Commentary

Only Clemens comparable to Maddux

Updated: December 9, 2008, 9:44 AM ET
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Upon the news that Greg Maddux is retiring, after 23 seasons, a question springs to mind: What can we say about Greg Maddux that we haven't already said?

Many years ago, not even halfway through his career, I hailed Maddux as the smartest pitcher who ever lived.

Hyperbole? Probably. But at that time, Maddux was still a relatively young man with a relatively fast fastball. He would eventually lose that fastball, and once that fastball was gone, he would no longer be the perennial Cy Young candidate that he'd been. But for a pitcher, aging gracefully is all about adjustments, and few pitchers have aged more gracefully than Maddux. He couldn't strike out as many batters as he used to? No problem: He would simply walk fewer of them, too.

Maddux spent his early 20s learning how to pitch, and was good. At 26, he suddenly became one of the greatest pitchers we've ever seen, and would remain exactly that for 11 seasons, during which he won four straight Cy Young Awards (and was among the National League's very best pitchers three or four other times). At 37, Maddux began giving up more home runs than he'd ever given up before, and for a few years he was merely good. And finally, these last couple of seasons, Maddux took the mound every five days and, while he wasn't exactly good, he would compete like hell for five or six innings and keep his teams -- the Padres and, briefly, the Dodgers -- in the game.

So while he spent 22 full seasons in the majors, Maddux was a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher for "only" 11 of them … and I surround only with quotation marks because 11 Hall of Fame-quality seasons are a lot; very, very few Hall of Fame pitchers have ever enjoyed an 11-season run like Maddux did from 1992 through 2002, during which he went 198-88 with a 2.47 ERA.

Greg  Maddux
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireIn 23 seasons, Greg Maddux won at least 15 games 18 times, including a record 17 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 2004.
Now, it should be said that a few other contemporary pitchers have been similarly dominant over the course of 11 or 12 seasons, among them Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. What sets Maddux apart from those future Hall of Famers is what he did before and after his brilliant run. Johnson didn't establish himself as a good major leaguer until he was 26 (or as a great one until he was 29). Martinez was brilliant at 25 but practically finished at 34.

What makes Maddux so great is not only the depth of his career, but also the breadth. Since World War II, only one pitcher (Warren Spahn) has won more games than Maddux. Since World War II, no pitcher has more 15-win seasons. And perhaps most impressively, in his entire career Maddux has spent only two weeks on the disabled list; if not for the player strike that marred 1994 and '95, Maddux would almost certainly have made at least 33 starts in 21 straight seasons. No other pitcher has done that; no other pitcher has come close to doing that.

In historical context, Maddux has certainly been one of the greatest pitchers ever, and he has been perhaps the most durable pitcher ever. Given that combination, I believe it's fair to suggest that he's one of the two greatest pitchers since World War II.

The greatest, though? Five years ago, Spahn and Tom Seaver could muscle their way into this conversation. But today there is just one other contender: Roger Clemens, whose career didn't take anything like the path Maddux's did.

Maddux went from struggling rookie to solid major leaguer to all-time great to grizzled veteran to elder statesman.

Clemens wouldn't have any of that. At 23, Clemens established himself as the best pitcher in the majors and remained so for seven years. Then came a bit of a rough patch -- four straight seasons in which he didn't pick up a single point in Cy Young balloting -- followed by two straight overwhelming Cy Young seasons. In his late 30s, Clemens pitched well but not brilliantly for the Yankees … then joined the Astros, won his seventh Cy Young Award at 41 … and pitched just as well at 42.

Some of us might spend the rest of our lives wondering which of them was The Greatest Pitcher We Ever Saw. Ask me today and I might say Maddux; ask me tomorrow and I might say Clemens. Both of them won many Cy Young Awards, and both won almost exactly the same number of games (354 for Clemens, 355 for Maddux). Otherwise, though, they were completely different pitchers.

Clemens was famous for his maniacal workouts; Maddux was famous for looking like a high-school debate coach.

Clemens occasionally threw bats at hitters and screamed at umpires; Maddux occasionally would become slightly annoyed.

Clemens retired and unretired before retiring and unretiring (and retiring, maybe) again; Maddux simply pitched and pitched and pitched until this October, when he stopped.

Clemens was hauled before Congress and (separately) was revealed to have carried on with a teenage country singer; Maddux probably hasn't gotten so much as a speeding ticket since high school.

I don't know which of them was the better pitcher, because their career records are, if not indistinguishable, close enough for government work. Clemens was slightly more effective, Maddux slightly more durable (and thus dependable). But the most interesting thing about Maddux isn't that he's one of the two greatest pitchers most of have ever seen. The most interesting thing about Greg Maddux is that he proved, for 22 years, that there's more than one way to get there.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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