Commentary

Maddux's absence leaves a definite void

'Mad Dog's' feel for pitching and overall baseball intelligence will be sorely missed

Originally Published: March 26, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

For the first time since 1985, a major league season will be played without Greg Maddux. It will be strange not getting to watch the sixth or seventh best pitcher ever, the best control pitcher of his era and perhaps the smartest pitcher of any era. It doesn't seem right that as a new season approaches, Maddux isn't in a starting rotation but Daniel Cabrera is.

Greg Maddux
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireIn 23 seasons in the majors, Greg Maddux was 355-227 with a 3.16 ERA.

This suggests that we're piling on a pitcher who has been wildly erratic in his career by unfairly comparing him to one of the most polished pitchers ever. That's not the case. The point is to show that pitching is about more than velocity; it's about athleticism, intelligence, confidence, courage, competitiveness, etc.

"I can fill a stadium with young pitchers across America with a plus fastball," said Cubs scout Ed Lynch, who helped choose the 2008 United States Olympic baseball team, and was involved in the picking of this year's Team USA World Baseball Classic club. "But I can't find that many with a plus breaking ball [that] have a real feel for pitching."

No one ever had a better feel for pitching than Maddux; there will never be another one like him. We are not searching for the next Maddux, but if we were, we'd find a lot more pitchers, such as Cabrera, who are more like the anti-Maddux. Here's how good Maddux is.

"Last season," said Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who hired Maddux as a special instructor this spring, "Greg did something special in every ballpark, knowing it might be the last time he ever pitched there. At Wrigley Field, he was throwing in the bullpen on an off day. He said he was going to throw a ball off a chair in the bullpen, ricochet it off the brick wall and make it go over the plate. The second time he tried it, he hit the leg of a metal chair, the ball bounced off the wall and ricocheted right over the plate."

Maddux looks like a librarian, but he is a magician, a great athlete who doesn't look like one, a pitcher that helped his cause in every way on the field. He won 18 Gold Gloves, the most for any player in history.

"Greg never threw a pitch straight in his life, but when he threw to the bases, I've never seen a pitcher throw a ball straighter. It was a perfect feed every time," said former Braves shortstop Walt Weiss, who was Maddux's teammate for three years. "That's why he was so great in all things baseball. He just adjusted to any situation."

Maddux could hit, he could bunt and he could run the bases (he is the oldest pitcher ever to steal a base). He never did anything on the mound to hurt himself or his team. He hit only 137 batters and walked a mere 999 in 5,008 1/3 innings pitched, and he averaged just three wild pitches per year. He was always around the plate; he and his catcher were always in sync. With him on the mound from 2003-05, Braves catchers had no passed balls, which means, for three years, he never once crossed up a catcher; not once did he miss his location by a foot and a half, like so many pitchers do, and make the catcher miss a pitch.

Chris Young I loved to sit next to [Greg Maddux] on the bench during games. One day, he just looked at me and said, 'Only 18 percent of all baserunners score. So don't worry about the runners. Just concentrate on the hitter.'

-- Padres pitcher Chris Young

They don't make pitchers like Maddux anymore because, more than ever, teams are dazzled by radar-gun readings and big arms rather than pitchers who know how to pitch. There are now more hard throwers than ever, more pitchers with filthy stuff, but there are fewer complete pitchers. Twenty years ago, pitchers were great athletes that hit third and played shortstop in high school on days they didn't pitch. From that, they developed skills that well-rounded pitchers must have, including the ability to hit, to catch a ground ball and to run the bases. We are in an era in which too many pitchers spend too much time working on their technique rather than their athleticism. Instead of playing on the high school football and basketball teams in the offseason, they're at an indoor facility working on their delivery in hopes of throwing harder. We have created a generation of robotic pitchers who throw 95 mph but understand little else about the fine art of pitching.

Cabrera is one of those pitchers. Last year, statistically, he was the worst fielding pitcher in the American League, even though he only made one error. In 180 innings, he had 11 assists. In 194 innings, Maddux had 57 assists. When Cabrera was a young pitcher with the Orioles, during a drill, he attempted to catch a rolling ball with his glove down, not up and open, as if he was squashing the ball. "I've never seen anything like that in my life," said one Oriole. "He's very raw, we know. But it's like he had never caught a grounder before."

Last year, Cabrera led the AL with 15 wild pitches. In 841 1/3 career innings, he has 60 wild pitches, only 10 fewer than Maddux had in over six times as many innings. Cabrera was second in the AL with 90 walks last season; in 1995-97, Maddux had 71 walks total. Cabrera also allowed the second-most steals (27 out of 31 attempts) in the AL last year.

Maddux was never good at holding runners, either, but that wasn't important to him.

"I loved to sit next to him on the bench during games," said Padres pitcher Chris Young, a Princeton graduate. "One day, he just looked at me and said, 'Only 18 percent of all baserunners score. So don't worry about the runners. Just concentrate on the hitter.' "

Maddux finished his career with a .171 batting average and had 272 hits -- "I'm a terrible hitter," he once said -- and 180 sacrifice bunts. But when it came time to put the ball in play, to do something at the plate to help his team win, Maddux usually was capable of doing it. Cabrera, unlike Maddux, has pitched in the AL his entire career, so he hasn't worked nearly as much on his hitting. But in 14 major league at-bats, Cabrera has struck out 14 times.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Cabrera
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonIn five seasons in the majors, Daniel Cabrera is 48-59 with a 5.05 ERA.

Cabrera isn't helped by the fact that he is 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds. Maddux is 6 feet and 170 pounds, very compact and fundamentally perfect in every way. Cabrera's delivery is filled with arms and legs; he looks like a man falling out of a tree. Maybe bad mechanics is one of the reasons he threw the highest percentage of fastballs (81 percent) in the AL last year -- he didn't trust himself to throw anything else near the plate. He frustrated the Orioles so badly with his erratic ways that they couldn't wait to get rid of him. Now he's with the Nationals and has a fresh start. He's only 27 years old. There is time for him to find himself.

Let's hope he can. But pitchers who can't hit, can't field their position, can't throw strikes, can't hold runners and can't concentrate at the age of 27 usually don't find it at 30. That "feel" for pitching is innate; it's something Maddux had in high school and had the day he threw his final pitch in the major leagues. We're going to miss him. In the meantime, young pitchers, including Cabrera, will struggle to develop even a little of what Maddux had.

They might hit a chair in the bullpen with a pitch, but not because they were aiming at it.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.