Maddux's success driven by his impeccable control

On Greg Maddux's 40th birthday, Tim Kurkjian looks at the amazing career the Cubs right-hander has put together.

Originally Published: April 14, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

When Greg Maddux made his major league debut in 1986, he was 20 years old, then the youngest pitcher in baseball.

"I've always thought it would be cool,'' he said a few years ago, "to leave as the oldest.''

Someday, he might get his wish. He turns 40 today, and based on how well he has thrown in his first two starts of this season, he might have several good years left.

This comes as no surprise to one of the men who knows him best, Orioles' pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who was Maddux's pitching coach for 11 years in Atlanta. Mazzone had the pleasure of working with the master craftsman of pitching, one of the greatest control pitchers of all time, and by our unofficial count, the sixth-best pitcher of all time. Mazzone was with Maddux in the bullpen in between starts and before games, in the weight room, on the bench during games and in conferences on the mound. He knows the secret to Maddux's remarkable success and longevity. And there's nothing complicated about it.

Greg Maddux
APGreg Maddux isn't overpowering, but he's been overwhelmingly successful during his pitching career.
"He is so smart, he makes everything so simple,'' Mazzone said. "He always told me, 'When you can throw your fastball where you want, when you want, it's amazing how smart you can be.' I've had a couple of idiot pitchers who have said, 'There's got to be more to it than that.' He's the smartest pitcher I've ever seen. He's the greatest pitcher I've ever seen. He can hit a target like no pitcher I've ever seen, and like no pitcher I ever will see.''

Maddux's brother, Mike, the pitching coach for the Brewers, says that he and his little brother get ready for spring training by throwing to each other in January. They begin by playing catch, then, after a few minutes, Mike will get in a catcher's crouch, and Greg -- in his first throwing session in nearly three months -- will hit his glove every time.

Happy 40th, Greg Maddux!
Most wins before turning 40 ...
436 Cy Young
417 Walter Johnson
373 Christy Mathewson
361 Pud Galvin
360 Kid Nichols
341 Tim Keefe
327 Grover Alexander
327 John Clarkson
320 Greg Maddux
"The first time he threw for me in the bullpen [in 1993],'' Mazzone said, "he threw 80 percent of his pitches from the stretch. I asked him why he did that, and he said, 'The biggest pitches I make in every game come from the stretch.' It's so simple, but I'd never seen another pitcher do that. He always told me the hardest pitch for a right-handed pitcher to throw is a fastball down and away to a right-handed hitter. That's the one he practices all the time. He's always practicing, he's always thinking about what he'll do next.''

Maddux has the game planned out before it begins.

"I've had him tell me, 'In the third inning, I'm going to get that guy to pop out to third base,' and then he does it,'' Mazzone said. "I've seen us score five or six runs in the fifth inning to put the game away, and he'll come up to me and say, 'How far do you want me to go? Do you want nine? Or does the bullpen need the work, and I'll go seven?' His game plan is going to be different if he's going nine or seven. I've never seen a pitcher think the way he does.''

That philosophy relates directly to wins. Maddux holds the major league record with 17 straight seasons of at least 15 wins, a streak that ended last year. But with a 13-win season this year, he will tie Cy Young's major league record of 19 consecutive seasons with 13 or more wins. Two years ago, Maddux became the oldest non-knuckleball pitcher to lead his league in starts. This week, Maddux became the second pitcher since 1900 to get to 320 wins before he turned 40.

Maddux isn't big or strong, he doesn't even look like a baseball player or even an athlete. But looks don't tell the entire story, because he is a great athlete. He has won 15 consecutive Gold Gloves, has 248 hits in his career and is one of the game's best bunters. Despite having a soft-looking body, he has been incredibly durable -- he has been on the disabled list just once in his 20-plus-year career.

"He has great mechanics,'' Mazzone said. "He's very compact, very uncomplicated in his delivery. He never gets overextended. He's not a maximum effort guy on every pitch. His workouts are all baseball-related -- lots of running and throwing. There are a lot of days when he feels lousy, but he always goes out there. I know a lot of pitchers who won't go out there when they don't feel good.''

He is so smart, he makes everything so simple. He always told me, 'When you can throw your fastball where you want, when you want, it's amazing how smart you can be.'
Leo Mazzone on Greg Maddux

Despite Maddux's compact, uncomplicated approach, an approach that has no need for strikeouts except in strikeout situations, Maddux surpassed the 3,000-strikeout mark last year. This season, he likely will pass Bob Gibson into 12th place on the all-time strikeout list (Maddux presently has 3,060 strikeouts, while Gibson finished his career with 3,117). He has one 200-strikeout season in his career -- Phil Niekro has three among those in the 3,000-strikeout club, and everyone else has at least five. Maddux has only 16 10-strikeout games, 199 fewer than Nolan Ryan.

But even without the strikeouts, Maddux has been dominating in his own way for nearly 20 years, thanks in part to his incredible competitiveness. Several years ago, Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton invited Maddux to go out to dinner with him. Maddux politely declined, saying, "I've got a pizza that I didn't finish from last night, and I've got a video game that I can't beat, but tonight, I'm going to beat that game."

And, of course, he did. He's Greg Maddux.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.