attended.

I was 18 that year, 1986, and I am pretty sure I went to the game alone, the only time I’ve ever done that. I must have taken a bus in from my grandfather’s house on the Cape, where I was spending the summer pumping gas. I could look up the game on retrosheet, but I prefer to just rely on my memory, which has me in the centerfield bleachers and Seaver on the mound in a duel with a young flamethrower named Mark Langston, a guy who is not exactly a household name now but who at that time, because the pitches springing from his left hand were as fearsome as a snapped and writhing power line, seemed to be at the beginning of a splendid career, dawn to Seaver’s dusk.

While the whip-thin youngster racked up the strikeouts, the stocky old-timer craftily navigated through occasional jams, never allowing his calm claim on the game to be disturbed. My strongest memory from the game has to do with this last thing, his calmness. I remember getting the sense, even from the centerfield bleachers, that as Seaver stood on the mound looking in for the sign and drawing in a slow breath he was as calm as the Buddha, aware of and at peace with the fact that he was the center of the game, the center of the world. The game finally swung his way late, when Langston came undone. As I recall it, an error played a part in the go-ahead rally, just enough of a tremor to push Langston off his center, something that did not happen to Seaver that day. I couldn’t imagine it happening to Seaver any day.

The young ace of the Red Sox staff that year, on the other hand, as great as he was, proved in the coming years capable of coming undone from time to time. Still, I think many people around my age would have, up until some fairly recent events, argued that Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of their lifetime. His reputation has taken a hit of late because of revelations about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, and I guess the general belief is that his career numbers, especially those compiled late in his career, should be downgraded with the caveat that he may have gained an unfair competitive advantage by going on the juice. Even before all that came to light, I don’t think I would have been able to embrace Clemens as a choice for the best pitcher of my lifetime, because, fairly or unfairly, I see him in my memory allowing the occasional big moment to overwhelm him, to turn him into an unfocused raging bull falling off his axis at the center of the game.

His successor as ace of the Red Sox, Pedro Martinez, fares better in my memory. My first memory of him is always the performance he turned in against the Indians in the playoffs in 1999. Unable because of arm trouble to throw fastballs, Pedro nonetheless pitched several innings of no-hit relief by masterfully baffling the Cleveland hitters with an assortment of off-speed junk. Even stripped of his most fearsome weapon, the mound was his. For that, and for all the games I watched him pitch when he did have his full arsenal, I would say that no one in my lifetime has reached the level of dominance that Pedro performed at during his prime.

However, while Pedro was dominating the American League throughout the steroid era, another master was putting up similarly jaw-dropping numbers while dominating the National League. And he had been pitching at a high level for several years before Pedro ever reached the major leagues, and in the last few seasons, while Pedro has struggled mightily to stay off the disabled list, this pitcher who predated him has continued to log big innings and win his share of games.

I never got to see much of this latter pitcher, Greg Maddux, in his prime, but he did return to his first team, the Cubs, the same year I moved to Chicago, so I got to watch him a few times in his sunset years. Some games went well, some not so well, but either way he always remained unflappably poised, like that 1986 version of Seaver. He also had a springy looseness all his own that I found inexplicably enjoyable to watch. In fact my most vivid memory of Maddux in his second go-round with the Cubs is the way he covered first base on a grounder. To be more specific, I see him just after he has expertly executed the play to end the inning, flipping the ball straight from his glove to the first base ump with an almost playful nonchalance. It’s often been said of Maddux, because of his stocky frame and nondescript features, that he looks more like an orthodontist or an accountant than an elite athlete. But I think you would only need to have watched him moving around his workplace for a couple minutes to see that Maddux, who yesterday announced his retirement, was as much at home on a baseball diamond as Seaver or Clemens or Pedro or anyone else who has ever lived.


  1. 1.  If you think Clemens occassionally let the big moment overwhelm him, go check out Maddux’ post season stats. He also had some stinker series as well.

    Maddux belongs in the discussion, but Clemens is clearly the best pitcher of at least the last 40 years. The HGH issue is really a red herring because all scientific evidence suggests it is not a performance enhancer.

  2. 2.  1 I agree with the Clemens sentiments, as much as I love Maddux as a Braves’ fan, I think the Unit is probably the #2 pitcher of the era followed by Maddux, Pedro and Glavine/Mussina. If you want to go back to 1970, Seaver would slot behind Maddux, Carlton maybe about even with Greg and Palmer/Sutton right there with Glavine/Mussina.

    Of course that’s just my opinion and I’m pretty dense at times.

  3. 3.  Maddux may not have been the best but he’s in the conversation. Anyone who can be mentioned in the same sentence as Seaver and Pedro has done pretty well for himself. For the record I’d rank the three Seaver, Maddux, Pedro with Maddux finishing ahead based on longevity.

  4. 4.  1 : Fair point about Maddux’s dropoff in the postseason. I guess I wan’t really ready to go with Maddux as my answer to my own question (if pressed, I’d probably go with Seaver for the career, Pedro for the peak), but I just wanted to appreciate his greatness and say that he’s at least in the conversation.

    As for the ‘roids, I’m hesitant to get into a discussion about it, because I’m not exactly the best informed person on the subject, but it’s my understanding that they may have contributed to Clemens’ longevity, if nothing else. If this is in fact the case, it makes it all the sweeter that Maddux called it quits just after passing Clemens in that highest profile of career stats, wins.

  5. 5.  2 : Interesting mention of Sutton, who is actually the top name in Maddux’s “Similar Pitchers” list on baseball-reference.com. I was surprised to see that, actually, as my perception of Maddux is that he’s significantly better than Sutton. That might be in large part because of Sutton’s cheesy perm, however.

  6. 6.  I am surprised that none of these lists include Nolan Ryan. It may be due to the fact that I grew up in Arkansas around a lot of Rangers fans, but Ryan was always the first name to come up when I witnessed “greatest pitcher” debates.

  7. 7.  6 Ryan was great, but he’s kind of like the Sears Tower in Chicago—it’s the tallest building in town, but not the ‘best’. His strikeouts overshadow just about everything else about him.

  8. 8.  Best I’ve ever seen.
    1. Koufax
    2. Gibson
    3. Drysdale
    4. Ryan
    5. James Rodney Richard
    6. The Big Unit
    7. Seaver
    8. Maddux
    9. Carlton

    There have been so many great ones – these are the performers that appear in my mind’s eye first.

  9. 9.  Re: 7 His strikeouts, his longevity, and his no-hitters were all pretty remarkable. He also had a 0.00 ERA in the WS. 🙂

  10. 10.  9
    An “oversharing” tidbit:
    Read a book on pitching by Seaver – don’t recall the title – while passing the time in the libray of Jordan High School in LA some years ago.
    He went into detail about how he was a “pusher” off the mound rather than a “faller”.
    He did a great job of detailing his approach on painting the outer perimeter of the strike zone, accompanied by some excellent graphics.
    The most surprising thing to me that he revealed was how he focused on the target.
    Rather than looking at the catcher’s glove during his delivery – instead he focused on a part of the catcher’s gear – a part of a shoe, a part of a knee protector. This was interesting to me and I always try it whenever I play catch.

  11. 11.  9 Wasn’t trying to diminish his other accomplishments, just feebly attempting to explain his career in under 30 words.

  12. 12.  Nolan Ryan’s career was just ridiculous. At the point when he retired, I believe someone figured that he had struck out 5% of the total number of major leaguers in the history of the game. What a feat!

  13. 13.  If it were just HGH, Clemens would be the guy, but it’s steroids, so he has to get shoved to the back. His turnaround in the second of ’96 and beyond was impossible to believe.

    If it’s about peak performance, Pedro was far and away the best, pitching in the steroid era, with a DH, small parks… for five or six years, he was the best the game has ever seen (check out his OPS+ numbers on B-R.com, they’re crazy.)

    I always had a spot in my baseball heart for Maddux, though. Somehow, he seems underappreciated.

  14. 14.  By the way, Maddux’s retirement, since it naturally conjures images of his Cooperstown enshrinement in a Braves cap in six years, has got to pain Cubs fans a little, especially on the same day that Santo was denied. More proof that it was just not a good day to be a Cub fan was provided when the Cub-fan governor, Blagojevich, was arrested for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat.

  15. 15.  I would have to pick Pedro as the best pitcher of my lifetime (1976-present). I remember specifically going to Anaheim specifically to watch him pitch against the Angels. One game, a friend and I had the pleasure of sitting in the 2nd level behind home plate. From this vantage point, we could feel the velocity of each pitch, and could also see the jaw-dropping movement. Oh, the movement! I have seldom seen Wiffle® balls move as much.

    I can’t even remember the details of that game, but I’m sure Pedro was great and I’m guessing the Red Sox won. Checking Baseball-Reference, I believe it was this game:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/ANA/ANA200004090.shtml (a 5-2 Boston win; 12 Ks in 7.1 IP for Pedro)

  16. 16.  re: 11 Tell you the truth, I really liked the Sear’s Tower simile, and I would tend to agree with you. I just feel that he must be part of the conversation and am glad that he now is!

    My favorite Maddux stories involve him telling his infielders what to expect (i.e. “Scoot over, I’m going to make this guy hit a grounder to this spot on the third pitch.”) and then delivering.

  17. 17.  I am a great admirer of Greg Maddux and even, begrudgingly, Roger Clemens. But the answer to the question is Pedro Martinez.

  18. 18.  Pedro’s 2000 season is the greatest pitching performance since the mound was moved back from 45 feet, but check out Maddux’s ERA+ in 1994 and 1995.


    Single Season ERA+ Rankings

    Pedro: 2, 9, 18, 27, 32, 225,
    Maddux: 4, 5, 58, 70, 139
    Clemens: 13, 16, 25, 104
    Gibson: 7, 212
    Koufax: 56, 70, 263
    Seaver: 47, 113, 203
    Ryan: 44 (only year in Top 500)

  19. 19.  18 : Thanks for that info; those incredible peak years, coupled with his Cy Young/Warren Spahn consistency/longevity, really put Maddux in the mix in this debate, in my opinion. (And not for nothing, but that list at the link you provide shows a LOT of Randy Johnson.)

  20. 20.  I’m 30, so I don’t have much to go on, but the best I ever remember seeing were Ryan, Randy Johnson, Pedro, and probably Clemens. Oh, and Hershiser for one magical season.

  21. 21.  Maybe it’s because I’m fairly young (22) and a Dodger fan who grew up all but ignoring the American League, but my mind immediately turns to Maddux as the greatest pitcher of my lifetime.

    He was just so good in the mid 90s, my most impressionable years, and he had that aura of history about him. More than any other player, when I watched Greg Maddux I felt like I was watching a legend. Could have been his personality or the nature of his game or just the shadow that the whole Braves pitching staff cast over Chavez Ravine in my youth.

    For whatever reason, I don’t turn to Pedro despite the bitter aftertaste of his short Dodger career, or Clemens, but to Maddux and maybe a little to Randy Johnson. A man that tall scares young people, even from all the way in Seattle.

  22. 22.  I would place Seaver slightly above Maddux.
    Clemens has dropped considerably on my list.

  23. 23.  This nagging question has nuances (like most baseball categories.)

    IMHO, the best pitching career occuring completely during my lifetime belonged to Greg Maddux. Not an easy choice, so I will round out my rotation with Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.

    8 I love that you included JR. In the same vein, I would like to remember out loud the Ron Guidry of 77-79 vintage.

    Now if I had to pick someone (who pitched during my lifetime) for the ultimate Game 7, I want Sandy Koufax.

  24. 24.  He may or may not be the greatest, but Maddux is far, far and away my FAVORITE pitcher ever, and it’s not particularly close. Joe Posnanski, as usual, puts it best:


    Ryan? Not even in the group portrait. He may have been the most spectacular when he was on his game, but taking his career altogether, he’s not close to the greatest for a very simple reason: he gave up too damn many runs.

  25. 25.  I’ve followed Maddux’s career closely ever since he was the #1 starter on my Strat-O-Matic team of the late 1980s / early 1990s, and I think he’s the best pitcher of his era.

    But the question is who the best pitcher of my lifetime is, and hands down it’s George Thomas Seaver. When Seaver took the mound as a Met, I could hardly breathe. I would watch each pitch as if it were the ninth inning of a World Series game, with everything on the line. He would start his rotation — one of the smoothest, most commanding in history — his knee would scrape the dirt on the mound, and then . . .

    Over and over, from his time with the Mets and then with Cincy, the Chisox, and the Bosox, life stopped for that instant as he delivered each carefully thought out pitch to the plate, like for that one moment there was nothing else going on in the world.

    For me, the only thing that mattered in those moments was the Franchise.

  26. 26.  25 : Well said.

    Regarding the “in your lifetime” part of the question, I’m curious to see who will log in with the longest lifetime. So far we’ve got a couple people who have images of Koufax in their memory, and that’s about as far back as it goes. While thinking about this subject as I wrote the post, I pondered the idea that there have to be a couple old-timers still out there (though probably not reading this blog) who saw Satchel Paige or Lefty Grove. There might even still be a fellow who in his youth witnessed a graying Walter Johnson.

  27. 27.  I’m six months old, so I’ll go with Sabathia.

  28. 28.  24
    Ryan was most spectacular with the Angels.
    He dominated the game playing for some pretty lousy offensive teams.

  29. 29.  I think Hot Rod Blagojevich, who was going to try to use the sale of Wrigley Field as a “bargaining chip” in his scheme to get the Tribune’s editorial department removed, is one of the top-5 screwball artists of all-time.

  30. 30.  29 : I watched the local news last night with jaw agape. The wiretap excerpts the feds were reading sounded like they could have been lifted from a Sopranos episode. At one point a journalist pointed out the Blago’s childhood hero was Nixon, which suddenly made all the sense in the world.

  31. 31.  28: I used to think that too, but not any longer. Seavers Mets had no offense and neither did Drysdale and Koufaxs Dodgers.
    I don’t think “dominated” is the right word for Ryan.
    Ryan never won a CYA (came in 2nd in ’73), was never better than 3rd and 4th in ERA. What he did lead in was K’s of course, as well as BB’s, wild pitches, and hits allowed/9 inning. Maybe “exciting” is a better word to describe Ryans Angel years.

  32. 32.  31 : That said, I bet Ryan would have been named more than any other pitcher of his day in a poll that asked batters of his era who they would least like to face.

  33. 33.  30. Don’t you love living in Chicago Josh? Hey, when are you going to let me interview you for my blog? Warning: My style is very similar to Barbara Walters; a series of leading questions that’ll have you sobbing like a school girl at the end the piece.

  34. 34.  33 : I already sob a lot, but in a mature, manly way, staring off into the distance toughly. Anyway, if you want, you can shoot me an email (address in the sidebar under About the Author).

  35. 35.  31 Although I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions on Ryan, I’m pretty sure he won the 1987 ERA title.

    As someone who came of age while Seaver was in his declining years, I’m somewhat at a loss as to why he seems a defensible pick for best pitcher of our lifetimes. I know he has an “aura” about him, but you can ask Curt Schilling what an aura is worth. Looking cold-bloodedly at the numbers, I am forced to conclude that Seaver wasn’t as good as Pedro, Randy, Maddux, OR Clemens, and is probably the fifth-best pitcher during the lifetime of people my age (31).

  36. 36.  35 : I was responding to a comment that was about Ryans years with the Angels. Maybe I should have made it more clear, but my response was looking specifically at his years with Anaheim.

    As for your Seaver comments, I guess he doesnt seem very good if you are only looking at his mid 1980’s career. Sort of like looking at Pedro only during his Met years.

  37. 37.  I’m looking at Seaver’s entire career. What I see is a guy with an ERA+ of 127 who only twice posted seasons higher than the 160s. That’s great, but it’s not Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson great.

    Seaver’s lone advantage over the others is that he threw a lot of innings, but it wasn’t really an extraordinary number of innings for a pitcher of his era. Relative to their peers, Maddux, Clemens, and Randy Johnson all were better innings-eaters than Seaver.

  38. 38.  37 : This is where statistics run amok! Part of the reason I enjoy this site, is because it doesn’t get carried away with numbers.
    The ERA+ comments you made about Seaver could also be said about Koufax, Spahn, and Bob Gibson. I don’t think ERA+ is an end all when comparing different eras.
    Sure, Maddux deserves credit for pitching great in an offensive era, but he doesn’t deserve extra credit for playing in a pitching poor era. Calling Maddux more of an inning eater simply because most pitchers only go 5-6 innings today is stretching it. Also,the disparity today between pitching quality effects ERA+ drastically.
    That’s why I would not rate Clemens, Maddox, Johnson and Pedro all above Seaver , Koufax, Spahn, and Gibson simply because of their higher ERA+.
    It is not the whole picture.

  39. 39.  I’m not hung up on ERA+; it’s just an easy stat to look up and use. Virtually every stat that’s worth a damn shows the four recent pitchers to be better than Seaver, with Seaver’s only advantage, again, being innings pitched.

    “Sure, Maddux deserves credit for pitching great in an offensive era, but he doesn’t deserve extra credit for playing in a pitching poor era.”

    He absolutely deserves more credit for that. When a commodity is harder to find, those who are good at it become much more valuable. Who is a more successful person: the entrepreneur who makes $100,000 a year in 2008, or the entrepreneur who made $100,000 a year in 1908?

  40. 40.  What I admire in my favorite athletes shines bright in Maddux. The mental side of the game. That’s why I take Magic over anyone. Gretzky over anyone. Montanta over anyone. Maddux over any of them in terms of being a fan. They all seemed to know exactly what they were gonna do about 3 moves ahead. All with seemingly normal physical talent in respect to their peers (Magic was a bit of a different animal due to match ups, but 8 lakers on that team could run faster or jump higher than him I bet). It’s not to say they were the best. But why I like them most. Pedro, Clemens, Unit you say damn man he just blew that right by me. On anyones all time list most guys have a pitch or two that was just un-hitable. Hard nasty stuff..Maddux just locked brains up.

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