Growing up a Cubs fan, Greg Maddux was my favorite Cub ever, and the day Larry Himes let Maddux slip away as a free agent to the Atlanta Braves over a few million dollars remains one of the great stains on a heavily bloodied Cubs flag. I was so angry I sulked for weeks like a child whose parents have divorced.
One of the reasons I loved watching Maddux pitch was how unconventional his style was. Standing just 6'0" and weighing only 170 lbs, he didn't throw hard, and perhaps none of his pitches would be graded by scouts as an 80 (though his changeup was exceptional). His greatest strengths were his brain and his poise.
Many stories have been written about his understanding of both pitching and the hitters he was facing, but a recent article by Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post pinpoints a fascinating insight that might hold the secret to his mastery.
First, Maddux was convinced no hitter could tell the speed of a pitch with any meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.
“You just can’t do it,” he said. Sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different releases points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.
“Except,” Maddux said, “for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”
Because of this inherent ineradicable flaw in hitters, Maddux’s main goal was to “make all of my pitches look like a column of milk coming toward home plate.” Every pitch should look as close to every other as possible, all part of that “column of milk.” He honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed — like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, change-up 76.
From reading The Sports Gene by David Epstein earlier last year, I learned that much of what a professional baseball hitter does is predicated on being able to read the motion of the pitcher and the rotation of the baseball. It's why major league hitters flailed helplessly against Olympic women's softball pitcher Jennie Finch despite the fact that her pitches reached home plate in the same amount of time as major league pitches and came with the larger hittable surface area of a softball.
It seemed that Maddux knew that long before the studies mentioned in Epstein's book. Amazing. But that's not all.
Then he explained that I couldn’t tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the later the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.
But not entirely too late: Maddux didn’t want swings and misses for strikeouts, but preferred weak defensive contact and easy outs. He sought pitches that looked hittable and identical — getting the hitter to commit to swing — but weren’t. Any pitch that didn’t conform to this, even if it looked good, was scrapped as inefficient.
It's another secret of pitching that he seemed to have understood long before others: the batter must commit to swinging or not before a major league pitch has made it halfway to the plate, so after a certain point any unanticipated break in that pitch is not something the batter can react to. On TV, his sinking fastball with armside tailing action was a thing of beauty to watch, like spherical frisbee that always toppled to one side, but to the batter it must have been even more infuriating, like trying to swat a fly with chopstick.
Maddux was so good at inducing the weak contact he discussed above that he had a stat named after him: a Maddux is a complete game shutout requiring no more than 99 pitches.
Let's hope he writes a book about pitching someday, the pitching version of Ted Williams famous tome on hitting.