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How’d he do that? Magician Maddux fooled hitters all the way to Hall

Jul 25, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT

Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher. A few years ago I wrote why. For that one, I wrote about my favorite Maddux game, an 84-pitch masterpiece he threw against the New York Yankees in July 1997. Today I’m going to write about the best game I ever watched Maddux pitch live. That was Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. They’re really just about the same game.

Most of the time, when people try to explain the wonder of Maddux, they tend to fall back on how ordinary his stuff was. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. He wasn’t 6-foot-10 like Randy Johnson, and he didn’t throw 103 mph like Nolan Ryan, and he didn’t break off flubbery curveballs like Bert Blyleven or throw heart-stopping change-ups like Pedro Martinez, or pitch with unchained fury like Bob Gibson.

Everything about Maddux seemed so ordinary — he wasn’t big and wasn’t imposing. He could, when he felt like it, throw a 91- or 92-mph fastball, but he never felt like it. He wore glasses much of the time.

[MORE: Maddux also Hall of Fame character  |  Former teammates remember Maddux]

The thing is: It was all an illusion. That was why Maddux so thoroughly intrigued me. It was a magic show, a Ricky Jay virtuoso performance where the magician feigns ignorance until the trick is done. His stuff was actually amazing … depending on what you mean by “stuff.” Every pitch of his moved and fluttered and dived and lifted at his command. He struck out more than 3,300 hitters in his career, and while the time was obviously very different, his strikeouts per nine innings (6.06) was almost exactly the same as Bob Feller (6.07). He understood that an 89-mph fastball, when the hitter is looking for something 10 mph slower, has roughly the same effect on hitters as a 99-mph fastball compared to regular fastballs.

“Hitting is timing,” Warren Spahn said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” Nobody understood that better than Maddux.

He was also a brilliant fielder. Nobody talks about that as being part of a pitcher’s stuff but in many ways it is. If a pitcher can take away a dozen hits year on balls hit up the middle or good bunts, that’s worth a few mph on the fastball, isn’t it? Maddux at his best took away the middle of the field.

And Maddux also understood that people’s common perception about his stuff being average worked to his benefit. The simplest card trick in the world is “Pick a card, any card.” But magicians understand the countless nuances — how to force a card on someone, how to control the card, how to reveal the card. The easier it looks, the more remarkable the illusion. Maddux made it look like he was all but defenseless out there. In reality, though, he held all the cards all the time.

In Game 2 of the 1996 World Series, he walked to the mound in the first inning at Yankee Stadium with a 1-0 lead, and he promptly put sleeper hold on the Yankees and the city of New York. The Yankees hit the ball — they would hit the ball all night — but the hits would not amount to anything. Wade Boggs singled in the first and stayed there after a lineout and groundout. Paul O’Neill doubled in the second and was stranded by two benign grounders. Maddux hit Derek Jeter in the third, but a force play and a caught stealing ended any scoring notions.

[MORE: Let's watch Maddux pitch, ask ourselves ethical questions]

The game moved fast, too fast. This was another Maddux trick. He had this unique ability to speed things up so that hitters felt like they were sprinting downhill. He threw strike after strike after strike. In tennis, and in hockey and soccer too, coaches talk about how you want to “take time away” from an opponent. That’s not really a baseball concept, but that precisely what Maddux would do — hitters just felt like they were running out of time. Maddux threw just six pitches in the fourth inning — Bernie Williams hit the ball hard but right at Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez bounced the ball back to Maddux, Cecil Fielder bounced an easy one to shortstop. It was all getting away from them.

You could just feel the helplessness cascading through Yankee Stadium. When a pitcher is just blowing away hitters with blazing fastballs and numerous strikeouts, a crackling energy buzzes through baseball stadiums. Every fan is on the edge of the seat, and they think “Try harder!” or “Swing faster!” But Maddux blunted all those emotions. He sucked energy out of stadiums. The harder you tried, the worse things got. The faster you swung, the more harmless the ground balls. There were three more of those harmless ground balls in the fifth inning. It seemed a moral victory when Joe Girardi at least forced a full count before succumbing.

Good time here to jot down a few of my favorite Maddux stats. He gave up four home runs in 25 starts during the strike-shortened 1994 season. That year, he gave up 28 extra-base hits and prompted 21 double-play balls. He unintentionally walked 14 batters and did not throw a single wild pitch in 1997. Lefties hit .195 and slugged .234 against him in 1995.

[MORE: Maddux will enter Hall of Fame with blank cap]

It’s fun to compare Maddux with Roger Clemens because they were contemporaries and they finished one victory apart and with about the same number of innings. But they were so different. Clemens’ velocity and the violence of his pitches overwhelmed. He pitched with a snarl. Clemens certainly has a strong case as the more dominant of the two — Bill James has broken this down and believes that Clemens was the better pitcher (and, in fact, perhaps the best pitcher of all time). But it is worth mentioning that Maddux, against odds, had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and a lower WHIP. It is worth mentioning because watching the two pitch you would never believe it.

Maddux gave up back-to-back singles to Jeter and Tim Raines in the sixth inning of that World Series Game, and for the first time — for the only time — the fans stood and cheered and believed. Wade Boggs stepped to the plate. He watched the first pitch go by for a strike because he always did. Then he grounded to second base for an easy double play. Bernie Williams followed with his own ground ball to second. The threat was over. The fans sat down.

The rest was easy. Two strikeouts — the only two strikeouts of the game — and a grounder surrounded a pointless single in the seventh. Three groundouts and a single made up the eighth. And, with that, Maddux took his leave. Mark Wohlers finished it off in the ninth by striking out the side; I’m sure after flailing at Maddux’s mesmerizing pitches for eight innings, Wohlers seemed to be throwing about 212 mph.

When it was all done, Maddux had thrown 84 pitches and had recorded 19 of his 24 outs as ground balls. Add in the two strikeouts, one caught stealing, one liner to first, and one fly ball to left, you had a ballgame. But my favorite part of all was in the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, where players sheepishly talked about how they were conned.

“He was throwing nothing special,” Bernie Williams said.

“It looks so easy,” Paul O’Neill said.

“You feel comfortable against him,” Joe Girardi said.

“The ball was right there, we just didn’t swing,” Williams said.

And so on. It was as if they were simply coming out of a state of hypnosis. That was what Maddux could do. In Game 6 of the World Series, the Yankees did get to Maddux. Well, they scored three runs on him, all in one frenetic inning. The magic didn’t always work. But it worked most of the time.

  1. zzalapski - Jul 25, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    Greg Maddux’s career should put to bed any validity to the “eye test” as a meaningful way of evaluating how good a player actually is/was. Wishful thinking, I know.

    • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:25 AM

      You know,even with the eye test he still passes with flying colors.As always,great article Mr Poz.

  2. Jason Lukehart - Jul 25, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    The 84-pitch masterpiece against the Yankees that Joe mentions in his opening is one of the 13 Madduxs Greg pitched in his career. You can find a brief rundown on all of them here: http://groundballwitheyes.blogspot.com/2014/07/greg-madduxs-thirteen-career-madduxes.html

    • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:27 AM

      Thanks for the link.

  3. sportsfan18 - Jul 25, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    The Professor.

    He was very smart. He remembered things from at bats years before. He set batter’s up. He let some batter’s get a hit so he could get them out during a future at bat.

    He knew how to pitch in every sense of the word. He didn’t just rear back and throw.

    His pitching was art. He created masterpieces.

    • aceshigh11 - Jul 25, 2014 at 2:13 PM

      Very true.

      He reminds me of Neil Peart of Rush in that regard. They are both “The Professor” to me.

      • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:33 AM

        Cannot understand the thumbsucks, Mr Neil Peart is such a great percussionist he still takes
        lessons. I think maybe Les Paul and Segovia are the only other “master craftsman”that I ever heard of who did not think they had mastered thier craft.

        Rush is great. Three world class musicians.

    • ptfu - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:43 PM

      It makes sense that one of the few guys with success against The Professor was Tony Gwynn, another professor/artist.

      • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:58 AM

        Good call,did not know that.Thank you.

        No sarcasm.

      • bellweather22 - Jul 27, 2014 at 12:15 PM

        Gwynn waited and hit the ball the other way. Others saw what they thought looked good and tried to jack it. The ball darted down and away…. ground ball to second.

  4. chew1985 - Jul 25, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    Great location and a lot of help from the overly impressed umpires once he settled in with the Braves. He got calls 4 inches outside because he had the umps hypnotized by constantly hitting the catcher’s target–better than any other pitcher ever. And he never pissed off an ump–he didn’t have to.

    Of course when the national spotlight was on in the post season, Maddux got “squeezed” a bit as the umps would only give him 2 inches since they too were under the microscope. That explains his lousy win-loss percentage and much higher walk frequency than the regular season.

    He is a great pitcher and he is definitely a Hall of Famer; all I’m saying is he got more than a little help from the umpires.

    • girardisbraces - Jul 25, 2014 at 2:53 PM

      No.

      The guy was straight up murder on hitters. As smart as the day was long, and beguiled you with his pitching motion. (as an aside, the Yankees in ’96 were good, but they were just as lucky – Atlanta should have won that series with that pitching staff. I’m glad they didn’t!)

      His success had nothing to do with the umpires. It had everything to do with his prowess as a pitcher.

      • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:39 AM

        True enough,but the sox did not make it, so I became a Braves fan for the world series.

  5. winnipegdave - Jul 25, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    Greg Maddux=Roger Federer.

  6. mikhelb - Jul 25, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    Come on!! Tell us about that game 6!!!

  7. mikhelb - Jul 25, 2014 at 6:19 PM

    By the way, all of us who saw those Braves know that umpires usually expanded the plate to the sides and Maddux could pitch you at the ankles and it would be a strike, heck I saw pitches catched at almost the ground that were called strikes, that is not something new and it was talked in those years: in the playoffs they fail because umpires do not feel comfortable expanding the zone to them.

    There was a case when the TBS crew discovered that the lines delimiting the batting boxes were not consistent with a normal MLB batting box and that batters stood a few inches (i believe they said 6) afar from the plate in both sides due to that trick used by the groundskeepers in their park. As soon as they raised that concern, the boxes were normal but never again they said a thing about that.

    • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:42 AM

      Just stop it,for all the so-called gimmies that the staff got in your opinion,they only won one WS.

      Stop pissing in Mad Dog’s cheerios.

    • bellweather22 - Jul 27, 2014 at 12:19 PM

      Complete exaggeration. There was no high strike in those days, the belt would be a ball half the time. Not a bunch was given on the low strike either, but some… though certainly not in the dirt like this commenter suggests. On the outside, occasionally Maddux was able to extend the plate, depending on the umpire & count. But the genius had nothing to do with any of this. It was simply getting strike 1, then getting the hitter to hit a late moving fastball, on the edges of the plate, on the ground for a harmless out.

  8. disgracedfury - Jul 25, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    If he would have came to the Yankees Maddux would never had the same career in the AL as in the easier NL.Same thing with Glavine who would have never been a hall of famer in the AL East.Sorry but since the start of the DH era only two pitchers in the hall of fame had played at least half there career in AL(Blyleven and Palmer)

    Maddux is one of the great pitchers of all time but he sucked in the postseason and was only a NL pitcher.Glavine as just a scrappy NL pitcher.

    • slappymcknucklepunch - Jul 26, 2014 at 12:54 AM

      What about Clemons,He spent most of his carreer in the AL east.That was who Joe was comping with.Maddux faced as many hulked up hitters as Rocket. Maybe for the Yanks,they win from 94 til
      2003.The heyday of the 50’s all over again.I am glad he did Not land there as he would have laid waste to the sluggers who were all or nothing in the AL east at that time.

    • sethcohenplayedsomeball - Jul 26, 2014 at 2:59 AM

      @disgraced fury- YOU KNOW VERY WELL(or maybe not?) that 1 Lynn Nolan Ryan officially pitched 27 MLB seasons and officially pitched 13 MLB seasons in the AL… You also know(see first line) that the vast majority of his legendary career and statistical dominance occurred in the AL. Lets get to that now…No Hitters? Ks? Wins? WAR? What? Wins in October under the lights at a ballpark that begins with the letter A? Please stop me before I blow your twitter or maybe simply twit-minded likely regurgitated TALK SHOW D LIST analysis out of the water… but I would be happy too, please tempt me; )

      • sethcohenplayedsomeball - Jul 26, 2014 at 3:33 AM

        Addendum to above: mere # of season is misleading and Nolan earned his HOF shrine throughout his amazing career- but his AL vs. NL achievements are a landslide AL victory. Not close. Now, Greg Maddux=Top 5 GOAT Pitcher regardless of league. era, religion, or want of a 24 Movie and/or another season of Bauer Hauers. BRING IT ON anyone who questions this statement. : )

      • sethcohenplayedsomeball - Jul 26, 2014 at 3:44 AM

        PSS I have had a few drinks tonight in celebration of our baseball heroes tonight , so apologies for the grammatical inaccuracies guys: )

        TEAM FRATE TRAIN

        LOVE AND PRAYERS

    • bellweather22 - Jul 27, 2014 at 12:22 PM

      I think it is very tough these days to pitch in the AL East. Not so much the lineups as the tricked up home run parks that dot the division. When flyballs are homeruns, it’s tough on everyone. Quick, tell me who the dominant AL East pitchers are this year? I’ll give you David Price. Imagine Price in a pitchers park league.

    • mapender - Jul 30, 2014 at 10:08 AM

      I’m late to this, but I feel like everybody just repeats the mantra “Maddux sucked in the post season” w/o actually looking at his stats. I’m not sure which of his contemporaries he is being compared against, but his postseason numbers are better than most of the other big names. Schilling has him beat, but Maddux pitched almost 70 additional post season innings than Schilling. Smoltz has him beat as well, but being worse than Smoltz (or even Schilling) isn’t an insult. If you look at Maddux’s numbers year-by-year, there are a few years he got rocked, but most years are pretty good.

      Also, have you seen his World Series numbers when by definition he should have been pitching against the best AL team at the latest part of the season with over 200 innings on his arm? 2.09 ERA over about 40 innings. Less than 1.0 WHIP. I’d take that any day.

  9. gibbyfan - Jul 25, 2014 at 8:13 PM

    If my memory is correct I seem to recall an astonishing situation that other than the Yakees there were really not too many suitors for his services. As I recall, he didn’t want to pitch in NY and sort of went to Atlanta by default. I remember wishing that the Cardinals would have gone after him but I don’t think they showed much interest–

  10. mm1180 - Jul 26, 2014 at 7:01 AM

    Great article about one of the greatest ever. As I write this, I’m in my hotel getting ready to head to the Hall for two days of fun, culminating by watching him get inducted tomorrow. He has always been one of my favorites.

  11. barrywhererufrom - Jul 26, 2014 at 6:28 PM

    My favorite Maddux game in 96 was game 6 ogmf the World Series ..great ending..

    • bellweather22 - Jul 27, 2014 at 12:26 PM

      7 2/3 innings and gave up three runs. The Braves lost 3-2. Hardly a drubbing. If you are suggesting that somehow Maddux pitched a bad game, well I guess yeah, by his standards. But not by any other standard.

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